ON 18 JUNE 1956, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the head of the Egyptian government, attends a ceremony at Port Said to mark the withdrawal of British forces from the Suez Canal. The canal, which links the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea and is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, was inaugurated in 1869. It was constructed by a French company on land provided by Mohamed Sa’id, the viceroy of Egypt and Sudan under the Ottoman Empire.
Sa’id granted the company a lease to operate the canal for 99 years. He retained 44 percent of the company’s shares but, during a financial crisis in 1875, his nephew and successor, Isma’il, sold this stake to the British government. The following year, an Anglo-French commission appointed to manage Egyptian finances mandated that Isma’il sell off his right to 15 percent of the canal’s profits to a French bank. In 1882, following a nationalist uprising against Isma’il’s son Tewfik—who was seen as a European puppet—the British occupied Egypt. The Convention of Constantinople, signed by the Ottomans and several European states in 1888, established the canal as a neutral zone under British protection.
Nasser came to power following a military coup, in 1952. The presence of foreign troops was a major bone of contention for Egyptian nationalists, who launched a number of fidayeen attacks on British bases along the canal. In 1954, Nasser’s government negotiated an agreement that included the withdrawal of all British soldiers. After the World Bank denied funding for the construction of the Aswan Dam, in July 1956, Nasser announced the nationalisation of the Suez Canal—with the canal’s revenues to be used to build the dam. British, French and Israeli troops invaded in October but, following political pressure from the United States and the Soviet Union, the canal was returned to Egypt.