Sixty years ago this week a crisis exploded for Britain’s rulers that would become a defining moment in the collapse of the blood-soaked British Empire.
In 1956 Britain backed an invasion of Egypt—and would eventually invade itself—following the nationalisation of the Suez Canal by Egypt’s nationalist government in July.
The canal had effectively been controlled by Britain and was supposed to ensure its dominance in the Middle East.
The invasion was a desperate effort by Britain’s rulers to save themselves. Its defeat at the hands of the Egyptian people on the one hand—and the US ruling class on the other—would prove a lasting humiliation.
In Egypt as everywhere else, the British Empire was built on extreme brutality. Britain first invaded Egypt in 1882.
The attack began with a naval bombardment of Alexandria that left much of the city in ruins and more than 2,000 people dead and wounded.
The invasion was completed at the battle of Tel-el-Kebir where the British had 57 men killed while Egyptian fatalities were estimated at between 2,000 and 10,000.
The bodies of the Egyptian dead were never counted, just shovelled into the ground.
But in the aftermath of the Second World War, Britain’s grasp on the Middle East was slipping.
Britain was forced out of Palestine by Zionist militias fighting to set up the state of Israel in 1948. And the Iranian government’s move to nationalise the British oil company AIOC in 1951 was another huge blow.
In a taste of things to come Britain was forced to back down after the US made clear it would not support any military action in Iran.
The Labour government that came to office in 1945 saw the danger it faced in the Middle East.
It was determined to keep control of Egypt and to maintain British military bases there, which was vital to Britain’s domination in the region.
British military installations occupied 750 square miles of the country.
But the occupation met with growing nationalist resistance, with an escalating campaign of shootings, grenade attacks and bombings.
This preliminary to the 1956 invasion is often forgotten.
The Labour government were determined to keep the bases no matter what. This policy was continued when the Tories were elected in October 1951 and Winston Churchill became prime minister.
Churchill increased troop levels to 80,000 and ordered a campaign of repression to crush the resistance. Villages were shelled and houses blown up.
Following the storming of an Egyptian police station by British troops which left 40 police officers dead in January 1952, there was serious anti-British rioting in Cairo. More than 400 British buildings were destroyed and 17 British people lynched.
The government considered a full-scale reoccupation of the country.
But this would have taken thousands more troops which were not available. No one could say how long they would have to stay anyway.
By now the US was giving its support to the Egyptian nationalist government led by Colonel Nasser.
Even Churchill was being forced to recognise that the British position was becoming untenable.
On one occasion he had wanted the Egyptians told that if they gave any more “cheek we will set the Jews on them and drive them into the gutter from which they should never have emerged”.
In the end US pressure, troop shortages and continued resistance forced the British to agree in 1954 to a phased evacuation of their bases.
The US was aiming to set itself up as the dominant power in the region—and that meant pushing Britain out.
Clement Attlee’s Labour government had reluctantly accepted this.
But the Tories were not reconciled to the changing balance of forces—and were furious when Nasser’s government nationalised the Suez Canal in July 1956.
This was seen as a massive blow to British prestige.
But more than that, the Egyptians were seen as deliberately trying to destroy the British position throughout the whole Middle East.
They were supporting the spread of Arab nationalism and undermining loyal puppet governments.
The new Tory prime minister, Anthony Eden, was determined to put a stop to this.
According to Eden’s private secretary, he was “mad keen to land British troops somewhere to show we were alive and kicking”.
Indeed, Eden actually demanded Nasser’s assassination, telling the foreign secretary Anthony Nutting, “I want him destroyed, can’t you understand? I want him murdered”.
As for what would follow, “I don’t give a damn if there is anarchy and chaos in Egypt”.
In the event, it was the French government that first proposed a way to attack Nasser.
The Labour-type Socialist Party government in France approached the Tories with a plan that involved an unprovoked Israeli attack which would threaten the Suez Canal.
Britain and France would then invade Egypt under the pretext of stopping the fighting.
The Israelis attacked on 29 October.
The French barely bothered to hide their collusion with the Israelis, with French aircraft flying from Israeli airfields to bomb the Egyptians from day one.
The British were more circumspect.
British aircraft did not start bombing the Egyptians until 1 November—after they had ignored a demand that they and the Israelis withdraw ten miles from the Canal.
At the time the fighting was still some distance from the Canal, and the collusion with the Israelis was clear. The ultimatum involved Egyptian forces having to withdraw up to 135 miles while the Israelis could advance up to 110 miles.
British troops invaded on 5 November, in effect attacking the Egyptians in alliance with the Israelis.
The Suez invasion was an act of international criminality on the part of the French, British and Israeli governments.
The Eden government tried to dress its illegal aggression up as peacekeeping. But it was clear to just about everyone at home and abroad that this was an unprovoked invasion.
It was meant to bring about regime change, to bring Nasser down and replace him with a puppet—and it provoked outrage.
In Britain, the Labour opposition put itself at the head of the protests. This was really just so much bare-faced hypocrisy.
Both Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour leader, and Nye Bevan, the shadow foreign secretary, were hostile to Nasser and had condemned the Suez Canal nationalisation.
Bevan had actually compared Nasser to fictional villain Ali Baba. On top of that, they were both Zionists.
Indeed, at the time there was a very strong “Israel Right or Wrong” commitment in the Parliamentary Labour Party just as there is today.
Over 80 Labour MPs signed a motion supporting Israel in 1956.
What decided the Labour leadership to oppose the invasion was not straightforward opportunism, however. Decisive was the US attitude.
The conspiracy had been successfully kept secret from the US who had no wish to see a revival of British and French power in the region.
At this time, Israel had not yet been adopted as the US’s closest ally in the Middle East.
Whatever they said, the Labour leadership actually opposed the invasion because it was in defiance of the US.
Labour was opposed to anything that compromised relations with the US.
Rank and file Labour Party members and trade unionists opposed the invasion because it was wrong. Labour’s leadership had accepted that Britain was now a junior partner with US imperialism and were reconciled to that.
The Tories still hoped for an independent role for British Imperialism.
But fierce Egyptian resistance meant they faced getting bogged down in a quagmire.
And US economic pressure quickly forced a humiliating British and French withdrawal and then forced the Israelis to evacuate Sinai area.
US imperialism had replaced the British and French as the dominant power in the Middle East.
Britain’s rulers had to accept a new role as the junior partner to US imperialism—a role they still play today.
Suez and the high tide of Arab nationalism
International Socialism journal article by Anne Alexander
1956: Imperialism and resistance in Egypt
Anne Alexander spoke to three women who took part in the resistance to the British, French and Israeli invasion of Egypt in 1956 following the nationalisation of the Suez Canal