In our school history books it is called “the Suez crisis”. This was the moment when the sun went down on the British Empire. Egyptians call the events of October and November 1956 “the triple aggression”. They remember with pride how they defeated an invasion by Israel, Britain and France.
Suez was the undoing of Anthony Eden, Britain’s Conservative prime minister, who left office a broken man. It was the making of Gamal Abdul Nasser, Egypt’s young military leader, who became a symbol of Arab anti-colonial revolt.
The crisis divided Britain. As protests spread the political establishment began to crack. The invasion united the majority of Egyptians behind Nasser’s vision of a future in which the country would enjoy independence and economic progress free from imperialism.
Yet although Nasser’s figure looms large over the events of 1956, without an extraordinary mobilisation by tens of thousands of ordinary Egyptians, including many communists who had been the military regime’s bitterest critics, things might have ended very differently.
On 26 July 1956, thousands of Egyptians were in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria waiting to hear Nasser speak. US secretary of state John Foster Dulles had withdrawn an offer of a loan to build a dam at Aswan on the Nile river just days before.
The World Bank refused to fund the project, which would provide electricity to power Egypt’s economic development. Nasser’s answer stunned the crowd. Rejecting the “mortgage colonialism” of the World Bank he announced the nationalisation of the Anglo-French Suez Canal Company.
The canal, which links the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, had been occupied by British troops since 1882.
Nasser said, “Everything which was stolen from us by that imperialist company, that state within a state, when we were dying of hunger, we are going to take back. In the name of the nation, the president of the republic declares the International Suez Canal Company an Egyptian limited company.”
Shahinda Maqlid remembers the reaction in her home village of Kamshish in the Nile Delta. She said, “When Gamal Abdul Nasser nationalised the canal everybody was in solidarity with him. People were delighted, even my future husband, Salah, who was in jail accused of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood [the Islamic opposition to the regime].
“When he got out he sent Nasser a telegram of support saying, ‘We’ll fight for you, we’ll even defend the military jail where we’ve been locked up for a year and a half.’ In Kamshish straight away a suicide battalion was set up under Salah’s leadership.”
Amina Shafiq was a young journalist in Cairo. Along with her colleagues she was listening to the speech on the radio.
She said, “I was in the office at Akhbar al-Yawm newspaper, and this was a capitalist paper. So of course some people were afraid, some were happy. People couldn’t believe it, they thought how can he do something like that and get away with it?”
In London that night the same question was being asked. At a state banquet at 10 Downing Street Nuri al-Said, the prime minister of Iraq and Britain’s loyal ally in the Middle East, leaned over to Anthony Eden. His advice about Nasser was, “Hit him hard, and hit him now.”
In fact it would be another three months before the British government was ready to act. At a secret meeting in a Parisian suburb, British and French diplomats agreed to seize back control of the Suez Canal under the cover of an Israeli invasion.
On 29 October, as Israeli troops swept into the Sinai peninsula in Egypt, Britain and France prepared to intervene “to protect freedom of navigation”. An Anglo-French ultimatum called on both Egyptian and Israeli forces to withdraw ten miles from the banks of the canal.
When Nasser refused to surrender, Eden ordered the bombing of Cairo and the cities of the Canal Zone. British and French paratroops landed in Port Said at the entrance to the canal a few days later.
With her school friends and teacher, Shahinda was organising a local battalion to resist the invasion. She said, “I was too young so I couldn’t go to Cairo, so we organised a defence committee of volunteers in the village.
“My teacher, Miss Widad Mitry, was the head of the committee and I was a student member of the committee—me and all the girls at school.”
Leila al-Shal was in her second year at Cairo University. She said, “Of course everyone in Egypt wanted to defend their country and throw out the invasion.
“We set up the Women’s Popular Resistance Committee in Cairo. A lot of women intellectuals and students, and housewives joined us. We set up women’s resistance committees across the capital.”
