The Suez Canal is a strategic waterway crossing the isthmus of Suez in Egypt at the narrowest part of the Sinai Peninsula, and links the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. The completion of the canal eliminated the need to ships to travel around Africa in order to reach Asia and the East Indies from Europe.
The canal was built by the French Suez Canal Company (Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez). Ferdinand de Lesseps completed the canal in 1869 after nearly 11 years work.
Its strategic importance led to the British conquest of Egypt in 1882. The canal came under British protection after The Convention of Constantinople in 1888 as Egypt continued efforts to become independent from the British Empire. Egypt was emancipated by the British in 1922, but remained as a vassal state until after World War Two. Britain had retained a military force at Suez to secure and operate the canal under a 1935 treaty, but in 1951, facing intense internal pressure, the Egyptian King Farouk rescinded the treaty. Farouk was deposed the following year and after a period of instability replaced by Gamal Abdel Nasser. He demanded the full withdrawal of British troops, which began in 1954. The last British troops were removed on June 13, 1956.
In the early 1950s, Nassar sought funding for the Aswan High Dam, a project which would dam the Nile preventing damaging seasonal flooding, and provide hydroelectric power. Initially, the United States had agreed to fund it, but given the expulsion of British troops, the United States was pressured to withdraw support. In retaliation for the United States reneging on their pledge of support, Nassar nationalized the canal in 1956 following the withdrawal of British troops and planned to use funds generated by the canal to fund the dam. He further declared the canal closed to Israeli ships and cargo.
The British and French responded to this by secretly colluding with Israel to retake the canal by force. It was agreed that the Israelis would invade the Sinai Peninsula, giving a pretext for British and French forces to "intervene" and bring about a "peace plan" that would require them to assume control of the canal, nominally as a buffer zone between Egyptian and Israeli forces. The plan failed when the United States, whom the United Kingdom was increasingly depend upon militarily but had intentionally kept in the dark about her plans, reacted furiously once the conflict began. Fearful of an escalation of the conflict involving the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, and angry that other NATO members had conspired against NATO interests, the US demanded an immediate withdrawal, and led to the first United Nations peacekeeping force to be deployed to the Sinai, resulting in the withdrawal of Israeli troops back to prewar borders, and the exit of the British and French forces from the theater. Britain and France, who had vetoed two UNSC resolutions agreed to withdraw within one week only after President Eisenhower threatened to dump US reserves of the British pound and French franc, which would have ruined the fragile post-war economies of Britain and France.
During the conlifct the canal was blocked by vessels scuppered by Egyptian forces. It reopened in 1957, still nationalised, and with relations between Egypt and west effectively in deep freeze. The Soviet Union designed, funded and oversaw construction of the Aswan High Dam.
After the 1967 Arab-Israeli war Israeli forces captured the Sinai Peninsula and the canal was again closed to all shipping. The canal was recaptured, and sunsequently lost again, by the Egyptians during the Yom Kippur War. However, the Camp David Accords negotiated by Jimmy Carter, resulted in the return of the canal and all the Sinai to Egyptian control in return for Egypt formally recognizing Israel. The canal reopened in 1975 and in 1979 Egypt began allowing Israeli merchant vessels through the canal.