The anniversary on Wednesday of the surprise 1956 takover is a chance for Egyptians to look back on the end of the colonial era in the Middle East.
But the anniversary is particularly significant for Adel Ezzat, then a 30-year-old engineer, who worked closely with Gamal Abdel Nasser, the former Egyptian president.
“Only three of us were in the know,” says Ezzat, who was working with Mohammed Yunes, Nasser’s adviser on petroleum affairs. “President Nasser had chosen us to carry out the nationalisation“
“On the 23rd July 1956, I met Nasser for the first time during the celebrations for the fourth anniversary of the revolution.
“The president whispered something in Yunes’ ear,” Ezzat recalls.
“Over the next 24 hours, Yunes seemed “agitated and preoccupied.
“The next day, he summoned me and my colleague Abdel Hamid Abu Bakr in his office and locked the door behind us, which I found very odd.”
Speaking to AFP from his Cairo home, the octogenarian remembers Yunes’ words.
The Suez Canal: Facts and Figures
-Built under the supervision of French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps and inaugurated in 1869
-Overall length: 190.25 kilometres Suez is the longest lockless canal in the world
-Width at water level: 280-345 metres
-Depth: 22.5 metres
-Maximum deadweight tonnage: around 210,000 tonnes
-18,700 ships transited through the canal in 2005
-Ships travel through the canal in three daily convoys. The permissible speed ranges from 11 to 14 kilometres/hour
-Seven percent of global maritime transport passes through the Suez canal
-Canal reduces by a quarter the distance between Rotterdam and Tokyo, two of the world’s largest harbours – compared to the route around Africa
-Suez Canal transit fees are the third largest source of revenue for Egypt‘s economy after tourism and remittances from expatriate workers
-Canal receipts reached a record 3.4 billion dollars in 2005, up more than 12 percent from the previous year
-Receipts are expected to further rise in 2006 on the back of a transit fees hike of three percent since March and growing trade between China and Europe
“The president has tasked me with nationalising the Suez Canal,’ he said. This decision had to remain top secret.”
The three-man commando had 48 hours and little information to carry out Nasser’s wish, a move that would spark a war with the West but reshape Egypt’s economy by regaining control of the most crucial chokepoint in world trade.
“All we had was a few publications on the canal given to Yunes by the president. We didn’t even have a mole in the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez” that ran the waterway,’ Ezzat remembers.
The trio gathered a wider group of around 30, who were to break up in three groups tasked with overrunning the company’s offices in Port-Said, Suez and Ismailiya.
“We weren’t armed. Our instructions were to carry out the operation peacefully,” says Ezzat. Little did he know that his ‘peaceful’ takeover would prompt a military offensive led by Israel, Britain and France and mark a turning point in the Cold War.
Ezzat recalls that the signal for the operation’s launch was when Nasser, who was delivering a speech in Alexandria, pronounced the words “de Lesseps”, in reference to Ferdinand de Lesseps who founded the canal in 1869.
“Our mission was so secret that the drivers who took us from Cairo didn’t even know our destination. Except us three, the people who were with didn’t know. They had only been told to bring a few clothes.”
The three groups were only informed of their respective assignments upon arriving at the Al-Galaa military base near Ismailiya on July 26, at around 4:00 in the afternoon.
“Some of them hesitated. They were afraid of the reaction of the British troops guarding the canal. But we refused to abandon our plan, history was on the march,” Ezzat says.
The three groups fanned out. They crept up to the Suez company’s offices but stayed out of sight, as they listened to Nasser’s speech, their hearts throbbing with anxiety.
“The president said ‘de Lesseps’. Then he repeated it a second time, and a third, as if he feared we hadn’t heard him.”
Ezzat says the commandos went in at around 7:00 pm, found mostly empty offices and simply informed the guards that they had come to nationalise the Suez canal. No blood was shed.
“The president then delievered his speech on the nationalisation. People poured into the streets and their support gave us more strength,” he recalls.
At that moment, Egypt regained control of the 19th century canal for whose construction an estimated 125,000 Egyptians perished in forced labour.
Adel Ezzat, who was denied a job with the Suez company in 1950 because his “French was too weak”, rose through the ranks and was the Canal Authority chairman between 1985 and 1995.