The current crisis in the Suez Canal almost relays a sense of comical novelty, as our sophisticated system of global commodity chains and just-in-time delivery has been disrupted by one extremely poorly placed ship.

The Japanese owned container ship, named the Ever Given, got stuck on March 23rd in the Suez Canal, wedged horizontally at a roughly 45-degree angle. Potentially caused by unusual weather which saw high winds and a sandstorm that reduced visibility, the single ship has posed a significant, albeit temporary challenge to international shipping. Hundreds of ships have been stopped at both ends of the canal, and approaching ships have been forced to redirect themselves around the African Cape, adding weeks to their journey and potentially exposing themselves to maritime piracy. According to estimates from the International Chamber of Shipping, around $3 billion dollars in trade pass through the Suez every day. The waterway is also crucial for western oil supplies, as between 5% and 10% of the world’s seaborne oil transits through the canal yearly. Its effect on global hydrocarbon prices has already become pronounced with the price of crude oil rising, and world container shipping rates are likely to increase, potentially increasing passing costs to consumers due to added transport costs.  The ship struggled to be moved by a variety of methods, and although experts initially warned could take weeks depending on efficacy and tidal conditions, it appears the ship has just today been partially refloated (meaning traffic through the Suez will soon commence). On a more symbolic level, the ship represents an almost archaic challenge to our sophisticated system of global supply chains.

However, one must remember that this is by no means the first Suez Crisis, and evokes memories of one which transpired into an major international military conflict, one which is considered the last dying breath of European imperialism. The 1956 conflict is known by many names, the Tripartite conflict, the Sinai War, or the Second Arab-Israeli War depending on who is asked. Egypt at the time was ruled by Gamal Abdel Nasser, the controversial and charismatic Prime Minister and then President who was a key figure in the 1952 coup d’état against former King Farouk I.   Nasser was an ardent Egyptian nationalist and anti-imperialist, who later in his life became a hugely significant figure in both Pan-Arab as well as Arab socialist ideology.  Nasser had grown frustrated by the US and UK’s decision to cut proposed funding for the Aswan High Dam, a project that was crucial to Nasser’s vision of a modernized Egypt.   Nasser decided to nationalize the Suez Canal Company, which was immensely popular domestically given the context of growing disillusion with British and French imperialism. He hoped to use the revenue from tolls on shipping to provide enough revenue to build the Aswan Dam without foreign financing. As long as Nasser paid off the shareholders of the Suez Canal, his nationalization was technically legal under international law.

Nasser amongst supporters

Despite this, Nasser’s decision led to panic and agitation in both France and Britain, who feared that Nasser’s control over the canal would amount to a hand around the windpipe of Europe, as the canal was crucial for European petroleum supplies from the Middle East. Both Britain and France were still recovering economically from the devastation of WWII, but still retained an imperialist attitude despite their much-reduced global power and limited ability for force projection. Britain and France found a ready ally in the nascent state of Israel, who wanted to open the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping and was troubled by Egypt’s growing regional power and influence. These three countries secretly colluded to retake the canal without the knowledge of the USA, and in October 29, 1956 Israeli troops invaded Egypt, swiftly beating back Egyptian resistance. Britain and France demanded that troops from both sides’ withdraw from the canal, and then began a military operation under the auspices of protecting international shipping.  Britain and France were seemingly simply protecting the integrity of international shipping from a regional conflict, despite their secret collusion with Israel and desire to depose Nasser. This pretext did not prevent the emergence of a full-blown diplomatic crisis, as there was a temporary breakdown of normally very cooperative Anglo-American relations. President Eisenhower feared that Nasser might appeal to the USSR for military assistance, which would potentially force US involvement given the ongoing Cold War. Eisenhower was also personally shocked and offended at the decision by Britain and France to attack without the support of the USA, an unprecedented event given the nations close ties in WWII . The US foreign policy establishment felt that Britain’s Prime Minister Anthony Eden had not fully explored diplomatic avenues, and considered his secret planning to be somewhat of a betrayal of the US. Although Soviet involvement in Egypt was constrained by the pro-democracy uprising in Hungary, Britain and France’s condemnation of the USSR’s repressive actions in Hungary fell flat when they themselves were pursuing an unnecessary act of imperialism. This led the US and the Soviet Union to both call for an immediate end to hostilities in Egypt in the United Nations. The United States’ public censure of its two most important allies was a massive disruption of the Atlantic alliance, and was crucial in the mounting international pressure against Britain and France.

Egyptians crowding around a British tank

There was also considerable disillusion with the conflict in Britain and even among its commanders, as the head of the Royal Navy, Admiral Lord Mountbatten, fretted about an exit strategy and warned Prime Minister Eden against the conflict. Although militarily Britain, France, and Israel were dominant against the relatively poorly equipped Egyptian army, it was international factors that spelled the end of the conflict. The heavy international pressure from the US and UN caused Britain and France to agree to a ceasefire on November 6.  This was hugely symbolic moment in history, one that affirmed the US as the world’s hegemonic power while simultaneously demonstrating the limits of Britain and France’s ability for imperialist force projection. Britain’s status among its allies in the Middle East was much reduced, especially in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, paving the way for future US dominance in the region. Anthony Eden’s political career was ruined, and he resigned in 1957 after accusations of misleading parliament about the conflict. Franco-American relations were also significantly damaged, a major factor that arguably was part of President de Gaulle’s 1966 choice to withdraw from the military integration of NATO. Israel did gain access to the Straights of Tiran, and the Israeli Defense Force gained significant confidence in their combat abilities. Although Egypt was defeated militarily, they regained control of the canal, and the conflict gave Nasser popular legitimacy as an anti-imperialist throughout the Arab world.  

The current crisis in the Suez is a temporary one and will likely continue to create internet jokes as well as temporarily frustrated international trade and shipping companies. However, one should be mindful of the historic conflict that even potential closure of the canal has caused, and how it has shaped not only the region, but the global balance of power.  Perhaps Nasser would offer a laugh if he knew how important the Suez still is.

Sources

https://www.ft.com/content/87cb4674-6db7-41cf-a82e-44b83eaa436c

https://www.adn.com/nation-world/2021/03/26/maritime-traffic-jam-grows-outside-blocked-suez-canal/

https://2001-2009.state.gov/r/pa/ho/time/lw/97179.htm

https://history.state.gov/milestones/1953-1960/suez

Filipink, Richard M. “‘Force Is the Last Method’: Eisenhower, Dulles and American Intervention in the Suez Crisis.” Critique (Glasgow) 35, no. 2 (2007): 173-88.

https://muse.jhu.edu/article/668536

https://www.cfr.org/event/hungary-suez-crisis-fifty-years-suez-crisis-session-1

Israeli, Ofer. “Twilight of Colonialism: Mossadegh And the Suez Crisis.” Middle East Policy 20, no. 1 (2013): 147-56.

Blood and Sand: Suez, Hungary and the Crisis That Shook the World’, by Alex Von Tunzelmann

https://www.cnbc.com/2021/03/26/ship-blocking-suez-canal-is-beginning-to-affect-the-global-economy.html

https://time.com/5950030/suez-canal-boat-stuck-cost-billions/

https://www.ft.com/content/7afcdae6-b116-424f-bd1c-08e6bbdf6b77

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