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Suez Crisis: Definition, Summary, Location, History, and Dates

Middle East [1956]

By Ayesh Perera, Last Updated: July 09, 2021

The Suez Crisis was an invasion of Egypt by Israel, France and the United Kingdom in 1956 to liberate the Suez Canal and remove President Nasser of Egypt who had nationalized the canal. The crisis was the second Arab-Israeli war, and is described as the Sinai War in Israel and the Tripartite Aggression in the Arab world. The war resulted in a military victory for the Israeli and the Anglo-French forces. However, the war damaged both Britain’s and France’s international standing, while establishing Nasser’s leadership in the Arab world.

Key Facts & Summary
  • The Suez Crisis was an invasion of Egypt by Israel, France and the United Kingdom in 1956 to liberate the Suez Canal following its nationalization by President Nasser of Egypt.
  • At the 1888 Convention of Constantinople, the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire, Spain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany and the United Kingdom had agreed that the canal should remain a neutral zone permitting international shipping during both war and peace.
  • The Kingdom of Egypt and the United Kingdom signed the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 which declared Egypt as a sovereign state but permitted the presence of British troops on the Suez Canal until 1956.
  • In 1951, the Egyptian government unilaterally revoked the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, and eventually, Egypt and Britain signed the Anglo-Egyptian Agreement which permitted the British troops to return to the canal for seven years.
  • Nasser’s alignment with Soviet interests resulted in the withdrawal of British support for the Aswan dam project, to which Nasser responded by nationalizing the Suez Canal and shutting the Straits of Tiran to Israel.
  • Following a secret meeting of the British, French and Israeli leaders, Israel invaded the Sinai on the 29th of October 1956.
  • The British and the French issued a joint ultimatum the following day, demanding the withdrawal of the Egyptian and Israeli troops from the canal zone.
  • When Egypt defied, the Anglo-French forces invaded and eventually captured the Suez.
  • Immense international pressure resulted in a ceasefire on the 7th of November, and the speedy withdrawal of the Anglo-French troops.
  • Despite the military victory of the Allies and the decimation of the Egyptian forces, Nasser was hailed as a hero, and he emerged as the leader of the Arab world.
location of the Suez Canal

The location of the Suez Canal, which connects the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea.

The History of the Suez

Following nearly a decade of work financed by the Egyptian and French governments, the Suez Canal, a sea-level waterway connecting the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea via the Isthmus of Suez was opened in 1869.

An Egyptian-chartered company named the Universal Company of the Suez Maritime Canal, initially operated the canal which functioned as the strategic ocean link between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. The Suez Canal would immensely help the European colonial powers govern their colonies with greater ease.

Egypt was, by 1875, in financial crisis. Thus, Egypt had to sell off its shares in the operating company to Benjamin Disraeli’s government. Hence, Britain bought 44% of the Universal Company of the Suez Maritime for £ 4,000,000. Most of the shares, by now, were held still by French private investors.

However, following the British invasion of Egypt in 1882, de facto control of the canal fell into Britain’s hands. Nonetheless, 6 years later, at the Convention of Constantinople, a treaty was signed by the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Empire, Spain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany and the United Kingdom.

It was decided that the Suez Canal would remain a neutral zone under the protection of the British. Despite the decision to permit international shipping via the canal during both war and peace, its strategic importance was made manifest multiple times.

During the Russo-Japanese War, Britain and Japan would sign a bilateral agreement. Consequently, a Russian fleet would be denied the use of the canal. Later, during WWI, France and Britain would decide to prohibit non-Allied shipping via the canal.

Anglo-Egyptian Relations

By the end of WWII, with the dismantling of the British empire, British interests in the region became complicated. At the same time, growing nationalism in Egypt began posing a threat to Britain. Egypt had gained a nominal independence from Britain in 1922.

However, more than a decade would pass before any formal agreement would be reached. Eventually, the Kingdom of Egypt and the United Kingdom signed the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936. The treaty declared Egypt as a sovereign state, but permitted the presence of British troops in the Suez Canal until 1956.

