Race Matters

More than a viral story: the people's struggle for the Suez Canal

When the Suez Canal was blocked last month, it became a viral news story. But Mohja Amer noticed a lack of acknowledgment of the canal's colonial history. 

 

After learning of joint French and British plans to invade Egypt in 1956, Anthony Nutting, Britain’s then-minister for foreign affairs, titled his book on the Suez Canal Crisis No End of a Lesson: The Story of Suez. Originally, Rudyard Kipling penned this famous phrase in his 1901 poem The Lesson, in reference to The Second Boer War (1899-1902); but this premise of, if nothing else, learning from imperial ventures was eminently still relevant over half a century later.

It’s just a shame, and a notable failing, that so many of us have learnt so little, about so much. Unfortunately the current discursive climate is hostile to anyone who dares to suggest, however gently, that as a society we face our history squarely – especially in the realm of the curriculum. But by totally omitting certain histories from the mainstream, not only do we shortchange huge swathes of the global population, but we rob ourselves of much crucial understanding also. Having written my undergraduate dissertation on the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956, last month’s blockage of the canal by the Ever Given ship, and the widespread coverage that surrounded the debacle, made it patently obvious how accustomed we are to relegating the ‘Global South’ to the background of our narratives. If we revisit the original crisis in a more holistic and less self-absorbed way, it’s as clear as it is damning how much context the coverage has missed. 

During the blockage of the canal, which began on 24 March, a quick glance at Google trends data from that week shows us that web users in the UK were steadily searching ‘what is the Suez Canal’ and ‘where is the Suez Canal’. Of course, even the most well-versed of observers are partial to a quick google search when a particular topic worms its way into the news cycle, but, the influx of basic queries in this case is particularly telling, in light of how myopic the vast majority of coverage was. 

With the notable exception of Joel Beinin’s recent, and much welcome, piece for Tribune Magazine, even the most basic of background information about the canal was, if not fleetingly cited, totally absent. When the only mention of the Suez Canal outside of its very literal function as a facilitator of trade comes from a professor of Middle Eastern history, it’s disappointingly evident how little public understanding there is of historical struggles against colonialism and exploitation. Commentators’ lack of education meant that a truly formative world event was left to lurk behind the more digestible, even light-hearted, tale of a boat stuck in some water. 

In 1854, Ferdinand de Lesseps, the former French consul to Cairo, secured an agreement to build a canal across the Isthmus of Suez. Construction began in 1859, but, before European workers with dredges and steam shovels arrived, the initial digging was done by hand - by Egyptian peasants who were forced to live in overcrowded camps in exchange for minimal shelter and pay. Estimates differ slightly, but around 100,000 Egyptians died over the course of the construction process. Some because of physical exhaustion, some because of starvation, and many as a result of a cholera outbreak in 1865. 

In 1882, Egypt was invaded by the British, setting in motion a period of military occupation that lasted formally until 1936 - and a rule by proxy that extended well into the latter half of the twentieth century. As late as 1952, in the words of a foreign office memorandum, politicians in London were anxious to confront “The Problem of Nationalism” and specifically those “nationalists sapping at our position as a world power”. This was the same year that a coup d’etat and popular revolution overthrew King Farouk, but, curiously, exactly 30 years after Egypt was declared unilaterally independent. 

The ‘people’s pharoah’ Gamal Abdel Nasser led this effort, and served as the second President of Egypt from 1954 until his death in 1970. It was this larger than life figure – a figure still recalled fondly by many Egyptians today – who nationalised the Suez Canal on the 26th July 1956. His era was characterised by a distinctly socialist imaginary, and by staunchly anti-imperialist aims. In his speech delivered on that day in Alexandria, Nasser – in his characteristically colloquial and humorous style – made the observation that Eugene Black, the World Bank president at the time, reminded him of Ferdinand de Lesseps. He stresses the surname particularly, but his peculiar reference was in fact a coded signal for Egyptians to launch the attack that reclaimed the canal, in his words, “on behalf of the Egyptian people”. 

A colloquial poem that appeared in the ‘Al-Masa (The Evening)’ newspaper on 9th November 1956, entitled ‘That’s It, I’m Off to the Battlefield’, is indicative of the deep ideological resonance of this endeavour. Written by a carpenter Hamid al-Atmas, it celebrated the worker as a soldier, ready and willing to face the British and French troops who had landed in Port Said. He would, alongside other labourers and craftsmen, “put down his tools”, for this was a “people’s struggle” – a point made no less subtly by the semantic field pressed into service. His vocabulary pivots around that of “shop, home and street”, and would be matched in tone by the first eighteen colloquial poems to appear in the newspaper, from November 1956 through early March 1957, that too highlighted the heroism of the Port Said residents. 

Generally, the Suez Crisis, even when discussed, is rather conveniently characterised above all else as an embarrassing diplomatic blunder. Anthony Nutting’s resignation was indeed a humiliation on the world stage – but, this is not the valuable concession that it seems to be. 

We must resist the temptation to foreground ‘the West’, or to detail global events in a way that privileges the perspectives of certain, implicitly more important, peoples and societies over others. With Suez, doing so has obscured its place at the heart of both Cold War politics – whereby influence over Egypt and its resources was vyed for by both the communist and capitalist camps – and its fraught decolonisation efforts, by choosing to focus on the lamentations of the imperial ‘motherland’ instead of the real revolutionary spirit of those fighting for true self-determination. 

This has consistently overlooked how significant the distinctly anti-capitalist flavour of the Egyptian sphere was – contributing in turn to the stubborn Eurocentrism of this ideology, that remains dominated by the failure of Stalinism in the Soviet Union, and the eventual collapse of the USSR. For people grappling with the ideological effects and material consequences of colonial rule however – these concepts, of popular mobilisation and economic redistribution, were notably influential. 

Clearly then, there is so much that Suez can teach us  – even if this lesson perhaps did not extend to the practicalities of dislodging a ship. As is so often the case however, the full lesson will only be learnt by telling the whole story, and by reflecting on the very real consequences of only exploring those bits of Suez, and indeed of any so-called crisis, that bring us comfort or reaffirm a worldview that is skewed in our favour. 

 

Image by Photographic Heritage via Flickr

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