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Suez Canal crisis- Past to Present

  • 29 March, 2021

  • 5 Min Read

Suez Canal crisis- Past to Present


  • 1967 closure: The last time the Suez Canal was closed for navigation was in 1967, after the Six-Day War between Israel and Arab nations broke out.
  • 1956 war: Prior to that, the channel had been shut for less than a year during the Suez War of 1956 when Israel, France and Britain invaded Egypt.
  • 2021 closure: What wars did in the past was done by a container ship now. M.V. Ever Given (Taiwanese merchant vessel) got stuck in a dust storm and strong winds on March 23 and ran aground in the channel blocking off traffic.

About Suez Canal

  • The 193-km-long canal across Egypt’s Isthmus of Suez connecting the Mediterranean Sea in the north and the Red Sea in south — thereby bringing the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean closer — has been a critical artery for global trade since the mid-19th century.
  • If the channel is blocked, ships from Europe will have to sail around the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa to reach Asia, and vice versa.
  • Unsurprisingly, this single incident has turned the global spotlight to this man-made channel connecting two continents.

Idea of the canal

  • The idea of linking the Mediterranean Sea to the Erythraean Sea (today’s Red Sea) had excited both Egypt’s rulers and colonisers from ancient to modern times.
  • Pharaoh’s role
    • Pharaoh Senausret III (1887-1849 BC) built the first canal linking the Erythraean Sea in the south to the Nile river in the north and thereby opening a waterway to the Mediterranean.
    • Pharaoh Necho II, who died in 595 BC, started building another canal from the Nile to the south.
  • Role of Persian Empire
    • It was Persian Emperor Darius I who completed the canal.
    • Over the centuries, the canal would be ignored by leaders particularly as navigation becomes impossible due to silt and reopened by some, including Ptolemy II Philadelphus in second century BC.
    • Many geologists believe that the Red Sea receded over the centuries and its coastline moved southward away from the lakes in Suez. This, coupled with persistent accumulations of silt, made it difficult to keep the waterways open.
  • Role of Napoleon
    • So for centuries, the canal was abandoned by Egypt’s rulers — until the arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte.
    • Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798 as part of his global campaign to weaken the British Empire.
    • He wanted to build a canal across Suez under the French control because he thought it would leave a twin blow to the British.
    • One, it would provide the French a quicker and easier access to the Indian Ocean.
    • Two, by opening a new trade route from Europe to Asia, France could hurt the British who controlled the existing route around the Cape of Good Hope.
      • But a miscalculation in the geological study of the region prompted Napoleon to abandon the project.
    • Napoleon gave up the project but the idea of the Suez canal outlived the emperor.
  • Role of Ottoman Empire
    • In the mid-19th century, French diplomat and engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps won permission from Egypt’s Ottoman-appointed ruler Said Pasha to start building the canal.
    • In 1858, Universal Suez Ship Canal Company was formed to execute the project and construction work began a year later. Britain, which controlled the route around the African continent, continued to oppose the project as a new waterway would hurt its interests.
    • But in 1869, the canal was officially opened for traffic.
  • Role of Britain
    • Britain would move from being an adversary of the project to a key beneficiary in six years when the Egyptian government, straddled with financial problems, sold its stake in the canal to London in 1875.
    • Since then, France and Britain operated the canal, until Egypt’s socialist President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised it in 1956.

The Suez crisis

  • Nationalisation of Suez
    • On October 29, 1956, three months after Nasser nationalised the canal, Israeli troops attacked the Egyptian Sinai.
    • French and British troops joined in later.
    • The plan was to retake control of the canal and remove Nasser, who was being emboldened by the Soviet support.
    • But the invasion did not go ahead as planned. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev threatened Israel, Britain and France with rocket attacks unless they withdrew troops from the Sinai.
  • Acceptance of Egypt’s authority
    • By March 1957, the invading troops were fully withdrawn and Egypt’s authority over the canal was recognised.
    • Interestingly, the Suez crisis also marked Great Britain’s dwindling influence in West Asia, a region it controlled since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and the arrival of the U.S. as the new great power in the region.
    • The canal was closed again during the 1967 war.
    • It would be reopened only in 1975 after Egyptian-Israeli relations started warming following the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
  • Canal Expansion plan by Egypt
    • Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who came to power through a coup in 2013, launched an ambitious $8.5-billion expansion project at the canal in 2014 as part of which a second line was dug along its northern section, allowing two-way traffic.
  • Importance of Suez canal to Egypt
    •  The canal is an important source of revenue for Egypt’s battered economy.
    • Last year, Egypt generated $5.61 billion in revenues from the canal and the authorities expect this to double by 2023.
    • About 19,000 ships passed through the channel in 2020 carrying 1.2 billion tonnes of cargo, according to the Suez Canal Authority.
    • As much as 13% of all maritime trade, from oil to automobiles, pass through the canal every year.
    • So a delay in reopening the channel will have a huge impact on export businesses, commodities, ship and cargo companies and even Egypt’s national economy.


Source: TH


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