Leila and her friends were sent to prepare resistance in the Canal Zone.
“We had military-style training—how to defuse a bomb, how to shoot a rifle and so on,” she said.
“At that time the government was working in alliance with the communists. There was a camp in an area near the canal, where communist volunteers went for training.
“Me and group of my friends, most of them left wing university students, stayed in houses in Ismailiyya. We went out into the villages with the peasant women. We gave lectures and in every village we set up a pharmacy.”
Young women were at the forefront of the struggle, Leila added.
“We worked in the midst of the men, and in fact they were very proud of us. There was no feeling that it was a problem, not like today when religious ideas are more widespread.
“There was none of this ‘women shouldn’t go out’, ‘women shouldn’t do this’, ‘women shouldn’t do that’.”
Shahinda agreed, “In my generation, and I’m 68 now, we were completely involved in the national guard.
“We were trained to carry weapons, and we travelled. It wasn’t considered shameful or wrong. One of my girl friends was a better shot than all the men who were training with her.”
The school girls in Kamshish knew that more was at stake than just the fate of the canal. If the invasion had succeeded even the limited reforms achieved since the revolution of 1952 would have been undone.
Shahinda continued, “On the day of the invasion the landlords in our village were giving out sherbet drinks in the streets. They were delighted that the English were coming back to put an end to the revolution and bring back the king.”
Amina worked in the underground resistance in Port Said after the Anglo-French invasion. The poorest areas of the port city were devastated by the attack. They were also the heart of the resistance.
Amina said, “There was an area called Al-Manakh which bore the brunt of the assault. The paratroopers were dropped on that area. It was an old, poor area of the town.” Port Said was dominated by the Suez Canal Company.
“There was the ‘Foreigners’ Quarter’ which was for the top people,” Amina said, “and then there was the ‘Arab Quarter’. Part of the Foreigners’ Quarter was hit, but not as badly as the Arab area where ordinary people lived.
“There was almost nothing left standing. When I arrived there were dead animals everywhere—cows, sheep, chickens and pigs.”
British paratroops called Al-Manakh “Wog Town”. But they were taken aback by the ferocity of the resistance. Hundreds of bodies of local people of all ages and both sexes were buried in bulldozed mass graves. Even a Coca-Cola lorry was pressed into service as a hearse.
Amina was smuggled into the city by fishermen. She will never forget the heroism of local people.
She said, “Women played a magnificent role in Port Said, particularly in smuggling weapons. There was one woman called Umm al-Daw, who was the mother of someone working in the resistance.
“She was a big, fat lady, and didn’t move much from her chair. Once the English came in to search the house and she hid all the guns underneath her dress. The women were right in the thick of things. It was their children and their relatives who were dying so they were part of the resistance.”
At night Amina listened to the radio, turning the news of the international anti-war movement into leaflets.
She said, “I used to write about who was supporting us abroad, who had heard of us abroad, about the demonstrations outside Egypt. We were trying to encourage people, to tell them to be steadfast. People were exhausted and supplies were running out, so we were trying to keep their spirits up.”
Leila also remembers the impact of demonstrations against the invasion in France and Britain.
“We knew when demonstrations took place in London against the invasion and against Eden,” said Leila.
“Of course they didn’t have satellite TV in those days, but we read about them in Le Monde newspaper. The antiwar protests showed the Egyptian people that they weren’t fighting alone.”
Eden thought that the Egyptian people would cheer the invaders for ridding them of Nasser’s dictatorship. The resistance in Port Said proved him wrong. Meanwhile, protests in solidarity with Egypt were setting the Middle East ablaze, turning Nasser into a hero of the Arab world.
When the superpowers stepped in to condemn the invasion and the price of sterling collapsed, it was the final straw. Eden was forced out of power and British and French troops withdrew a few months later.
Anne Alexander’s book, Nasser, His Life and Times, published by Haus at £9.99, is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or visit the website