On June 23, 1956, Gamal Abdel Nasser became president of Egypt. The next month, he issued the decree to nationalize the Suez Canal. Under this law, Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal—that is, took over its ownership and operation, thus removing the canal from British (and to a lesser extent French) control. The Suez Canal links the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, the latter of which provides access to the Indian Ocean. The area surrounding the Suez Canal is the only land bridge connecting Africa and Asia. For nearly a century prior to nationalization, the canal had played a vital role in world commerce and in Britain’s ability to communicate with and defend its colonies in Asia. More recently, the canal has functioned as a pipeline for oil and other commodities.
Nasser’s decision to nationalize the canal was a critical move in the geopolitics of the 1950s, when European colonial empires were crumbling and the world was growing more dependent on oil. During this period the Arab states stood in opposition to the nascent state of Israel, tensions were increasing between Communist China and the Nationalist government of Taiwan, and the United States and its allies viewed the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc across an ideological divide. The nationalization of the canal sparked the Suez Crisis of 1956 and threatened peace throughout the world. In the years that followed, the nationalization of the Suez Canal would bolster Nasser’s position as leader of a pan-Arabist movement. It would also lay the foundation for his remilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula, which led to the Six-Day War with Israel in June 1967.
Read our complete coverage of Nasser’s decree, including in-depth analysis by scholar Michael J. O’Neal.