'A message to all': Egypt prepares for new Suez Canal opening ceremony

Nevine Khalil , Tuesday 4 Aug 2015

Egypt is planning a huge bash at this week’s inaugural ceremony of the new Suez Canal

New Suez Canal
A cargo ship is seen crossing through the New Suez Canal, Ismailia, Egypt, July 25, 2015 (Reuters)

Fireworks in the morning. Naval and air show. Live streaming on mega-screens in major cities around the world. Folklore performances and a revival of Verdi’s Opera Aida (written for but not performed at the inauguration of the original Suez Canal in 1869). This is a sample of what to expect on 6 August, along with the more rudimentary distribution of 50 fishing boats to locals and the opening of 460 fisheries.

There will be much pomp and circumstance on a 10km stretch of the new waterway when hundreds of dignitaries flock to the banks of the new Suez Canal to mark the inauguration of a record-setting construction feat. President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi will lead the ceremony that crowns one year of non-stop construction, generous national donations, and trusting investments by average Egyptians.

Admiral Mohab Mamish, chairman of the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) and the man in charge of the project, will also give a speech.

Countdowns until inauguration have been staples on television screens and on front pages of newspapers, serving as a constant reminder to take pride in the mega project — although the majority of Egyptians need little probing.

“It is a message to all humanity,” declared Sami Abdel-Aziz, a media expert and member of the group planning and marketing the event. To illustrate the point, the inaugural ceremony will air live on large digital screens in main squares in major cities and capitals around the world, including New York, Washington DC, Beijing, Tokyo and London.

Abdel-Aziz denied there were any difficulties in promoting the ceremony overseas, and that in the end the bottom line was a key factor. “We are selling a real product, not just slogans,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly. “Everyone was impressed — and in the end, money talks.”

With a long career as a communications professor, Abdel-Aziz understands the colossal task at hand.

The greatest challenge, he said, was that the new Suez Canal is a “unique endeavour”. To make sure Egyptians and the world hear and see this accomplishment, the planning committee — which includes top military brass and other experts — has worked for months on an integrated marketing communication plan. This included using PR strategies such as advertisement campaigns, social media and printed media.

Two messages 

“There were two core messages we wanted to convey,” explained Abdel-Aziz. “On the local level, we wanted to build a sense of pride and trust in the project; that the people had invested their money in the right way.”

The message on the regional front was that “Egypt is a key player in the economy of the region, using sound facts and figures”. Meanwhile, “to the world, we wanted to show the impact of the new canal on the global economy, in terms of minimising shipping time and cost”.

Another key factor, he noted, is the environment because once shipping is accelerated, less fuel will be used and pollution will be reduced.

On Saturday, the eve of the 59th anniversary of nationalising the original Suez Canal, the first trial run of the new canal got a thumbs up from Mamish after three cargo vessels passed through the waterway.

After paying standard fees, the large vessels continued their journeys from Jeddah to Port Said; from Singapore to the US; and from Jeddah to Italy. Another test sail is scheduled next week before the inaugural event.

Although there were suggestions to postpone the trial run or test smaller vessels, “we insisted on using large vessels to send a message to all shipping companies that the new canal has the capacity for all existing and future generations of vessels”, Mamish told a news conference after the test run.

“Everyone can now see a reality that showcases the ability of Egyptians to make progress and make miracles.”

For the world to see, the promotion campaign has spent generously, although Abdel-Aziz would not reveal the size of the budget marketing the project “because we are still spending”.

He promised, however, all figures would be made public after the ceremony, and asserted that “not a single piastre is coming out of the pockets of citizens”. The campaign’s budget has essentially relied on deep pocket donors who have apparently paid triple the figure needed. “The extra donations will be diverted to the Long Live Egypt Fund once our work is done,” stated Abdel-Aziz.

Average Egyptians also had an opportunity to pay their share and take ownership of the mega-project. It took 10 years to build the original Suez Canal starting in 1859, and it cost Egyptians sweat and blood as thousands died in the process.

It cost Egyptians a lot this time, too, but they were happy to foot the $8.5 billion bill. Five-year investment certificates at 12 per cent interest sold out in eight days.

The speed of fund collection and enthusiasm of the public signaled the start — digging the new 72-km channel parallel to the Suez Canal, along with six underwater tunnels to link Sinai with the governorates of Port Said and Ismailia. Only Egyptian nationals were allowed to invest, and that is how the project remained.

Several parties pitched in to fund, construct, market and publicise the new waterway, including government agencies, governorates, local media, and the Armed Forces.

The Army Engineers Corp, with the help of dozens of state-owned and private sector conglomerates, took the lead in construction. “The idea, decision, planning, funding and execution of the project are entirely Egyptian, with the help of Egypt’s patriotic youth. This endeavour is a rebirth for Egypt,” said Mamish on Saturday.

The Suez Canal, which links the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, is the fastest shipping route between Europe and Asia, and handles seven per cent of global sea-borne trade. The enlarged canal will allow ships to sail in both directions at the same time and is expected to half navigation time through the canal from around 22 hours to 11.

The Suez Canal venture is projected to generate $13.2 billion in revenues by 2023 instead of the current $5.3 billion from the existing canal. It will also increase the capacity of the Suez to 97 ships a day by 2023, up from the current 45, according to Mamish. Egypt is also planning on constructing a major international industrial and logistics hub alongside the canal banks.

Some international experts are dubious about revenue projections, doubting that global shipping in the coming years justifies Egypt’s forecasts. But experts have been wrong before when they predicted it would take five years to construct the new Suez Canal; Egypt pulled it off in just one year.

Looming concerns that terrorist groups in neighbouring Sinai may threaten the strategic waterway have been offset by tight security measures during construction and beyond.

Senior officials noted that since the 2011 Revolution, navigation in the Suez Canal did not stop once because of tight security. In fact, helicopters and naval vessels escorted the three ships on their virgin sail through the waterway on Saturday as part of security precautions.

Abdel-Aziz believes the inaugural ceremony is just the beginning. “We have to keep the momentum going for all the other projects that will surround the new Suez Canal,” he said.

At Saturday’s news conference Mamish announced that Al-Sisi directed SCA to oversee development plans of East Port Said, and that work will begin on developing the Suez Canal region on 7 August — the morning after the celebrations.

* This article was first published by Al-Ahram Weekly.

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