British defence minister Michael Fallon (Photo: Reuters)
Today I am in Ismailia to mark a momentous milestone - the opening of Egypt's new Suez Canal. The first canal opened more than 150 years ago and took 15 years to build. This one only took a year. Egyptian imagination, ingenuity and innovation are rightly famed for creating the ancient wonders of the world. Today, the inheritors of that rich history, unveil a modern wonder.
But the new canal is more than just an enormous engineering feat. It is a vital artery of world trade. Last year, over 17,000 ships transited the Suez Canal, carrying 822 million tonnes of goods and accounting for some per cent of all sea-borne trade. Yet the new canal creates 72km of new channel and bypasses - almost doubling the number of ships that will be able to pass through the canal each day. Forecasts predict this will raise some $13.2bn per year for the Egyptian government.
And that's why the canal also represents something else. It is a symbol of Egyptian ambition. A signal of your desire for a more secure, more stable and more successful future. And that vision doesn't just matter to Egyptians, it matters to the whole region. As the Arab world's most populous nation, and as the historical and cultural centre of the Middle East, Egypt is strategically vital. When you succeed you send a message of hope to the whole region.
Yet the spectre of global terror – especially the Da’esh death cult - is trying to threaten those working for a brighter future. Tragically both our nations have direct experience of evil extremism in recent times - whether British tourists in Tunisia, Egyptian workers in Libya, or the Egyptian armed forces fighting Da’esh in North Sinai. That's why Britain is determined to stand shoulder to shoulder with Egypt to beat Da'esh. And we're doing so in three ways.
Firstly, through our military-to-military relationships. We have provided aviation security training and life-saving counter-IED training to Egyptian security officials. The UK and Egypt are both central members of the global coalition to counter Da’esh. In Iraq, the UK armed forces have been providing 70 per cent of the coalition’s tactical reconnaissance capability. The coalition's efforts are having a real impact. Da’esh in Iraq and Syria are already losing ground. They have surrendered a quarter of their territory in Iraq since the Global Coalition began operations in autumn 2014.
However, as our Prime Minister has made clear, we're determined to do even more. That means not just targetting Da’esh in Iraq but in Syria - where their command and control lies - and in Libya. We’re already working closely with the Egyptian government to co-ordinate our efforts on the UN peace process in Libya. We are also ramping up our cooperation on security channels with Egypt and across the region so that together we can defeat Da’esh in Libya.
Secondly, we’re working with you to defeat the extremist narrative. We can't stop the terrorists by military means alone. In a world where our adversaries are ever more adept at getting out their malicious messages we must expose the extremist narrative for what it is. So we're redoubling our efforts to close down the space that extremists operate in. In the UK, we've already joined with internet companies to take down more than 90,000 pieces of extremist material; we've trained hundreds of people to identify and prevent radicalisation; and we've excluded nearly 100 preachers of hate—more than any other Government.
Later this year we will publish a comprehensive strategy to counter extremism. This will improve our understanding of extremism, introduce measures to promote our shared values and strengthen civil society to prevent extremism taking hold. Critically, we see Egypt’s religious institutions Al-Azhar and Dar Al-Iftaa as partners in our counter-extremism strategy. These institutions have the authority to set out the correct interpretation of Islam. We will draw on their knowledge, learning, and wisdom in order to counter the distorted narrative peddled by the extremists.
Thirdly, we are strengthening Egypt's hand against the terrorists by supporting its vision of a more prosperous, more democratic society. British businesses are already active in Egypt. In fact, Britain is Egypt’s largest investor - responsible for almost half of all foreign direct investment. Our companies have put in $24.1bn over the last 5 years. BP’s $12bn investment this year was the largest in Egypt’s history. Vodafone employs 9,000 Egyptians. So the new Suez Canal offers even more opportunity to invest. British businesses have a strong track record in port management, infrastructure, engineering and security. So we'll be keeping a close eye on areas where we can get more involved.
But beyond business we're determined to keep opening up opportunity across Egyptian society. We're providing language and skills training to 85,000 young Egyptians. We’ve invested $50m in economic projects since 2011, supporting small and medium-sized enterprises and some of the most vulnerable in Egyptian society. And we're continuing to encourage the government to implement the rights guaranteed by the 2014 constitution.
Egyptians have rejected both extremism and authoritarianism. There is a viable alternative: a responsive and accountable government, founded on rights, freedoms, and the rule of law. These are the cornerstones of long-term stability.
So on the day you offer a second Suez Canal as a gift to the world, Britain is offering our solidarity in exchange. Working ever more closely with you to stop the terrorists, so the people of Egypt, and this region, can build the future they deserve.
*Michael Fallon is the UK Defence Secretary