Egypt to discreetly mark Suez Canal’s 150th anniversary
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Egypt to discreetly mark Suez Canal’s 150th anniversary

Cairo prefers to underscore the newly expanded waterway’s present-day contributions to the country – $5.9 billion in annual revenue – rather than its history of colonialism and war

This file photo taken in November 1869 shows the inauguration of the Suez Canal in Egypt. (AFP)
This file photo taken in November 1869 shows the inauguration of the Suez Canal in Egypt. (AFP)

ISMAILIA, Egypt (AFP) — Since the Suez Canal was inaugurated amid pomp and ceremony 150 years ago, it has become one of the world’s most important waterways. But its anniversary will only be discreetly marked in Egypt.

The man-made canal was excavated between 1859 and 1869, in an ambitious project to connect the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and cut shipping times for growing international trade from Europe to Asia.

The Suez Canal is “not a prerogative of one nation,” declared Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French diplomat credited with masterminding the project, drawing from the dreams of the pharaohs who dredged a similar channel 4,000 years earlier.

“It owes its birth to, and belongs to, the aspirations of humanity,” he said in an 1864 speech.

This file photo taken in the 1860s shows the construction of the Suez Canal in Egypt. (AFP)

A million Egyptians, using camels and mules as beasts of burden, labored over the decade-long construction, according to official figures. And tens of thousands died in the process, experts say.

The first ships sailed down the 164-kilometer (102-mile) canal on November 17, 1869, with hopes that fair winds would permit a faster route to and from Asia, avoiding a lengthy and perilous circumvention via the tip of southern Africa.

But the waterway’s history has followed the turbulent ebbs and flows of the volatile Middle East region.

This file photo taken on November 11, 1956 shows a ship sunk by Egyptians to block the Suez Canal appearing at the surface of water in Port Saïd. (Aime Touchard/AFP)

Its watershed moment came in July 1956. Egypt’s iconic late president Gamal Abdel Nasser, a staunch defender of Arab unity, defied British and French interests and nationalized the Suez Canal Company which ran the waterway.

The decision, which saw Nasser’s popularity rise at home, triggered an international crisis. France and Britain — countries which both controlled the company at that point — as well as Israel attacked Egypt around three months later.

The canal also served as a frontline during Arab-Israel wars in 1967 and 1973.

In this file photo taken on October 6, 1973, Israeli troops cross the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War. (AFP)

‘Record-breaking’ asset

Today the vital sea route is managed by the Suez Canal Authority and was expanded in 2015 to accommodate modern, larger vessels. It has grown into a major economic asset, providing passage for 10 percent of all international maritime trade.

But the region’s volatility is never far away. Running along the southern rim of the Sinai, the canal is today heavily secured by the Egyptian army which is battling a long-running insurgency in northern Sinai.

Dug in the 19th century using “rudimentary tools,” today the waterway has become “a lifeline to Egypt,” Osama Rabie, head of the authority told AFP.

In this photo from February 22, 2015, provided by the Egyptian Presidency, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi waves during a visit to the Suez Canal in Ismailia, Egypt. (Egyptian Presidency via AP, File)

In 2015, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi staged a grand ceremony for the opening of a new 72-kilometer (43-mile) lane parallel to the canal after 12 months of excavations.

The authority has since boasted new cargo and transit records saying the new lane has facilitated the crossing of larger shipping convoys and decreased transit times.

In August “a record breaking number” of 81 ships carrying a total of 6.1 million tons transited the canal in one day, the authority said.

A man standing on a boat looks on as a container ship sails through the new section of the Suez Canal in the Egyptian port city of Ismailia, 135 kilometers northeast of the capital Cairo on October 10, 2019. (Khaled Desouki/AFP)

“The tonnage has leapt,” according to Jean-Marie Miossec, shipping specialist and professor at the University Paul Valery-Montpellier.

He believes the growth is linked to an “increase in container traffic between Asia and Europe as well as Europe and the Indian subcontinent.”

“By expanding the canal, Egyptian authorities offer augmented potential, especially with regard to vessel sizes and transit time,” he said.

This file photo taken in 1869 shows the digging of the Suez Canal in Egypt. (AFP)

Revenues for the fiscal year 2018-2019 reached $5.9 billion, up 5.4 percent from the previous year, the authority said in August.

And Egypt is planning for revenues to rocket to $13.2 billion in 2023.

Stamps, museum

Sumptuous feasts and banquets even attended by French Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, were held during the initial inauguration in 1869.

This file photo taken in November 1869 shows the inauguration of the Suez Canal in Egypt. (AFP)

But in stark contrast, no celebrations are planned for the canal’s 150th anniversary.

Arnaud Ramiere de Fortanier, from the association that commemorates Ferdinand de Lesseps and the Suez Canal, believes the anniversary is “bit tricky.”

“The issue of 1956 went wrong,” he said, maintaining that for the company’s former shareholders the entire Suez crisis was mishandled by all sides and was a “disaster.”

This file photo taken in the 1860s shows an undated portrait of Ferdinand de Lesseps, a French diplomat who formed and operated The Universal Company of the Maritime Canal of Suez. (AFP)

Rather than highlighting the canal’s pre-1956 history, Egyptian authorities are preferring to underscore the canal’s current performance and its contributions to the country’s battered economy.

“Everyone writes history their own way,” said French ambassador Stephane Romatet, noting Egyptians only started benefiting from the canal after the 1956 nationalization.

In Egypt and France, stamps bearing images resembling de Lesseps have been printed to mark the anniversary.

And a conference entitled “The Suez Canal: A place of memories” is to be held in Egypt’s famed Bibliotheca Alexandrina on November 13.

Egypt has also dedicated a museum, currently under construction, to the canal in the city of Ismailia at the historic premises of the Suez Canal Company. But no opening date has yet been set.

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