Mappa Sinai, 1956, U.S. Army


The first builder of a canal able to connect the Mediterranean with the Red Sea was Darius I, a Persian emperor who lived around 500 BC. He built a waterway that connected the Nile to Amers Lake and this was connected with the Red Sea. Queen Cleopatra, who intended to use it to transfer her imposing fleet from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea after the defeat of Actium against Octavian, found it largely unnavigable. The canal fell completely out of use.

Napoleon Bonaparte, after the conquest of Egypt in 1799, commissioned his engineers to verify the possibility of building a canal through the isthmus of Suez. Incorrect calculations made the project abandon. Luigi Negrelli, an engineer of Trento (Italy), prepared a project for the construction of the canal that was adopted by the French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps. He obtained a 99-year concession from the Khedive of Egypt for the construction and ownership of the canal. The Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez, whose shareholders were the Egyptian government and French private, founded by the same de Lesseps, took care of the construction of the waterway.

The construction, begun in 1859, ended in 1869. The inauguration was done with great pomp; it saw the participation of the French empress Eugenia de Montijo, consort of Napoleon III. The Khedivè commissioned Giuseppe Verdi to compose a sing opera at the ceremony. The composer directed the premiere of Aida two years after the inauguration, in the Cairo Opera House, on December 24, 1871. In 1875 the Egyptian government, in order to cope with its public debt, was forced to sell its quota of ownership in the Canal Company. The quota was bought from England that became the main shareholder of the company, ensuring, together with France, the control of the waterway. In this way he facilitated the connections between India, which was part of his empire, and Great Britain.

During the First World War Germany, aware of the strategic importance of the waterway of connection through the isthmus of Suez, used by British civil and military ships, tried, in vain, the conquest of the canal, with the intervention of the army of the empire Ottoman, its ally, led by the German general von Kressenstein. During the Second World War Erwin Rommel, the German general known as the desert fox, tried to block the waterway, without success.

In the early fifties the figure of Nasser was established in Egypt. He had participated in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 as an officer, where he had witnessed the poor military preparation of the Egyptian army. He was of republican ideas, adhered to the secret association of “Free Officials”. In 1952, supported by the army, he expelled King Faruq, becoming the first president of the Egyptian Republic.

The construction of the Aswan dam was vital for the economic development of Egypt. It was a mighty work to which the United States had promised to participate financially. Because of Nasser’s approach to the USSR, the Americans withdrew their willingness to intervene in the construction of the dam. In 1956 Nasser, to find funds replacing the American ones, nationalized the Suez Canal that could have contributed with the tolls paid by the ships that crossed it. The Canal had lost some of the importance it represented for the United Kingdom as India had, in the meantime, become independent. In those years, however, the nascent trade in oil products between the Middle East and Europe had given the Canal new economic vitality.

The construction of the port of Eilat by Israel constituted the only access of that country on the Red Sea. Eilat was located over the Strait of Tiran, a straight spit of sea controlled by Egypt. Egypt prevented free access to merchant ships headed for that port. After a few years of fighting between the military of the two countries, resulting from the difficulty of a free landing in Eilat and the encroachment of small armed groups of Palestinian Fedayn in Israeli territory, the hawk Moshe Dayan, head of the armed forces with the star of David, had the upper hand on the doves of his country. The desire of Moshe Dayan to put an end to the Palestinian raids who had their base in the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza found allies France and England who had badly suffered the coup d’état of Egypt on the Canal Company.

France and England, not resigned to the loss of ownership of the Canal Company, encouraged Israel to attack Egypt to seize control of the Sinai and the Gaza Strip, resolving the problem of the Fedayn invasions and free movement in Strict of Tiran. In 1956, with the secret agreements of Sevres among Israel, France and the United Kingdom, the armed intervention of the Jewish country against Egypt was agreed. The armed forces of France and the United Kingdom would intervene immediately in support of Israel.

The clear objective of the two European countries was to regain control of the Canal, which was about to become a strategic passage for oil tankers coming from the Arabic peninsula, headed for Europe. The second objective was to limit the growing influence of the Soviet Union in the region and to downsize the figure of Nasser who aspired to become the reference point of all Arab countries.