According to the treaty, in 1956, the need for British troops would be re-evaluated, and if needed, renegotiated. Over the ensuing years however, inflation, unemployment and economic instability in Egypt would lead to unrest.

Additionally, the rise of radical groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and Britain’s role in the creation of Israel would deteriorate Anglo-Egyptian relations. Eventually, in 1951, the Egyptian government would unilaterally revoke the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936.

However, Britain would refuse to withdraw its troops from the Suez Canal on account of its treaty rights. Violent attacks against the British troops in Egypt escalated, and the British responded in January 1952 by disarming the Egyptian paramilitary police in Ismailia which was responsible for the attacks.

The British operation led to the deaths of nearly 40 Egyptians, provoking anti-Western riots in Cairo. These involved heavy damage to property as well as the deaths of many foreigners including 11 citizens of Britain. Among the killed was the 83-year-old Scottish mathematician James Ireland Craig.

The riots would lead to internal chaos in the Egyptian government and the eventual military coup in July 1952. King Farouk was forced to abdicate the throne and a republic was subsequently established.

Prelude to the Suez Crisis

Following the coup, both countries sought rapprochement. Consequently, in 1953, the British agreed to terminate its rule over Sudan in three years, and in 1954, Egypt and Britain signed the Anglo-Egyptian Agreement.

Based on the terms of the agreement, the British troops would withdraw in 20 months, but Britain would reserve the right to return for seven years. However, the terms of the treaty dictated that the Suez Canal Company would not be under the ownership of the Egyptian regime until November 1968.

Gamal Abdul Nasser, a former military officer who had helped instigate the coup, was now the President of Egypt. His chief aims included both destroying the Jewish nation and establishing himself as the leader of the Arab world. Consequently, he found Britain’s increasingly amicable relationship between the Hashemite kingdoms of Jordan and Iraq quite disturbing.

The Baghdad Pact of 1955 soon confirmed his fears that a British-friendly Eastern Arab bloc centered on Iraq is in the offing. As a result, Nasser would take steps to repeatedly agitate the British. As the British troops were leaving Egypt, Nasser was purchasing a Soviet-made tanks, arms and aircraft from Czechoslovakia.

Moreover, on the 16th of May 1956, Nasser also officially recognized the Communist-ruled People’s Republic of China to the consternation of the United States which was a close ally of Taiwan. The United States and Britain had, prior to this, pledged to financially assist the building of a dam at Aswan, Egypt.

However, partly due to Nasser’s actions to align himself with Soviet interests, on 19th of July 1956, President Eisenhower decided to withdraw all American financial assistance for the project.

Soon, Britain followed suit and withdrew its support as well. Subsequently, the World Bank refused Egypt an advance of $200 million.

Nationalization of the Canal

Nasser responded on 26th of July by nationalizing the Suez Canal. He gave a speech in Alexandria on the same day, in which he provided a riposte to U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles.

During his speech, Nasser deliberately pronounced the name of the canal’s builder, Ferdinand de Lesseps, multiple times. This was the code-word for the Egyptian military to forcibly seize the canal. Nasser also announced that his government had frozen all the assets owned by the Suez Canal Company, and that its stockholders would be compensated according to the closing price of the day on the Paris Stock Exchange.

On the same day, Egypt closed the use of the canal to Israeli shipping. Egypt also blockaded the Gulf of Aqaba and shut the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping in violation of the 1949 Armistice Agreements as well as the Constantinople Convention of 1888.

Britain’s Response

The news of the nationalization reached Prime Minister Eden of Britain as he was hosting a dinner for Nuri es-Said, the prime minister of Iraq and King Feisal II of Iraq.

Both of them immediately advised Prime Minister Eden to “hit Nasser hard” and to “hit him soon.” It is important to note that, at this time, military action was deemed an appropriate response by many. Opposition Leader Hugh Gaitskell, who was also present at the event, agreed that military intervention might be unavoidable.

The next day, during a session of the House of Commons, Gaitskell, speaking for the Labor Party, condemned Nasser’s action as a “totally unjustifiable step.”

