Egypt to unveil Suez Canal extension in hope of a new era

05.08.2015

Egypt is to unveil a major extension of the Suez Canal on Thursday, 6 August. The New Suez Canal is a mega-project that has emerged as a cornerstone of President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi's efforts to restore national pride and revive the economy after years of unrest.

The 1869 inauguration of the canal linking the Red Sea to the Mediterranean was hailed as a leap into the modern age, and President Gamal Abdel-Nasser's nationalisation of the British and French-run waterway in 1956 was seen as marking Egypt's decisive break with its colonial past. That sparked the second of four wars with Israel, including a 1973 offensive launched across the canal that Egyptians celebrate as their greatest military victory.

The government hopes for another historic moment on Thursday, when it unveils an $8.5-billion extension of the waterway funded entirely by Egyptians, without foreign aid. The media and government supporters across the board have breathlessly repeated the same message: after four years of strife and the overthrow of two presidents, Egypt is back.

"Our culture can be very sentimental, and this was the first time Egyptians have been so galvanised," said Adel Beshai, professor of economics at the American University in Cairo. "It was a brilliant idea by Sisi – the Egyptians now own the canal."

He views the expansion as the first step in a new area of development, free of the public sector's notoriously crippling bureaucracy. The key global trade route is already one of Egypt's top foreign currency earners, and is run by a semi-independent authority with 25,000 employees that is considered one of the country's most competent bodies.

"It is opening infinite horizons. It is going to be handled outside the ossified bureaucracy that has been holding us back. What is being done there is done with extreme efficiency and a scientific approach," Beshai said.

The new extension involved digging and dredging along 72 kilometres of the 193-kilometre canal, making a parallel waterway at its middle that will facilitate two-way traffic accommodating the world's largest ships.

Originally planned as a three-year project, Sisi ordered the new segments to be finished in just one, citing the pressing need for an economic boost. Work has been non-stop ever since, and at one point 43 massive dredging machines were cranking away.

The canal drew in a record $5.3 billion last year, a figure the government estimates it can raise to $13.2 billion by 2023 if it doubles the number of ships transiting daily to 97. Economists and shippers, however, say that's overly optimistic.

"It's not about capacity, it all depends on trade between East and West, growth in the world economy, especially in Europe, and how the (authority) handles its fees," said Xu Zhibin, managing director for the Egyptian affiliate of China's state-owned COSCO, one of the world's top container shippers.

The project's success also depends on the security situation. To the east of the canal, a long-running insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula has intensified since the military overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013. An Islamic State affiliate has carried out several major attacks on Egyptian security forces, killing scores of soldiers and policemen there. The Egyptian mainland has also seen a series of attacks, including the bombing of the Italian Consulate in Cairo last month, which was claimed by the IS group.

The government blames almost all the attacks on Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, which prevailed in a series of elections held after the 2011 overthrow of long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak but is now branded a terrorist group. Morsi and other top leaders have been jailed and sentenced to death, and a sweeping police crackdown since he was ousted has killed hundreds of Islamists and jailed thousands.

Security has been stepped up along the canal ahead of Thursday's ceremony, which is expected to be attended by Sisi and foreign dignitaries.   (AP/Brian Rohan)

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