Moshe Dayan moved his troops on October 29, 1956. The Israeli military invaded the Gaza strip to the north, and the peninsula of Sinai by crossing the Negev desert with their armored means. The French and the British officially offered to Egypt for a massive military intervention with the declared intention of separating the forces in the field and protecting the Canal. In reality everything was already agreed with the Israelis on the basis of Sevres secret agreements. Nasser, aware of the trap set off in order to recover the Canal, refused the aid. France and England, despite the Egyptian refusal, decide to intervene with the excuse of keeping the waterway open to navigation.

England had three aircraft carriers and two helicopter carriers available in the sea in front of Egypt. Numerous air forces were deployed by RAF and French in Cyprus and Malta. Furthermore, France had two aircraft carriers near to the Egyptian coasts. On 31 October the Franco-English attack began with the naval bombing of Porto Said. Nasser had 40 ships loaded with cement sinking into the Channel as a retaliation, blocking its navigation. On November 5th, Englishmen invaded the Porto Said airport, providing a safe base for troop transport aircraft. The following day the troops disembarked on the beaches around the city, protected by a shelling bombing from ships. 425 British soldiers, transported by helicopters, began the invasion of the city of Porto Said.

The Egyptian reaction was fast and perhaps unexpected. The Arab military, assisted by the civilian population, fought house by house slowing down the Franco-English invasion. There were numerous victims among the Arab defenders and among the attacking forces. However, the Franco-English operation was successful. The European military succeeded in constituting an effective bridgehead on the Canal.

The military intervention against the Egyptians, carried out by the Israelis and the Franco-English alliance, did not find international consensus. The United States was facing the Hungarian crisis, where Soviet tanks had invaded the small country to bring back its political action under the control of the Soviet bloc. The Americans had vividly protested about the invasion. But the situation that was taking place in Egypt, with the Israeli occupation of Sinai and with the French-British military intervention, removed credibility from the United States grievances against the invasion of Hungary.

The Soviet Union, allied to Nasser and with widespread interests in the Arab world reacted vigorously, threatening France and the United Kingdom to use every kind of weapon, with the implication not to exclude the nuclear ones, to attack the European states involved in the operation Suez, if they had not given up the military occupation of part of Egypt.

Fearing a catastrophic enlargement of the conflict, the United States intervened against France and England to withdraw their troops. US President Eisenhower did not hesitate to threaten the United Kingdom to act on the financial situation of the pound sterling, causing it to collapse in value. The British Prime Minister Eden, also criticized by major Commonwealth countries: India, Australia and Canada, was forced to resign. Canadian Foreign Minister Lester Pearson proposed to the United Nations Assembly to send a peacekeeping force interposing between the belligerents and taking control of the Suez Canal. It was the first operation of “Peacekeeping” of the United Nations, which succeeded in trying to stop the fire.

Nasser emerging from a military defeat, could boast a great political victory that determined the withdrawal of France and England from the conflict and the retreat of the Israelis in their original borders. Nasser became the first personality of the Arab world, taking further steps in his policy of creating a united Arab nation (pan-Arabism), even if the same did not have the expected developments. France and England had to verify that their military power had no outlets beyond NATO’s Atlantic alliance. The United States and the Soviet Union were credited as the real two world superpowers with which all countries had to confront each other. The Suez crisis also marked the beginning of the decline of the British Empire and Commonwealth.

The expulsion from Egypt of a large part of western residents in that country was a further consequence of this war. Many of the fifty thousand Italian residents of Alexandria and Cairo returned to Italy after the Second World War and after the Suez conflict. A large number of Egyptian Jews, who considered themselves westernized like European residents, were expelled from the country.

At June 5 until 10, 1967, the six-day war which broke out among Israel and Egypt, Jordan and Syria again led to the conquest of Sinai by Israeli forces. The battle in the passes of Gidda and Mitla, previously occupied by Israeli forces, prevented the Egyptian army, retreating towards the Suez Canal, to continue. The Egyptian military suffered heavy losses. On June 8, Nasser accepted the cease-fire imposed by the UN to avoid a new Israeli occupation of the Canal. This second defeat determined, for Egypt, the definitive loss of the Gaza strip and the occupation of Sinai in favor of Israel. The Sinai Peninsula returned to Egypt only in 1978 following the Camp David Accords.

(Image at the top: Mappa Sinai 1956 U.S. Army)