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The Tripartite Invasion, 1956

Israel, Britain, and France Invade

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Negotiations for British withdrawal began in February of 1953, but it was not until July 1954 that agreement was reached. On 19 October, 1954, a treaty ceding the Suez Canal to Egypt was signed which required all British troops to be removed by June 1956. There was still one proviso: the British would be allowed to return to Egypt if they, or any nearby Arab state, were attacked. This condition was imposed as result of Cold War pressures and the British fear of Soviet expansion in the region.

During 1955 General Nasser made several overtures to communist China and USSR, trading cotton for military aid (an estimated $200 million of arms). However, he maintained a public stance that he wanted to follow a non-aligned policy, favouring neither the West or the Soviets. In reaction to increased purchase of arms, especially from Czechoslovakia, both the US and UK stopped their own arms sales to Egypt. Meanwhile, France was angered by Egypt's aid to the growing Algerian national movement (which was fighting for independence). When the US announced its intention to cut funding of the Aswan Dam project, it specifically referred to Egypt's close ties to the USSR.

On the fourth anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution, 26 July 1956, Colonel Nasser announced his intention to nationalise the Suez Canal. Political escalation, including the deportation of two British envoys for spying, resulted in a stalemate. Nasser promised to compensate the Suez Canal shareholders, but refused to accept international control of the canal. Whilst the US, Britain, and France protested to the UN, the USSR sent ship-pilots to aid Egypt. By September, Egypt was in full control of the canal and war was looming.

For the British and French, the Suez Canal represented a vital lifeline to oil supplies. The British premier Anthony Eden considered an immediate attack on Egypt, but was informed by parliament that the country was not prepared for such a military engagement. Eden secretly worked with France and Israel to plan a combined attack against Egypt, concealing his co-operation from both his cabinet and political allies (including the US).

According to the plan, Israel would attack across the Sinai Desert towards the canal. Britain and France would issue an ultimatum demanding that Egyptian and Israeli troops immediately withdraw - a demand to which General Nasser could not possibly agree. This would give them an excuse to invade and wrest control of the Suez Canal from Egypt.

On 29 October Israel invaded the Sinai Peninsula. The first sign that this was not a simple act of aggression by Israel came when the planned ultimatum was delivered to Egypt before Israeli troops had actually reached the canal. French and British forces began an invasion on 5 November, with an initial airborne attack to remove Egyptian air power. Despite fierce resistance by the Egyptians, Port Said and Port Faud soon fell.

Unfortunately for the three allies, there was widespread condemnation of the invasion. Britain and France were threatened with military reprisals by the USSR, and the US, worried by a potential escalation in the Cold War and an increased involvement by the Soviet Union in Middle East and African affairs, applied heavy political pressure (almost leading to the collapse of the British pound).

On 7 November, the UN Assembly voted 65 to 1 that the invading countries should quit Egyptian territory. A UN Emergency Force (UNEF) was created, with the first troops arriving from Italy on 21 November. By the end of December British and French forces were completely removed, and Israel had returned all territory except for the Gaza Strip.

Nasser responded to the invasion by nationalising all British and French assets in Egypt, and baring Israeli ships from the canal. The UNEF remained along the Egyptian-Israeli border and along the Sinai coast until 1967. Their removal contributed to the outbreak of the next Arab-Israeli war, commonly known as the Six-Day War. Britain and Egypt did not restore diplomatic relations until 1969.

General Nasser was proclaimed a hero throughout the Arab world, and his success against the forces of European imperialism inspired the rest of Africa in its struggle for independence.

Original version of this article published on About on 21 November 2001.

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