CAIRO â€” Fifty years ago, Egypt reclaimed control of the coveted Suez Canal, a momentous coup that heralded the heyday of pan-Arabism and sparked a war that sealed the decline of Europe’s colonial powers.
On July 26, Egypt will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, a strategically crucial waterway linking Europe and Sinai owned by British and French shareholders.
The announcement by Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had overthrown the British-backed monarchy four years earlier, remains a defining moment of the country and the region’s history.
“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,” Nasser said in a landmark speech in Alexandria.
The code word in his speech that gave a small group of his aides their marching orders to overrun the canal authority was “de Lesseps”, the name of the French diplomat considered the father of the canal inaugurated in 1869.
No blood was shed and Egypt officially reclaimed the canal, for whose construction an estimated 125,000 Egyptians perished in forced labour.
“Suez is not like any international passage. It’s an internal maritime passage” in Egypt, Adel Ezzat, one of the three men Abdel Nasser had tasked with seizing control of the canal, told AFP in an interview.
Nasser had decided to nationalise the canal when the United States and Britain withdrew a pledge to fund the construction of the Aswan High Dam on the Nile after Egypt started cosying up to the Soviet bloc.
Against the backdrop of the cold war, Nasser’s audacious decision to seize one of the world’s most crucial hubs in oil shipments ruffled the West, where Nasser was compared to Hitler.
“We can’t have that malicious swine sitting across our communications,” was Winston Churchill’s reaction. France was also eager to hit back at Nasser over his support to insurgents in Algeria while Israel wanted to ensure the passage of its ships through the canal and punish Egypt for its incursions.
After fruitless negotiations over the summer, Israel invaded the Gaza Strip and Sinai peninsula on October 29 while French and British planes started bombing Egypt two days later.
Nasser retaliated by sinking all 40 ships present at the time in the canal, which remained closed until early 1957. British and French troops seized control of the canal but the United States, keen to preserve its legitimacy when criticising the Soviet’s own intervention in Hungary, imposed a ceasefire and invading forces withdrew in March 1957.
The crisis resulted in the resignation of then British premier Anthony Eden and completed the demise of France and Britain as global powers to the benefit of Washington and Moscow.
It also consolidated Nasser’s prestige and made him arguably the most popular Arab leader of the 20th century.
Today the Suez Canal Authority employs 25,000 Egyptians and is a huge asset for the country, the third source of income for its economy after tourism and the remittances of expatriate workers.
With global oil consumption still rising and trade with China booming, revenues from Suez transit fees raked in by Egypt have climbed steadily to reach a record $3.4 billion in 2005.
The dream of parting the desert to link two parts of the globe is an old one and the first canal between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea was traced back to the 19th century BC.
It was abandoned, rebuilt and destroyed several times over the centuries until Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1799.
He sent a team to study the digging of a new canal but the French survey erroneously concluded that a lockless canal would be impossible and the project was dropped.
The construction of the canal was eventually undertaken by de Lesseps under Napoleon III and the inauguration took place amid lavish celebrations in 1869.
Festivities marking the 50th anniversary are expected to be more low-key, partly owing to the steep deterioration of the situation in the Middle East, a source close to the canal authority told AFP.