Several days later, Gaitskell would further note that Nasser’s conduct was “exactly the same that we encountered from Mussolini and Hitler in those years before the war.” Gaitskell, however, would inform Eden later that Britain should not immediately retaliate by war, and that it should ensure that its response remains consistent with the UN Charter.

There were other opposition politicians who seemed to be more bent on military action. Herbert Morrison, who had been the Labor Foreign Minister, advocated unilateral action by the British, and Jo Grimond, the future Liberal Party leader, believed that Nasser must be confronted lest the whole of Middle East falls into his power.

Indeed, the nationalization of the canal was widely construed in Britain as a serious threat to its interests. However, the risks of incurring rebuke from the United Nations, angering the United States, and harming Anglo-Arab relations would lead the British government to enter into a covert military pact with Israel and France, rather than take direct and immediate action.

France’s Response

In France, Prime Minister Guy Mollet was outraged by the nationalization of the canal, and was determined to stop Nasser.

Public opinion too, was on Mollet’s side, even though those on the political right actually doubted that Mollet who was a socialist could have the fortitude to fight Nasser. On the 29th of July, the Cabinet of France decided to take military action in alliance with Israel.

Subsequently, the French Admiral Nomy was dispatched to apprise Britain of the decision and invite them into the alliance. Mollet however, was disturbed by the Eisenhower administration’s seemingly nonchalant approach to the situation.

Nonetheless, even if the United States were to remain reticent, Mollet was determined that France should act.

Israel’s Response

Ever since 1948, cargo shipments seeking passage through the Suez Canal from and to Israel had been subject to authorization and seizure by Egypt.

In 1951 however, Egypt was required to terminate its interference with Israeli shipping by the UN Security Council Resolution 95. Nonetheless, following Egypt’s military coup, the interference and confiscation resumed.

Moreover, in 1954, Nasser also started sponsoring terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians by the Palestinian fedayeen.

These would, in turn, provoke reprisal operations by Israel. Moreover, Nasser’s decision to nationalize the Suez Canal, which accompanied the closing of the canal as well as the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, would play no small part in provoking an aggressive response from Israel.

The Franco-Israeli-British Alliance

Beginning in 1949, joint nuclear research had helped move France and Israel into a close alliance. France had also agreed to provide Israel as much arms as Israel desired to purchase even disregarding the Tripartite Declaration of 1950.

Israel viewed Nasser as a genocidal maniac who had to be stopped before he had the power to annihilate the Jewish state.

Israel also wanted the Straits of Tiran reopened to Israeli shipping, and desired to severely weaken the Egyptian state which had been sponsoring attacks on Israeli civilians from the Gaza Strip.

Meanwhile, both France and Britain held that the Suez Canal should stay open, and that Nasser should be removed from power.

The Protocol of Sèvres

On the 22nd of October 1956, a secret meeting was held outside Paris. British Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd, Prime Minister of Israel David Ben-Gurion, IDF’s Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan, French Minister of Defense Maurice Bourges-Maunoury and Chief of Staff of the French Armed Forces, General Maurice Challe were among those who were gathered in the isolated house to plan the invasion of Egypt.

According to their agreement, Israel would launch the assault by invading Egypt on the 29th of October. On the following day, the British and the French would issue a joint ultimatum demanding that both Israel and Egypt withdraw their troops from the canal zone. A

dditionally, the Egyptian government would have to consent to the occupation of the canal by the Anglo-French troops based on the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1954. If the Egyptian government refused to comply, the Israeli government would not have to withdraw its troops, and on the 31st of October, the Anglo-French forces would launch an attack on the Egyptian forces to liberate the canal.

Additionally, if Jordan were to attack Israel during the same period, the British would not aid Jordan.

The Outbreak of War

Around 3pm, on the 29th of October, the Israeli Air Force launched a series of assaults on Egyptian positions on Sinai. Moreover, because Jordan was expected to enter the conflict to aid Egypt, the Israel-Jordan border was militarized, and curfew was imposed on Arab villages nearby.

On the same day, Operation Kadesh was launched. This involved the airdropping of Israeli paratroopers into the Sinai Peninsula, and the simultaneous severing of Sinai’s telephone lines with P-51 Mustangs to disrupt Egyptian communication. Israel managed to preserve strategic surprise, and consequently, the Egyptian Field Marshal Amer initially believed the invasion to be merely a raid.

