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Connecting the globe

Ahmed Morsy reports on the 150th anniversary of the Suez Canal

Ahmed Morsy , Tuesday 19 Nov 2019
Connecting the globe
Since its inauguration, 1.3 million ships have passed through the Suez Canal (photo: Reuters)
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The Suez Canal Authority this week marked the 150th anniversary of the Suez Canal. The canal first became operational on 17 November 1869.

Since its inauguration, 1.3 million ships carrying cargo weighing 28.6 billion tons and worth $135.9 billion have passed through the canal, Chairman of the Suez Canal Authority Osama Rabie told an audience at the anniversary’s celebrations in Ismailia this week.

“The inauguration of the Suez Canal 150 years ago brought about a change in the global maritime map as it succeeded in attracting international maritime traffic to use the canal to save time, effort and money,” said Rabie, who was appointed as chairman of the Suez Canal Authority in August.

Twenty-four per cent of total international container trade passes through the Suez Canal while 100 per cent of container traffic between Asia and Europe depends mainly on the canal, according to Rabie.

The Suez Canal, which connects the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea, separates the African continent from Asia and provides the shortest maritime route between Europe and the lands lying around the Indian and western Pacific oceans, leading it to be one of the most important waterways in the world.

“Throughout its history, the Suez Canal has received the attention of the Egyptian state through the adoption of a series of ongoing development projects in the canal, the most recent of which is the new Suez Canal project,” Rabie said.

In August 2015, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi inaugurated a new 35km waterway that allows two-way traffic in parts of the 190km canal, plus a 37km expansion and deepening of some parts of the existing one. Millions of Egyptians lined up in front of banks to fund the mega-national project, raising LE64 billion in only eight days. The new lane cut transit time by half, to 11 hours.

Since the opening of the new Suez Canal, Rabie said, it has succeeded in maintaining the international ranking of the canal, improving the level of navigation services provided to passing ships, and keeping pace with the requirements of development in the maritime transport industry while facing the challenges of competition.

Fiscal year 2018-2019 recorded the highest annual revenue from the canal to date at $6 billion, an increase of 5.4 per cent, equivalent to $300 million compared to the previous financial year.

Attempts to excavate the canal date back to Pharaonic times, however, the first efforts to build a modern canal were during the Egypt expedition of Napoleon Bonaparte who hoped the project would create a devastating trade problem for the English army. However, Napoleon was told that the Red Sea was 30 feet higher than the Mediterranean. Dig a canal, his surveyors said, and the Red Sea will haemorrhage into the Mediterranean.   

In 1833, a group of French intellectuals known as the Saint-Simoniens arrived in Cairo and became very interested in the Suez project despite the problem of the different sea levels. But at that time Mohamed Ali, then the Ottoman governor of Egypt, had little interest in the project.

In 1854 the French diplomat and engineer Vicomte Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps succeeded in enlisting the interest of the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt. 

In 1858 Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez was formed with the authority to dig a canal and to operate it for 99 years, after which ownership would return to the Egyptian government. The company was originally a private Egyptian concern, its stock owned chiefly by French and Egyptian interests. In 1875 the British government purchased Egypt’s shares.

The pilot study estimated that a total of 2,613 million cubic feet of earth would have to be moved, including 600 million on land and another 2,013 million dredged from water. The total original cost estimate was 200 million francs.

When at first the company ran into financial problems, it was Pasha Said who purchased 44 per cent of the company to keep it in operation. However, the British and Turks were concerned with the venture and managed to have work suspended for a short time, until the intervention of Napoleon. Excavation of the canal actually began on 25 April 1859, and between then and 1862, the first part of the canal was completed. However, after Ismail succeeded Said Pasha in 1863, work was again suspended. After Ferdinand De Lesseps again appealed to Napoleon, an international commission was formed in March of 1864. The commission resolved the problems and within three years, the canal was completed. On 17 November 1869 the barrage of the Suez plains reservoir was breached and waters of the Mediterranean flowed into the Red Sea. The canal was opened for international navigation.

Completion of the long waterway, however, took 10 years of excruciating and poorly compensated labour by Egyptian workers who were drafted at the rate of 20,000 every 10 months from the ranks of the peasantry.

During those 10 years, from 1859 to 1869, the canal was dug by around one million Egyptians from which more than 120,000 died while working because of hunger, thirst, epidemics and abuse.

Because of external debt, the British government purchased the shares owned by Egyptian interests, namely those of Said Pasha, in 1875, for some 400,000 pounds sterling. Yet France continued to have a majority interest. Under the terms of an international convention signed in 1888 (The Convention of Constantinople), the canal was opened to vessels of all nations without discrimination, in peace and war.

Nevertheless, Britain considered the canal vital to the maintenance of its maritime power and colonial interests.

Therefore, the provisions of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 allowed Britain to maintain a defensive force along the Suez Canal Zone. However, Egyptian nationalists demanded repeatedly that Britain evacuate the Suez Canal Zone, and in 1954 the two countries signed a seven-year agreement that superseded the 1936 treaty and provided for the gradual withdrawal of all British troops from the zone.

The canal remained under the control of two powers until former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser nationalised it in 1956. It has since been operated by the Suez Canal Authority.

The canal was closed to navigation twice in the contemporary period. The first closure was brief, coming after the tripartite British-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt in 1956, an invasion primarily motivated by the nationalisation of the waterway. The canal was reopened in 1957. The second closure occurred after the June 1967 War with Israel and lasted until 1975, when Egypt and Israel signed the second disengagement accord.

After the July 1952 Revolution, president Abdel-Nasser announced he was nationalising the canal on 26 July 1956, which enraged the major players, leading to the tripartite aggression on Egypt by Israel, the UK and France on 29 October 1956 and resulting in the closure of the canal until it was reopened in March 1957.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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