Suez Canal Between Seas of Politics and History

Cairo, Egypt (SCF) – In August, Egypt held a ceremony to inaugurate the second phase of theSuez Canal. The construction was scheduled to last for three years, but at President Abdel el-Sisi’s insistence the new channel was completed in only 14 months. The New Suez Canal is 72 km long, and Egypt’s annual revenue from usage fees (currently $5.3 billion) will soon increase 150%, and then triple by 2020…

Traffic through the Suez Canal will now travel in both directions: northbound ships will pass through the old channel and southbound – through the new. The reduced congestion will shorten the waiting and transit time from 18 to 11 hours, and an average of 97 ships will be able to pass through the canal each day, rather than today’s 49.

The Suez Canal is one of the world’s most important shipping lanes, used by 7% of all global maritime cargo traffic. The Suez Canal Authority chairman, Vice Admiral Mohab Mamish, says that “the canal represents a new birth for the country and a victory in the peaceful battle for development.” And President Abdel Fattah Khalil el-Sisi calls Suez, “the great Egyptian dream and a channel of prosperity.”

However, not everyone approves of el-Sisi’s autonomy and tenacity. Since the Muslim Brotherhood and their protégé Mohamed Morsi were ousted in July 2013, the relationship between Cairo and Washington has sharply deteriorated. The new Egyptian president interrupted the steady momentum of the Arab Spring. The Obama administration announced the suspension of shipments of heavy weapons, jet fighters, and military aid to Egypt and canceled their annual joint military exercises.

The Egyptian president can do much to draw the ire of the White House. Not least because the Suez Canal, both the old and new channels, remains state property. The expanded section of the canal was built by Egyptian military engineers who started and completed the project with few or no international loans. Local investors – Egyptians – eagerly bought bonds (yielding 12% per annum) to finance the construction.

Many times history was edited to suit the interests of politicians and turned into a weapon. This is why it is important to remember the relationship between the Suez Canal and Egyptian and global past.

This new Egyptian waterway, which opened on Aug. 6, 2015, has been dubbed the “second phase of the Suez Canal.” And it is indeed the second, if one considers the conduit built by the French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps to be the first. But if one looks back at the history of the human efforts to construct a passageway between the Mediterranean and Red Seas, then the 2015 expansion is not really the second phase but the sixth. However, the ancient “phases” of the canal that originated in the Red Sea did not lead to today’s Port Said, but instead swerved to follow the course of the Nile River. Even the pharaohs grasped the tremendous significance of this passageway, and the first phase of the Suez Canal was built by Ramses II (14th century BC).

That canal’s fortunes mirrored those of Egypt herself, and so it languished along with the state and was eventually buried in sand. During the reign of the Persians in the 5th century BC, a second phase of the canal was dug that according to Herodotus was wide enough that two triremes (a type of ancient warship) could freely pass each other. By the end of the Hellenistic era the canal once again fell into decline. The third phase of the Suez Canal was during the zenith of the Roman Empire under Emperor Trajan. The fourth was under the Arab caliphs… Interest in the Suez Canal was a major impetus for Napoleon’s famous Egyptian expedition.

Other well-known milestones: 1869 – the opening of the canal, which was initially a Franco-Egyptian joint venture, and 1882 – the British occupation of the Canal Zone. During both world wars the Suez Canal served as a supremely important military and strategic artery. In 1956,  Nasser nationalized the canal and war immediately followed. Filled with naval mines, the channel sat idle for six months. The Six-Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973 also closed off this major global artery, but then once again the channel was cleared of mines and sunken ships.

Image Source: National Museum of the U.S. Navy, Flickr, Creative Commons DN-ST-87-02528 The battleship USS MISSOURI (BB 63) transits the Suez Canal while en route to Istanbul, Turkey. The ship is on an around the world shakedown cruise, 1986. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the U.S. National Archives - Online Public Access.

Image Source: National Museum of the U.S. Navy, Flickr, Creative Commons
DN-ST-87-02528
The battleship USS MISSOURI (BB 63) transits the Suez Canal while en route to Istanbul, Turkey. The ship is on an around the world shakedown cruise, 1986. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the U.S. National Archives – Online Public Access.

Today the Suez Canal not only connects two seas and two oceans – it connects Egypt with the future.

Written by Igor SHUMEYKO for Strategic Culture Foundation.