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Suez 'War': How Egypt Torpedoed Britain, France, Israel and Took Canal

July 20, 1986|WILLIAM C. MANN | Associated Press

ISMAILIYA, Egypt--Col. Mahmoud Younis, leader of 30 men who had just changed the world's political map, spent the night of July 26, 1956, asleep in his underwear on the floor of his new office.

As he slept, politicians and generals abroad huddled to assess what many of them deemed an outrage.

On the order of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Younis and his team had carried out Egypt's nationalization of the Suez Canal, wresting control from the British and French.

For the first time since it was built (1859-1869) by the French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps, the 100-mile waterway was now wholly in the hands of Egypt.

Britain became the largest shareholder in the canal in 1875, purchasing its interest from the Egyptian khedive. The Convention of Constantinople signed by the major European powers in 1888 declared the canal a neutral waterway to remain open to all nations in time of peace or war. Britain became the guarantor of the canal's neutrality and management was left to the Paris-based Suez Canal Co.

After nationalization, a broad consensus in the West was that the Egyptians were incapable of running such a vital waterway and that Nasser could not be trusted to keep it open for free passage.

Chief among the skeptics was Sir Anthony Eden, the British prime minister, who told his colleagues: "The Egyptian has his thumb on our windpipe."

Early on the morning of July 27, Eden urged President Dwight D. Eisenhower to commit the United States to the fight to remove the thumb.

"Apart from the Egyptians' complete lack of technical qualifications," Eden cabled the President, "their past behavior gives no confidence that they can be trusted to manage it with any sense of international obligation."

But Eisenhower held back. Eden, already incensed over Nasser's Arab nationalist views, was forced to turn to France and Israel for the military operation that the Egyptians still call the Tripartite Aggression.

The adventure ended in disgrace for Britain and France, when both the United States and the Soviet Union voted for a United Nations resolution demanding withdrawal.

Many historians agree that the Suez crisis brought an end to Eden's political career, to Britain's role as a world policeman east of Suez, and to the downfall two years later of France's Fourth Republic.

But 30 years after nationalization, the Suez Canal works efficiently.

Even during a recession in shipping caused by the global oil glut, the "big ditch" is pumping around $900 million a year into Egypt's ailing economy, averaging 65 passages a day.

Operation Flawless

In May, the world's largest merchant ship, the 555,000-ton Greek-owned Hellas Fos, steamed in ballast through the canal for the first time. Capt. Aly Nasr, the canal's deputy director of transit, said the operation was so flawless that the owners have promised regular passages.

Plans are under way to send through a huge self-propelled Norwegian oil exploration rig in the fall, the first transit for such a vessel, which will bring in roughly $650,000, a record for a single transit.

In 1955, the last full year of operation by the Suez Canal Co., 108 million tons of oil and general cargo transited the canal. The figure for 1983, the last year before oil shipments declined due to the oil glut, was 378 million tons, and the current pace remains around 370 million tons. The increase is due largely to a $1.2-billion canal-improvement project that lets it handle all but the largest supertankers.

A large part of the waterway's success is credited to Egypt's Suez Canal Authority. It is autonomous and unburdened by the bureaucracy and obstacles facing other public institutions in Egypt.

The Egyptians say the canal was in bad shape when Younis' team took it over and he became the first chairman of the Suez Canal Authority.

The French company's 99-year concession was to have expired in 12 years, but Nasr said a recent interview that the canal was "decaying one year after the other, so that at the time they were going to give it to the (Egyptian) government it would be a wreck."

He said Younis began thinking immediately of expanding the canal's services and income.

The canal authority saw the approaching supertanker market in 1966, decided on the need to refurbish the canal and began work on Feb. 22, 1967. But on June 5, the Six-Day War between the Arabs and Israelis broke out, and the wreckage of war forced the closing of the canal. The Israelis were in control of its eastern bank.

A U.S.-sponsored troop-disengagement agreement restored the canal to Egyptian operation in 1974, and a mainly U.S.-British salvage team spent the next 18 months clearing its channels of sunken vessels and other debris of the war.

The canal authority immediately went to work, promising to complete an improvement project in 1980.

On Dec. 16, 1980, it was done, almost exactly on budget. Previously restricted to ships of 60,000 tons loaded, the canal now could accommodate supertankers of up to 150,000 tons loaded and 370,000 tons in ballast.

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