History Through Coins: The Suez Crisis
Posted on 11/10/2020
On July 23, 1952 the Free Officers Movement, a rebellious element of the Egyptian Army, staged a coup that ousted King Farouk, the playboy/coin collector who had ruled since 1936 and had long since lost the faith of his people. A republic was proclaimed, and Army Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser became its president.
Four years later, almost to the day, Nasser proclaimed that Egypt had nationalized the Suez Canal. Its stockholders were abruptly paid off without recourse, and the canal was immediately closed to Israeli shipping, setting off an international crisis. Egypt commemorated this action with a silver coin that features its national arms on one side and the canal’s administration building in Port Said on the other.
While the western powers debated possible actions, Israel struck first against Egypt. It invaded the Sinai Peninsula on October 29 in what it called Operation Kadesh, named after an ancient city in the northern Sinai. Israel defeated the Egyptian forces there within a few days, yet the canal remained blocked to shipping. Nasser, in an act of spite, had sunk the 40 ships stranded there to make the channel impassible. It was later revealed that Israel had already formed a tripartite alliance with Britain and France, and both nations were soon drawn into the fighting.
Britain had maintained an uneasy relationship with Egypt going back to World War I, and resentment toward the English was strong even before the 1952 coup. Though it had made overtures toward easing relations prior to nationalization of the canal, Britain still had enough influence with other nations in the region to make Nasser suspicious of its goals.
On October 30, France and Britain issued joint ultimatums to Egypt and Israel demanding a cease-fire, but these were ignored. Operation Musketeer was launched the following day with aerial bombing. Ground operations lasted just two days, November 5-6, but the Egyptian forces proved to be more formidable than anticipated. Nasser, declaring a “people’s war,” had his troops don civilian clothing while simultaneously arming the civilian population. The British and French leaders feared the political repercussions of killing “civilians,” which made prosecution of the operation more challenging. Friendly fire incidents among the two European armies added further to the chaos.
The Suez operation was unpopular on the home front, with protests in both France and Britain. In addition, there was pressure from the United Nations and the two superpowers of the USA and USSR to put an end to the fighting. Britain announced a cease-fire on November 6, taking its allies Israel and France by surprise, especially since their military objectives were mostly being met. The three allies did not immediately remove their forces, and the canal remained closed to shipping until the following March.
The Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States was exploited to great effect by Nasser, who previously had threatened to buy arms from the former in the hopes of persuading the latter to likewise supply Egypt. The Soviet invasion of Hungary earlier in 1956 to suppress a rebellion against communist rule there had both of the superpowers on edge, and US President Dwight Eisenhower feared the prospect of World War III emerging from one or both incidents. When Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev threatened to take arms against France, Britain and Israel, Ike had to make a very hard choice regarding American involvement in the Suez Crisis.
To the great disappointment of the three allies, the USA refrained from providing the anticipated military support. Instead, it sought a quick cease-fire to allow for a negotiated settlement with the help of the United Nations. It put financial pressure on Britain, too, by blocking needed loans from the International Monetary Fund to purchase oil, which had been cut off to Britain by the canal’s closing. After the cease-fire, the USA and other members of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) placed an embargo on oil sales to France and Britain in order to hasten withdrawal of their military forces.
The net result of this brief conflict was a reluctant and shallow cease-fire between Egypt and Israel that would ultimately result in all-out war just 11 years later. Britain and France lost much of their international prestige, prompting an acceleration of the independence movements in many of their remaining overseas colonies. Cold War tensions remained high between the USA and the USSR, while Britain, and especially France, no longer counted America among their automatic allies in future conflicts.
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