He chose not to order a general alert, and by the time Amer realized what was actually happening, Israel had already gained substantial advances into Sinai. Soon, Israel managed to capture Ras al-Naqb in a covert operation which would result in the surrender of many Egyptians.

In the ensuing hours, Israel would proceed to capture al-Qusaymah, Jebel Heitan, al-Dayyiqa, Abu Uwaayulah, Ruafa and Rafah. Meanwhile, Israeli aircraft destroyed nearly nine Egyptian jets while losing only one.

The Israeli aircraft also devastated Egypt’s 1st Armored Brigade. Egypt dispatched its Hunt-class destroyer Ibrahim el Awal to shell Haifa’s coastal oil installations. Kersaint, a French destroyer guarding Haifa, returned fire but to no avail.

Eventually, after Ibrahim el Awal disengaged and retreated, INS Yaffo & INS Eilat, two Israeli destroyers, gave chase with the aid of two Israeli fighter bombers. The Egyptian destroyer was devastated in the ensuing engagement, and the crew eventually surrendered to the Israeli Navy.

The Anglo-French Invasion

On the 30th of October 1956, both France and Britain, as anticipated, sent their ultimatums to Israel and Egypt. Nasser, in response, sunk all the 40 ships in the canal at the time, thereby closing it to all shipping.

Moreover, Field Marshal Amer ordered his troops in the Sinai to remain there, hoping to first defeat the Israelis in the Sinai and then defeat the French and the British in the canal zone. Mollet and Eden gave the Anglo-French forces the green light 13 hours after the ultimatum, and Operation Musketeer was launched on the 31st of October.

The Anglo-French forces began a series of airstrikes beginning on the morning of the 1st of November. By the end of the day, nearly 200 aircraft of the Egyptian air force were destroyed. Two days later, the aerodrome at Cairo was attacked. On the 5th of November, British paratroopers were dropped on the El Gamil Airfield, which was soon secured by the British.

However, street fighting ensued, and Egyptians managed to inflict heavy casualties on the British. The British continued to advance toward Port Said, eventually capturing its sewage works and cemetery, and assaulting its Coast Guard barracks. Meanwhile French paratroopers managed to secure Raswa’s western bridge, and subsequently Port Said’s waterworks. Port Said’s Egyptian commander Moguy finally proposed a truce.

However, he merely wanted time to dig in, and had no intention to surrender. Fighting resumed, and vans travelled through the city encouraging resistance and announcing via loudspeakers that Paris and London had been bombed by the Russians.

On the 6th of November, the Royal Marines landed on Sierra Red beach and advanced through the city. They encountered fierce resistance. Nasser had called the conflict a ‘people’s war’ and had handed out guns to civilians to join the fight.

He had also ordered the troops to fight in civilian clothing. Nasser’s tactic presented the French and the British with a dilemma. Consequently, Prime Minister Eden as well as Admiral Sir Louis Mountbatten would take extraordinary measures to minimize civilian deaths by constantly revising their operational plans.

The Egyptian strategy seemed to hope that the invading forces would get bogged down by sniper attacks launched from soldiers hiding among civilians. Despite the best efforts of the British, the bombing killed many civilians.

During the afternoon, French paratroopers assaulted and secured Port Fuad, and captured a nearby Egyptian police post inflicting heavy casualties on the Egyptian side. Fierce battles occurred at Port Said’s Navy House and Customs House, and the Egyptians destroyed the Inner Harbor, compelling the British to improvise in order to land their troops.

The French and British forces linked with each other close to the Suez Canal Company’s offices. Although the building was secured with ease, intense fighting preceded the capture of the heavily defended warehouses.

The Royal Marines captured Port Said’s gasworks while the Royal Tank Regiment and 40 Commando were engaged clearing off Egyptian snipers. On the night of the 6th of November, when the Anglo-French forces learned of the UN ceasefire which would go into effect the following day at 2.00am, they endeavored to capture al-Qantarah with much haste in order to improve their bargaining position against the Egyptians.

