Monday, July 24, 2006

When Egypt Took Over the Suez Canal 50 Years Ago

When Egypt took over the Suez

Sunday 23 July 2006 4:05 AM GMT

Nasser took the world by surprise and nationalised the Canal

Egypt is preparing to commemorate 50 years since it nationalised the Suez Canal, a vital waterway linking the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.

The anniversary on Wednesday of the surprise 1956 takover is a chance for Egyptians to look back on the end of the colonial era in the Middle East.

But the anniversary is particularly significant for Adel Ezzat, then a 30-year-old engineer, who worked closely with Gamal Abdel Nasser, the former Egyptian president.

"Only three of us were in the know," says Ezzat, who was working with Mohammed Yunes, Nasser's adviser on petroleum affairs. "President Nasser had chosen us to carry out the nationalisation."

"On the 23rd July 1956, I met Nasser for the first time during the celebrations for the fourth anniversary of the revolution.

"The president whispered something in Yunes' ear," Ezzat recalls.

"Over the next 24 hours, Yunes seemed "agitated and preoccupied.

"The next day, he summoned me and my colleague Abdel Hamid Abu Bakr in his office and locked the door behind us, which I found very odd."

Speaking to AFP from his Cairo home, the octogenarian remembers Yunes' words.

"The president has tasked me with nationalising the Suez Canal,' he said. This decision had to remain top secret."

The three-man commando had 48 hours and little information to carry out Nasser's wish, a move that would spark a war with the West but reshape Egypt's economy by regaining control of the most crucial chokepoint in world trade.

"All we had was a few publications on the canal given to Yunes by the president. We didn't even have a mole in the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez" that ran the waterway,' Ezzat remembers.

The trio gathered a wider group of around 30, who were to break up in three groups tasked with overrunning the company's offices in Port-Said, Suez and Ismailiya.

"We weren't armed. Our instructions were to carry out the operation peacefully," says Ezzat. Little did he know that his 'peaceful' takeover would prompt a military offensive led by Israel, Britain and France and mark a turning point in the Cold War.

Launch signal

Ezzat recalls that the signal for the operation's launch was when Nasser, who was delivering a speech in Alexandria, pronounced the words "de Lesseps", in reference to Ferdinand de Lesseps who founded the canal in 1869.

"Our mission was so secret that the drivers who took us from Cairo didn't even know our destination. Except us three, the people who were with didn't know. They had only been told to bring a few clothes."

The three groups were only informed of their respective assignments upon arriving at the Al-Galaa military base near Ismailiya on July 26, at around 4:00 in the afternoon.

"Some of them hesitated. They were afraid of the reaction of the British troops guarding the canal. But we refused to abandon our plan, history was on the march," Ezzat says.

The three groups fanned out. They crept up to the Suez company's offices but stayed out of sight, as they listened to Nasser's speech, their hearts throbbing with anxiety.

Peaceful operation

"The president said 'de Lesseps'. Then he repeated it a second time, and a third, as if he feared we hadn't heard him."

Ezzat says the commandos went in at around 7:00 pm, found mostly empty offices and simply informed the guards that they had come to nationalise the Suez canal. No blood was shed.

"The president then delievered his speech on the nationalisation. People poured into the streets and their support gave us more strength," he recalls.

At that moment, Egypt regained control of the 19th century canal for whose construction an estimated 125,000 Egyptians perished in forced labour.

Adel Ezzat, who was denied a job with the Suez company in 1950 because his "French was too weak", rose through the ranks and was the Canal Authority chairman between 1985 and 1995.

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Top secret

The Suez Canal: Facts and Figures

-Built under the supervision of French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps and inaugurated in 1869

-Overall length: 190.25 kilometres Suez is the longest lockless canal in the world

-Width at water level: 280-345 metres

-Depth: 22.5 metres

-Maximum deadweight tonnage: around 210,000 tonnes

-18,700 ships transited through the canal in 2005

-Ships travel through the canal in three daily convoys. The permissible speed ranges from 11 to 14 kilometres/hour

-Seven percent of global maritime transport passes through the Suez canal

-Canal reduces by a quarter the distance between Rotterdam and Tokyo, two of the world's largest harbours - compared to the route around Africa

-Suez Canal transit fees are the third largest source of revenue for Egypt's economy after tourism and remittances from expatriate workers

-Canal receipts reached a record 3.4 billion dollars in 2005, up more than 12 percent from the previous year

-Receipts are expected to further rise in 2006 on the back of a transit fees hike of three percent since March and growing trade between China and Europe

1 comment:

Pan-African News Wire said...

How Suez made Nasser an Arab icon

By Roger Hardy
BBC News Middle East analyst

When he nationalised the Suez Canal Company on 26 July 1956, Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser became the hero of the Arab world.

He was one of the army officers who had taken part in the coup which overthrew the country's British-backed monarchy in 1952.

The Arab response to the new military regime, writes historian Rashid Khalidi, was at first lukewarm.

"Suez changed this, firmly establishing Nasser as the pre-eminent Arab leader until the end of his life, and Arab nationalism as the leading Arab ideology."

Taking control of the canal was an act of national self-assertion - and defiance of Britain - which electrified Arabs everywhere.

Nasser was seen as a new breed of ruler ready to stand up to the old colonial order.

By the time the Suez Crisis had run its course - and Britain and France had been forced to make a humiliating withdrawal from Egyptian territory - his regional position had become unassailable.

The dream of Arabism

Arab nationalism, or "Arabism", embodied the idea that all Arabs from Morocco to the Gulf should unite in a single state.

It was an illusion, but a potent one.

Born in 1918, the son of a postal clerk
Graduate of military academy, promoted to colonel in 1950
Led the Free Officers in 1952 in a coup that seized power by toppling the British-backed monarchy
Elected president in 1956 and nationalised the Suez Canal shortly after
Resigned after Arab defeats of 1967, but popular demonstrations brought him back to power
Died of a heart attack in 1970
During the heyday of Nasser's influence in the 1950s and 1960s, the idea that the Arabs should join together under Egyptian leadership became very popular.

Using the new medium of the transistor radio, Nasser spread the Arabist message into the most remote corners of the region.

Leaders tainted by their association with the former colonial powers found themselves seriously undermined.

Two years after the Suez affair, the British-backed Iraqi monarchy was overthrown in a bloody coup.

This sent a strong signal that Arab nationalists were now in the driving seat.

The young King Hussein of Jordan, derided by nationalists as a puppet of the British, survived on his throne - but only by the skin of his teeth.

The Israel issue

With Nasser's ascendancy, three ideas came to dominate Arab politics: Arabism, social justice and the struggle against Israel.

By allying itself with Britain and France in the Suez affair, Israel confirmed the Arabs in their view that it was the creation of colonialism.

The struggle against Israel became the predominant Arab cause, but it also in the end contributed to Nasser's undoing.

Some analysts think his success in 1956 led him to overplay his hand in the June War of 1967.

The Egyptian leader thought the big powers would come to his rescue, as the US had done in 1956.

Instead, Israel defeated the Arab armies in a mere six days.

Worn out from a succession of regional crises, Nasser died of a heart attack in 1970.

For many Arabs, the light of Arabism had been extinguished.