Trouble in the Suez

FLN Female Bombers Jacques Massu
Women played a major role in the FLN’s campaigns. Fighting on the front lines as well as serving as infiltrators. Photo Credit: Jacques Massu (Memoirs).

As the partners of torture and humanitarian outreach continued their paradoxical waltz across Algeria, the ALN was beginning to lose ground. Abbane was worried. Though nominally enemies, the FLN had even been contacted through intermediaries by the Republican Front, who wanted to negotiate the end of the war now that they had an upper hand. Well aware that the FLN’s leadership in Cairo was open to at least talking, Abbane and the ALN doubled down on the conflict to even the scales. The result was a widespread offensive that targeted French civilians. While the incident had its gristly precedent in Philippeville, the scale and consistency was a horrible innovation on its own. In cities like Algiers, female ALN members would slip into European cafes to plant bombs. Small spasms of violence in the countryside also continued, providing a steady drip feed of terror and unease for the pieds-noirs. For the French and Mollet, the optics of these attacks were horrible. Even if the FLN was privately worried, publicly they seemed stronger than ever. Despairing, Mollet and his military advisers groped around for a harder and more traditional target.

The eyes of the French fell on Nasser and Egypt, and they weren’t alone. In his brief tenure leading the nation Gamal Abdul Nasser had already manage to not so much step on his neighbor’s toes, so much as vigorously whack them all with a large mallet. His not so secret support for the FLN had been complemented nicely by support for the Fedayeen, a clandestine Palestinian group battling the new nation of Israel in the ashes of their former homeland. As a result both David Ben-Gurion the Prime Minister, and Moshe Dayan the cyclopean Chief of Staff[1] regarded Nasser as a major concern. The British as well were furious with Nasser for nationalizing the Suez Canal as a way to fund his modernization of Egypt.[2] Taken together, the three forces colluded on a plan to defeat and politically humiliate Nasser known as the Suez Crisis.

Dayan_w_Kuntila_Raid_comm Israel photo archives
Dayan in the middle, with said eyepatch in 1955. Ariel Sharon would later say, “He would wake up with a hundred ideas. Of them 95 were dangerous. Three more had to be rejected. The remaining two, however, were brilliant.” Photo Credit: Israel Archives

The Crisis deserves its own full story for its rippling consequences, and the hilarious lack of foresight displayed by the conspirators themselves. The plan called for the Israelis to invade, Nasser to respond badly, and for British and French troops to then intervene as a “peacekeeping” force that would occupy the Suez Canal for a buffer zone. Nasser would lose the canal, lose face, and ideally lose his job.

At least initially the plan started well. On October 29th, 1956 Israeli paratroopers under the leadership of then Major Ariel Sharon[3] dropped into the Sinai and Gaza Strip. They quickly overran the Egyptian and Palestinian defenses.[4] The British and French were shocked, shocked(!) by the outburst, and immediately called for a brokered ceasefire. When the Egyptians refused, the allies struck hard on November 5th. The Egyptian air force was obliterated on its air strips and by nightfall on November 6th the gateway to the Canal at Port Said was occupied. Then the British received a phone call from the royally ticked off American President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Eisenhower was never fond of what he saw as old school European imperialism. Now that he was caught in a stare down with the Soviet Union, this sort of 19th Century adventure struck the President as the fastest way to send the Middle East racing into the open arms of the Soviets. The attack had also coincided with the USSR’s vicious crackdown on their wayward puppet state Hungary. Images of Soviet tanks in Budapest had to contrast next to those of western ones rolling around the Sinai. This invasion had to end, immediately, before it derailed American interests. As planes dropped their ordinance on Egyptian airfields, the United Nations met for the first time in an Emergency Session, bypassing French and British vetoes on the Security Council. On November 2nd, all but five countries, including the United States and the USSR, passed a resolution calling on an enforced ceasefire. Ironically the aggression of the victorious powers of World War II marked the first deployment of the “Blue Hat” UN peacekeepers.

1956_Suez_war_-_conquest_of_Sinai US Military Academy
A map of the campaign, with Israeli advances in blue, and paradrops in red. Photo Credit: U.S. Military Academy

If a cease-and-desist from the UN was too subtle, Eisenhower also grabbed the biggest economic stick he could find to hit the British. A threat to cut off all U.S. petrol directly, and all foreign aid loans through the International Monetary Fund triggered a near financial panic on its own. It was too much for the British, and as quickly as it had unfolded, the invasion collapsed. Under the watchful eyes of the bright blue berets, the British and French evacuated by December 22nd.

The whole adventure was a black eye for the British and French, and a clear warning shot that the old imperial era was over.[5] For the British, the lesson was taken to heart. The collapse of their own colonial holdings accelerated, and while later Prime Ministers like Margaret Thatcher would disparage what she called “Suez Syndrome”, the British would be forever wary of projecting military power without a sign off from the United States. However, for Mollet and the French, they took the inverse lesson to heart. The Americans and their European muppet “Perfidious Albion” could not be trusted to back them up. In response, West German Chancellor Conrad Adenauer sketched out another path for Mollet, “There remains to them only one way of playing a decisive role in the world: that is to unite Europe…We have no time to waste; Europe will be your revenge.”[6] The following year the European Coal and Steel Community was created, the foundation on which today’s European Union was laid. While that outcome has led to some positive developments for Europe today, in the short term the French were faced with a disaster of major proportions that would embolden the FLN to its most daring attacks thus far.

[1] Dayan lost his left eye to a Vichy Sniper during World War II. The bullet passed through the lens of his binoculars, wrecking his vision so thoroughly that glasses or reconstructive surgery were both out of the question.

[2] A move Nasser said was justified after the Americans and British refused to loan funds for the Aswan Dam on the Nile. Naturally neither this, nor Nasser’s view that the British had been meddling in Egypt for 70 years made him a beloved figure in Britain. The papers took to calling him “Grabber Nasser”.

[3] The later Prime Minister would be heavily criticized for his conduct in the Suez Crisis. Also responsible for a 1953 reprisal raid into Jordan that killed 69 civilians, Sharon launched at least one attack that was seen as costly and unnecessary during the Crisis.

[4] At least one massacre likely took place in Khan Yunis, as the IDF searched for the Fedayeen and other prominent figures in the community. It’s worth plugging the incredibly well drawn oral history Footnotes in Gaza by cartoonist Joe Sacco for anyone who wants to read the kind of tragedy that slips through the cracks of history.

[5] Which is not to say that political and military adventures and/or meddling was at an end. As anyone from the Allende administration in Chile would note, it was now just more a prerogative of the United States.

[6] The Economist. 2006. An affair to remember. Available at:


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