Sixty years ago, the world’s attention focused on one single canal in the Middle East. What happened there continues to impact the world, today.
The Suez Canal in Egypt was completed by the French in 1869. It connected the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and was designed to replace the long journey that shipping had to take around Africa. The famous waterway was operated and maintained by the France-based Suez Canal Company, with Britain as the controlling shareholder, and took on great strategic importance to all who used it.
Britain saw the canal as an “imperial lifeline” to her far-flung empire and stationed a large number of troops to protect the canal from 1882 onwards. The canal took on even greater importance because of Middle East oil—by 1955 about two-thirds of Europe’s oil passed through the canal. However, in 1956 a huge crisis of ownership occurred after Egypt took control of the canal and all British troops left the country.
Today in this 60th anniversary year of the Suez crisis, let’s briefly remind ourselves why it took place, and the huge impact it had over the following years. And from a spiritual perspective, where is God in such geopolitical events?
In 1952, Gamal Abdel Nasser seized power in Egypt. He wanted all British troops off Egyptian soil, so a treaty was signed in July 1954 requiring all British troops to be gone by 1956. Nasser tried to play America against the Soviet Union for ongoing military and financial support. When America, unhappy with Nasser’s radical politics, declined to help finance the Aswan High Dam project, Nasser angrily responded by nationalizing the Suez Canal Company on July 26, 1956.
This led to great fears concerning the free flow of international shipping, especially that of Middle East oil to Europe. Israel was prevented from using the canal, and Britain’s links with its Empire nations also seemed to be threatened. The fact that Nasser was the foremost champion of Pan-Arab nationalism, a potent threat to Israel, and actively opposed to colonialism provided additional reasons for Britain, France and Israel to want to remove him from power and regain control of the canal. However, as they proceeded, they ignored American advice, failed to inform the U.S. government, and fatally misjudged world opinion.
Britain, France and Israel’s secretly planned invasion began on October 29, with Israel taking over Sinai. But a little over a week later, the war was halted due to heavy American political and economic pressure, and international diplomacy through the United Nations. France and Britain were therefore prevented from achieving their objectives. Nasser emerged victorious, regaining control over the Suez Canal and eventually all territory lost in the war. France and Britain were humiliated, though Israel benefitted in one sense, being more prepared for its next war with Egypt eleven years later.
Why did America fail to support some of its most valued allies?
The war over Suez had fallen into the shadow of the 40-year-long Cold War between America and the Soviet Union. 1956 was a challenging year in which first Poland and then Hungary challenged Russia’s oppressive rule. Although the Polish situation temporarily stabilized, the Hungarian uprising led to brutal and bloody repression, which happened, crucially, at the same time as the Suez crisis.
America feared that French, British and Israeli intervention in Egypt would offend Arab and Muslim opinion and destabilize the Middle East. Arab nations might be driven towards Russia and open the door to greater Soviet influence in the region. At the same time, Russia threatened to launch rocket attacks against Britain, France and Israel, with Khrushchev publicly threatening to go to war in defense of Egypt, giving rise to very real fears that the conflict could escalate into World War III.
Coincidentally, Eisenhower was up for re-election on November 6 and needed to be sensitive to U.S. domestic opinion. So, even though Britain and France were important NATO allies, America saw the way ahead as demanding an instant halt to hostilities. There wasn’t much that could be done to help Hungary. The canal was closed for five months until March 1957 and then reopened to all traffic.
The ramifications of these events for many nations were significant.
The Suez crisis signaled the end of Britain’s role as a world power. The disintegration of Britain’s declining Empire was hastened. The Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, was crushed; his health collapsed, and he resigned from office. Britain could only survive with American economic intervention and approval; their newly subservient “special relationship” was rapidly rebuilt under the McMillan premiership.
West Germany was furious with the U.S. for its failure to intervene in Hungary against Russia, while at the same time working with Russia against her Western allies in Egypt. The NATO alliance was thereby weakened and divided. France felt betrayed by her unreliable allies and progressively detached herself from NATO to develop her own nuclear capability. The experience likely influenced the adoption of the Treaty of Rome in 1957, which was intended to encourage greater European self-reliance. Arab nations felt emboldened to stand up to “big nation” bullying, as did aspiring nations seeking to emerge from the rule of their colonial masters. America lost influence in the Middle East while the Soviet Union gained.
Over time the importance of the Suez Canal has diminished somewhat, though it remains a crucial chokepoint. The largest modern oil tankers are too big for the canal, making the passage around Africa preferable for some. Britain was eventually blessed with North Sea oil. Nasser passed into history, and his dream of becoming a Pan-Arab leader never materialized. America won the Cold War and became the world’s only superpower.
All this illustrates a simple, overarching spiritual point. Despite all the dynamic, ever-changing relationships among nations on the international stage—with all their military, economic, ideological and diplomatic complexities and intrigues—it is God who remains supreme. He is the one who exalts nations and brings down nations to accomplish His purposes and to fulfill biblical prophecy.
Anciently, mighty King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had to learn the hard way “that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomever He chooses” (Daniel 4:25). God is all powerful and His will and purpose will prevail: “I am God, and there is no other; I am God and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure’” (Isaiah 46:9–10).
In today’s chaotic and fast-moving world in which God is progressively marginalized and ignored and His will is neglected, it would be wise to remember this vital, all-encompassing lesson.
Keep reading Tomorrow’s World magazine as we continue to bring you a deeper understanding of the progression of world events as seen through the prism of biblical prophecy—God’s inviolable will and purpose. “Indeed I have spoken it; I will also bring it to pass. I have purposed it; I will also do it” (Isaiah 46:11).