Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser With Krushev of the USSR
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In the fifth of our series, we look at the bitter legacy of the war for Britain, the US and the Arab world
Thursday July 13, 2006
Half a century on, Egyptians and other Arabs still remember the Suez war as the "tripartite aggression", when the old imperialist powers Britain and France teamed up with Israel, itching to fight its biggest enemy. It was the second shortest conflict the modern Middle East has seen, but it left a bitter and volatile legacy.
For Anwar Sadat, President Gamal Nasser's deputy, Israel's attack in October 1956 was "the most vile, mean and despicable conspiracy the world has ever known". Still, he boasted, "glory and national dignity were restored to an ancient people and to a region inhabited by a nation the colonialists called 'Arabs' with disdain and disgust."
Many Britons gloomily agreed. "By making Nasser a martyr and a hero, we had raised him to a pinnacle of power and prestige unknown in the Arab world since the beginning of the 18th century," lamented Anthony Nutting, the Foreign Office minister who resigned in protest at the whole sordid and chaotic affair.
British embassies grimly recorded the damage that rippled across the region. Audiences from Kabul to Tunis cheered wildly at an Egyptian propaganda film of allied atrocities in Port Said. And the Egyptian leader's stature grew and grew.
"Nasser was the man who made Cairo's heartbeat audible from the Atlantic to the Persian gulf," recalled a British diplomat in Jordan, where King Hussein was being heavily subsidised by HM Treasury. "It was as though a powerful electric current had been passed through the country."
Long after the British and French withdrawal from the Suez canal zone, MI6 agents still fought Nasserist "subversion," handing out "suitcases of cash" to buy Jordanian politicians being bribed by Egyptian officials. But money could not stop him. In February 1958 Nasser created the United Arab Republic with Syria. In July there was a bloodbath in Baghdad when the Iraqi monarchy, Britain's loyal ally, was brought down by army officers emulating the Egyptian example. They were later replaced by the Ba'ath party and a thug named Saddam Hussein.
France was less troubled by the Suez debacle but suffered a more direct blow in 1962, when Charles de Gaulle conceded independence to the Algerian FLN rebels and abandoned the 130-year-old colony. By coincidence Konrad Adenauer, Germany's chancellor, was in Paris on November 6 1956, negotiating the Treaty of Rome which created the common market, when a chastened Anthony Eden rang to tell his opposite number, Guy Mollet, that he was caving in to US pressure and agreeing to a ceasefire. "Now is the time to build Europe," Adenauer consoled him. It was a truly pivotal moment.
The US became the dominant power in the Middle East, strengthening its links with Israel, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. In January 1957 the "Eisenhower doctrine" had proclaimed American readiness to help any country facing communist aggression.
So in 1958 it was US marines who landed in Lebanon to shore up the pro-western regime while UK troops helped safeguard Jordan. There was a final British flourish - protecting newly independent Kuwait from Iraq in 1961. But it would be 30 years before Britain seriously intervened in the Middle East again.
If Suez marked a golden age for Arab nationalism some still had private cause to regret the end of the old hegemony. "What a tragedy," King Hussein said later, "that Britain finally fell off its pedestal, particularly around here."
As the cold war raged, the aftermath of the crisis boosted the Soviet Union, which forged ties with nationalist regimes in Syria, Iraq and Algeria. In 1960 Moscow stepped in and financed the Aswan dam-"the greatest engineering feat in the Middle East since the pyramids".
Eden's successor, Harold Macmillan, talked famously of a "wind of change" sweeping through Africa, but the old obsession with the Egyptian leader lived on. "For Nasser read Hitler and it's all very familiar," the prime minister scrawled peevishly across an FO telegram in 1963.
Egypt was triumphant, but Israel achieved its goals too despite being forced to abandon Sinai in 1957. The aftermath brought quiet to its borders, with a UN force maintaining a buffer between the two countries until Nasser blundered into another far more devastating conflict in 1967. Until then Israel was able to absorb a million new Jewish immigrants and build a strong economy and powerful armed forces - including nuclear weapons. Its alliance with France was replaced by a more intimate and enduring one with the US.
"If a new status quo had been created," commented the historian Michael Oren, "it was one of inherent instability, a situation so combustible that the slightest spark could ignite it".
Such was the impact of the "tripartite aggression" - and the irrefutable evidence of collusion - that Israel was branded as a tool of imperialism, though it was as ever ploughing its own furrow.
"Suez demonstrated that Israel was a bridgehead to serve foreign political interests," argued Nasser's confidante, Mohammed Heikal.
"Suez supplied an additional argument for those who wanted to hate Israel," concedes Mordechai Bar-On, then an aide to the one-eyed Israeli defence minister Moshe Dayan. "And it was a good argument. But the Palestinians already had a good reason - they had lost their land."
When a slightly shorter war erupted in June 1967, Arab states accused the US and Britain of flying combat sorties from their aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean in support of "the Zionist entity". They did not, but their denials were ignored in a bout of myth-making - known in Washington and London as "the big lie".
The Suez plot was only too true. But it would pass into history, overtaken by deadlier conflicts. On January 1 1965 a new organisation named al-Fatah, founded by Yasser Arafat and others, launched its first guerrilla raid on Israel.
Suez, the forgotten war as seen by British, Egyptian and Israeli cartoonists, is showing at the Newsroom at 60 Farringdon Road, London, until September 1. Entry is free. For information call 020 7886 9898, visit http://www.guardian.co.uk/newsroom