However, confusion ensued, and the British soldiers who were deployed ended up instead at al-Cap which was several miles north of al-Qantarah.


On the 1st of November, the first ever emergency session of the UN General Assembly had been convened to put an end to the fighting.

Nasser had also requested diplomatic aid from the United States. An initial proposal called for an immediate ceasefire accompanied by a withdrawal of the armed forces behind the 1949 armistice lines and the reopening of the canal.

However, this was rejected. Following negotiations over the ensuing days, a series of resolutions were adopted, resulting in the establishment of the UN Emergency Force. Finally, the cease-fire went into effect on the 7th of November. By the time hostilities ended, French casualties were 33 wounded and 10 dead, British casualties were 96 wounded and 16 dead, and Israeli casualties were 817 wounded and 172 dead. Egyptian losses were not reliably established.

According to estimates, Egyptian casualties might have been approximately 5,000 wounded and between 1,500 to 3,650 dead.


The British government had been facing immense political pressure back at home against the war. It was likely that Prime Minister Eden’s greatest mistake had been his delay in striking Egypt.

Things would have turned out differently had he taken military action in July, soon after the nationalization, when public opinion was heavily on his side. Additionally, now, Gaitskell seemed to scorn the fact that Eden had not apprised him of the military intervention beforehand.

Eden had been publicly declaring his commitment to a peaceful resolution of the problem while secretly planning the war with France and Israel. Despite the massive anti-war protests, some opinion polls still showed that a majority of British people were in support of Eden’s actions.

In fact, even the great advocate of internationalism, Gilbert Murray signed a statement alongside some fellow Oxford Scholars in support of Eden. Murray was convinced that Nasserism, if not confronted, would turn into a Soviet-fueled anti-western movement.

It seemed that the fiercest opposition to the war emanated from the Labor Party’s middle-class intelligentsia. The working-class voters of the Labor Party, for the most part, supported the war effort. Nonetheless, the Suez Crisis would mark the downfall of Prime Minister Eden.

His credibility was severely questioned, and nearly two months later, he would leave office, citing ill-health as the reason for his resignation. In France, the Anglophile Mollet managed to survive domestic criticism against the war. However, in June the following year, controversy over the Algerian war would dismantle his government.

In Israel, the reaction was markedly different. The Straits of Tiran which had been closed since 1950 by Egypt was reopened for Israeli shipping. On the 7th of November, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s great victory during his speech to the Knesset. The UN called for the withdrawal of the Israeli troops behind the 1949 armistice lines.

However, Israel defied the UN as well as the United States, and refused to do so without any guarantees. Israel’s stubborn defiance would, in the future, compel the West to take into account the Jewish nation’s national security concerns when advancing political settlements in the Middle East.

In Egypt, despite the decimation of the armed forces, Nasser was hailed as a hero for standing up to the western colonial powers and the Zionists. The eventual withdrawal of the British and French forces from the Sinai, which was largely caused by the intervention of the United States and the Soviet Union, was attributed to Nasser’s leadership.

The resistance at Port Said was turned into a symbol of Egypt’s anti-colonial struggle. Meanwhile, Nasser stripped away the civil liberties of Egyptian Jews, seizing Jewish bank accounts, and arresting nearly 1,000 Jews. Jewish engineers, lawyers, teachers and doctors were prohibited from working in their professions.

Mosques in Alexandria and Cairo issued statements branding Jews as “enemies of the state” while thousands were ordered to leave Egypt. They had to sign declarations indicating that they were donating their property to the Egyptian government.

They were permitted to take with them only a small sum of cash and one suitcase. Around 25,000 Jews would subsequently leave Egypt for Europe, the United States, Israel and South America.

Cite this Article (Chicago Style)

Perera, A.. "Suez Crisis: Definition, Summary, Location, History, and Dates." World History Blog, July 09, 2021.

About the Author

Ayesh Perera recently graduated from Harvard University, where he studied politics, ethics and religion. He is presently conducting research in neuroscience and peak performance as an intern for the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, while also working on a book of his own on constitutional law and legal interpretation.

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