On 5 November 1956, British and French forces launched an airborne invasion of Egypt to secure the strategically important Suez Canal after it was nationalised by President Nasser of Egypt. Days earlier Israeli forces had invaded the Sinai Peninsular. Though largely successful in their attempts to secure the canal, three weeks after the invasion had begun and under intense pressure from an outraged United Nations, the invaders retreated in disgrace. In early 1957, the first British ship paid an Egyptian toll for the use of Suez, and with it the country waved goodbye to its pretensions to Empire.
The game-changing moment in this embarrassing escapade came when British prime minister Antony Eden realised that the US, with a presidential election looming, was unwilling to offer any support for the invaders. Undermined militarily and shunned on the international stage, Eden also had to cope with pressure from the US treasury, causing a drop in the value of the pound.
A young Michael Foot, at the time working for Tribune magazine explained: "Those of us who were anti-imperialist were very pleased in 1956. We thought the empire was terrible and that this clash exposed it in a very big way."
In Nasser, the west encountered a new type of post-war revolutionary leader in the Middle East. The miscalculations they made in handling him would prove portentous for future dealings with two of his protégés: Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi.