Egypt and the Suez Canal: 150 years of heroism

Mustafa El-Fiqi, Thursday 26 Apr 2018

The history of the Suez Canal is proof of the determination of the Egyptian people, and any celebrations of the Canal's opening should be taking place in Egypt

France is currently celebrating the start of the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Suez Canal, since it is the country where the project, in its final form, was born. It was also the birthplace of Ferdinand de Lesseps and the headquarters of the Suez Canal Company before it was nationalised.

This drives us to think about the dialectical relationship between the Suez Canal and the Egyptian state, recalling the famous quote, “We want the Canal to be for Egypt, not that Egypt be for the Canal.”

Let the reader allow me to present the following observations.

First, the natural geography, with the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea being connected via Egyptian territory, was generous. For it granted Egypt, over and above everything else, a new point of distinction, another means by which Egypt’s importance was boosted, both regionally and internationally.

The digging of the canal had progressed by various stages through the ages and was not a new idea when Muhammed Ali discussed it, followed by his son Muhammed Said. Rather, the idea remained more like a dream in the literature of geography and the vocabulary of history until this shrewd Frenchman persuaded the macaroni-loving Khedive to sign a contract to dig the canal in the 1850s.

He relied on the Egyptian peasant, that great unknown soldier and steadfast worker who had built the pyramids at the dawn of history thousands of years before, who dug the canal in the nineteenth century and then constructed the High Dam in the twentieth century.

These were giants, tanned by the scorching sun and slapped by the transient cold, but remaining steadfast and enjoying great dexterity, according to the late historian Dr. Sulaiman Huzayyen.

Thus, the idea of digging the Suez Canal, its development and subsequent accomplishment, reflects, generally speaking, the determination of the Egyptians more than anyone else. Without them, the idea would have been kept in drawers, a theoretical proposal within the files of those who were interested in it and sought to materialise it.

But the reliance on the Egyptian people has always been the decisive element in the Egyptian state’s grand projects and great achievements.

Second, Egypt has paid dearly for digging the canal. In addition to 100,000 martyrs being buried beneath its sands, it has also fuelled the clash over the Egyptian homeland and transformed Egypt into a hub for international polarisation, surrounded by different kinds of greed and mounting pressures.

The Suez Canal remained a difficult number within the permanent equation of national independence in Egypt; Ahmed Orabi feared using it and the nationalist leader Abdel-Nasser dealt with it by nationalising it, costing Egypt the Suez War in 1956.

Some critics of Nasser ask why this man took the initiative and nationalised the canal in 1956, when only 13 years were left before its 100-year concession contract came to an end. The answer is easy and simple, and those who make such criticisms are focused on events following nationalisation, rather than before it.

Certainly, the big European countries, especially France and Britain, were seeking to extend the concession for another period of time. In addition, nationalisation asserted the canal as being Egyptian, making it without doubt a national waterway.

The canal fell under Israeli occupation after the 1967 Defeat, but the Great Crossing, led by the statesman Anwar El-Sadat, presented us once more with this illuminating and vital facility, which we all cherish and which lies on our land, and whose value we are proud of within our homeland.

We should affirm that the nationalisation of the canal was a clear declaration that it was for Egypt and not the opposite. Perhaps many do not know that Abdel-Nasser accepted the reparation principle for other parties in the company; he even paid some of these reparations and also relinquished the headquarters building in Paris, which was the property of the Egyptian state at the time. He did this to endorse the principle of fair nationalisation without taking arbitrary measures.

In spite of this, the forces of aggression rushed madly at him, and Britain, France and Israel launched a war against Egypt that ended with a political victory, regardless of its military and civilian sacrifices.

Third, the Constantinople Convention in 1888 gave Egypt a legal weapon to be used whenever necessary, ensuring Egypt’s right to prevent the passage of any ship coming from or bound for any country that is at war with Egypt, or if the ship belongs to that country or the cargo is headed there. Egypt also has the right to inspect this waterway and the ships passing through it to make sure that no harmful substances are transferred through it. Hence, the passage of ships carrying nuclear substances is allowed by a special agreement; it isn’t an absolute right for the big countries, no matter how influential they are.

Consequently, it must be settled in the Egyptians’ minds that the aforementioned right gives Egypt the legitimacy to close the canal to any country whose antagonism reaches the state of war, whether in East Africa or on the Red Sea or along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. It even extends to any country that is engaged in war with the state that owns the canal, which has the sovereign decision over it, because Egypt (gentlemen) has paid dearly in digging the canal, as well as defending and maintaining it.

We will remember our friends in Greece; the canal pilots belonging to this ancient country were the ones who managed the canal traffic after nationalisation, following the withdrawal of the pilots belonging to countries that rejeced the nationalisation decision. In his speech announcing the decision, Abdel-Nasser stated explicitly that shareholders at the Paris stock exchange would be repayed at the prices of the day before nationalisation.

Egypt should have been the venue for the celebrations of the canal's 150th anniversary. We should have given this event its due attention because the canal was an Egyptian epic, where blood was mixed with body parts, decisions were blended with confrontations, and the Egyptian people came out in the end to assert their sovereignty and record their heroism, which has been unceasing over the years.

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