By David Kurlander
Last Sunday, salvage teams successfully freed a massive container ship, the Ever Given, that was blocking the Suez Canal. The auspicious effort to unclog the waterway harkens back to 1975, the last time that the Canal emerged from a period of inactivity. The diplomatic significance of that reopening—which coincided with turbulent peace talks between Egypt and Israel—showcases the strategic importance of the Suez and the hopefulness of its open passage.
The Suez Canal connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean and has historically provided passage to ships carrying much of the petroleum from the Persian Gulf. Given its economic and strategic value, the Canal became a battlefield, an economic threat, and a de facto borderline in over twenty years of hostility between Egypt and Israel.
First, in 1956, nationalist Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Canal, briefly leading to a convoluted military stand-off with Israel, France, and the United Kingdom, who collectively invaded the Sinai Peninsula and took the Canal by force. Cooler heads ultimately prevailed. After a series of mutual provocations, tensions boiled over again in 1967 and Israeli forces again invaded the Sinai and headed toward the Canal. A remarkable air victory by Israel ended the war in six days, and the ceasefire line was drawn right at the Suez. With both sides at the shores, Nasser opted to make the Canal inaccessible. 14 cargo ships remained sailing around the Great Bitter Lake portion of the Canal for seven years (their crews safely cycled out), while the still-angry combatants planted mines and debris to keep it closed off.
In 1973, the new Egyptian President, Anwar Sadat, teamed up with Syria to try to take back the Sinai. The Canal lit up again and Israel agreed to return much of the territory captured in 1967. The situation at Suez, however, remained intractable even after the formal hostilities ended in March 1974.
So began a Herculean diplomatic quest to reopen the Canal. President Nixon, often through Secretary of State Henry Kissinger—who was in the midst of a frenetic period of “shuttle diplomacy” throughout the Middle East—sent out repeated feelers to Sadat and Israeli President Golda Meir about the prospects of clearing the Canal. Egyptian and Israeli soldiers remained poised for battles on their respective sides of the waterway.
Sadat agreed to let an international crew of experts clean the Canal. Leading the effort was Navy Admiral Brian McCauley, who had also overseen Operation End Sweep, the removal of mines in Haiphong Harbor outside of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War the previous year. The Suez effort, dubbed Operation Nimbus Moon, used Sikorsky Sea Stallion helicopters with drop-down magnetic sensors to detect (and eventually remove) 686,000 mines, 375 rockets, 102 boats, and even a 200-pound Nazi-dropped explosive from World War II. Correspondent Robert Arndt summed up the mission in an expansive piece in Aramco World magazine, the American press organ of the Saudi Arabian oil conglomerate: “After eight years of stagnant stillness, one of the world’s greatest man-made waterways was alive and open again.”
Although the Canal was cleaned by early 1975, tensions between Israel and Egypt still threatened to undo all the efforts of Nimbus Moon. In March, Kissinger’s “shuttle” talks reached what he called “a point of self-stultification” over labyrinthine disagreements between Sadat and new Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin about oil fields, boundary lines, and international inspections. President Ford criticized Israel’s stubbornness and threatened suspending military aid, leading 76 Senators to write a letter defending Israel’s perspective.
Sadat, however, decided to go ahead and reopen the Canal, even with the messiness of the negotiations. He went on state television on March 29th to announce the action. “Some expected me to react emotionally and keep the Suez Canal closed, but I shall do the exact opposite,” he said on the broadcast. Kissinger praised Sadat’s diplomatic willingness in his memoirs, explaining, “Sadat’s crucial contribution to the peace process was his recognition that breaking the cycle of suspicion and distrust was more important than the specific terms of any agreement.”
Two months after the televised announcement, on June 5th (exactly eight years after the 1967 closing) Sadat—dressed in white navy garb—hosted a flamboyant Suez reopening, which he called “the happiest day of my life.” Doves were released. Ribbons were cut. Helicopters flew overhead. Sadat boarded the Sixth of October, so named for the start date of the Yom Kippur War, and headed from Port Said down-canal to Ismailia, waving to the almost 700,000 residents who had returned from mandatory evacuation. The Little Rock, the flagship of the U.S. Sixth Fleet, joined the convoy of Egyptian ships—a further signal of the positive moves in the U.S.-Egyptian relationship “Rather than acting as a policeman who throws his weight about,” Sadat reflected, “The United States stood by me and showed her real face, scarred though it was by the Vietnam War.”
Sadat’s gambit was part of a successful push for further military disengagement with Israel. That Fall, Egypt and Israel signed the Sinai II agreement. After much back-and-forth, Sinai II allowed non-military Israeli cargo to travel through the Canal, as well as tying up questions around oil fields, U.N. peacekeeping forces, and myriad other sticking points from Kissinger’s various shuttle negotiations.
While the diplomatic impact of the re-opening was immediately clear, the trade benefits of the move were initially underwhelming. The closure of the canal had spurred oil companies to develop larger ships called “supertankers,” which were too large to travel through the Canal. These ships took longer to get to Europe and the U.S. around the Cape of Good Hope, but they saved money by carrying more oil and avoiding the Canal tolls. The state-owned Suez operators estimated they would make $450 million in their first year back open. The reality was closer to $50 million. “The world built ships to ignore the Suez Canal,” an oil consultant told the New York Times.
Over the next five years, Sadat embarked on a $1.3 billion expansion to open the Canal to the larger tankers. “Nowadays I am never happier than when I am on the banks of the Suez Canal,” Sadat wrote in his 1977 autobiography, In Search of Identity: “I sit there for hours on end in a small log cabin watching the progress of work on new projects and the ceaseless reconstruction effort.”
The Suez expansion project continued after Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed the historic Camp David Accords in 1978, formally ending their hostilities and winning them a joint Nobel Peace Prize.
In December 1980, Sadat again donned military garb for a smaller-scale ceremony held to celebrate the conclusion of the expansion process. The following year, Egyptian militants—angered by what they saw as Sadat’s accommodation to Israel and the U.S.—assassinated him during a parade in Cairo commemorating eight years since the outbreak of the 1973 conflict. In 1982, with Egypt still in mourning, a record 80 ships passed through the Canal in a single day.
The Ever Given incident—while still a decidedly big deal for global trade—clearly didn’t contain the geopolitical multitudes of the 1975 reopening. Revisiting Sadat’s passionate push, then, can serve as a poignant reminder of the fraught histories of so many global waterways and a perhaps a trigger for some gratitude for the brevity of the blockage.
For more on Middle Eastern geopolitics of the mid-1970s, check out Salim Yaqub’s 2016 Imperfect Strangers: Americans, Arabs, and U.S.–Middle East Relations in the 1970s. For more on the Suez clean-up effort, flip through the full Navy report about the mission.
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