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El-Sisi invokes the ghost of Nasser as he opens the new Suez Canal
6 August 2015

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi will no doubt feel he is striding in the giant footsteps of Gamal Abdel Nasser when he officially launches what his government is calling the ‘New Suez Canal’ today.

And he will surely hope that his people, and the rest of the world, feel that too as he heads a maritime procession down the new canal before cutting the ribbon in the presence of many world leaders, including French President François Hollande.

The ‘New Suez Canal’ is not, in fact a completely new canal, if that is taken to mean one that runs the entire, 164-kilometre length of the old one, from Port Said in the Mediterranean to Suez in the Red Sea.

Instead the project adds the longest and widest new channel to the canal since its original construction in 1869. That 35-kilometre new passing lane, plus the deepening of about 37 kilometres of the old canal, will enable ships to travel in both directions at the same time, instead of waiting for many hours for their turn. ‘Our message is that our canal runs in two directions,’ Vice Admiral Mohab Mamish, Chairman of the Suez Canal Authority, told a news conference about the inauguration last week.

Two-way traffic will decrease the average transit time from the roughly 18 hours at present, to 11, he said. This would in turn almost double the number of ships that can use the canal, from an average of 49 daily now to 97 by 2023. And it would more than double revenue by then, from the current US$5.5 billion to US$13 billion a year.

The new Suez Canal is a political opportunity to present Egypt as capable, prosperous and secure
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That should bring a fairly rapid return on the estimated cost of US$4 billion that Mamish gave for the work done so far – though the eventual cost, with additional projects such as building six tunnels under the canal, is expected to be double that figure. The government is also planning to use the Suez expansion to boost a host of new developments along the shores of the canal, including a new trans-shipment junction at the northern end – though details remain sketchy.

There is no doubt that this is a remarkable achievement, logistically. It was originally scheduled to take three to five years to complete from the turning of the first sod – a year ago yesterday. But el-Sisi accelerated construction, led by the military, throwing more money at it and even resorting to foreign construction companies for what was originally intended as a patriotic, Egyptians-only endeavour.

That showed how important the project was to him. Financially, it would be a catalyst to spur a flagging economy. Politically, it would be a means to present to the world, Egypt – a country still traumatised and divided by the political turbulence of the last four years – as now stable, safe and secure.

The bright hopes of Egypt’s ‘Arab Spring’ are now just fast-fading memories. The country has turned full circle since February 2011: from the faux democracy of military-officer-turned-president Hosni Mubarak and his ouster by a popular uprising; to the democratic election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi and his ouster by a popular-uprising-cum-military coup, led by then General el-Sisi; and back once again to the faux democratic rule of a military officer turned president.

The project might have been fuelled by the perceived future threat of an expanded Panama Canal
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And so, Egyptians remain sharply divided and many disillusioned in the aftermath of the upheaval and the government’s current repression of political dissent. Against that gloomy backdrop, el-Sisi’s government has grasped the ‘New Suez Canal’ as an opportunity to present an image of capability, prosperity and security to the world. As Mamish said, it ‘will send a message to the whole world that Egypt is safe, stable and Egyptians are capable of realising achievements despite the challenges facing them.’

Providing reassurances about safety and security is especially important, given an upsurge of increasingly brazen terrorist attacks in the wake of the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood. The jihadist organisation, Ansar Beit el Makdis – which rebranded and declared itself the ‘Sinai Province’ or Wilayat Sina of the Islamic State (IS/Da’ish) – has grown particularly ambitious in the scale of its attacks on the Egyptian military, killing dozens of soldiers in the Sinai recently.

Of particular concern to the security of the Suez Canal, was the attack by Wilayat Sina last month on an Egyptian warship in the Mediterranean off the Sinai peninsular. The jihadists said one of their missiles had killed the whole crew, while the Egyptian military insisted none had died.

As a result of such incidents, the government has made it clear that security for today’s inauguration – and indeed for the canal more generally – will be intense. Egypt’s online journal Daily News quoted Egyptian armed forces’ Chief-of-Staff, Mahmoud Hegazy, as saying that for his troops, ‘securing the New Suez Canal is a holy mission’.

If Egypt could pull off today’s event ‘without any compromising security incidents, they’re also going to use this as an opportunity to project a different image of Egypt, an image of Egypt as stable, able to carry out major public works, and defend competently against these jihadi enemies,’ Time magazine recently quoted Michael Hanna, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation in New York, as saying.

The new Suez Canal may boost Egypt’s economy, but can it solve el-Sisi’s legitimacy problem?
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As well as heightening insecurity, the political upheavals of the last four-and-a-half years have also battered the economy. Tourism, especially, a mainstay of the economy, plummeted, though it has been recovering since el-Sisi’s election just over a year ago. Unemployment also remained high. And clearly one objective of the New Suez Canal project has been to revive the economy and create jobs – one million of them, according to Mamish’s estimate.

Nevertheless, many economists have questioned the economic justification for the high cost of the new canal. United Kingdom-based Capital Economics said in a report this week, quoted by Bloomberg, that global trade would have to grow by 9% a year for the Suez Canal to reach its goal of doubling traffic by 2023. That was ‘unlikely to say the least,’ the institution concluded, given the sluggish world economy.

However, other analysts suggest that Egypt is being more far-sighted than that, and that in the long term the investment in faster transit through the canal will pay off. North American research organisation, Stratfor, believes the Egyptian government was spurred on to expand the canal – which now carries about 8% of global seaborne trade – by the perceived future threat of greater competition posed by an expanded Panama Canal.

‘The decision to expand the Suez Canal could have far-reaching consequences for global shipping trends and could help stabilise and diversify Egypt's long-term economic profile,’ it concluded. Still, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that in the end, this is above all a legitimacy and legacy project for el-Sisi.

Amr Adly, a scholar with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut told Bloomberg News that he believed any future economic payoff was trumped by political considerations. ‘El-Sisi is trying to gain legitimacy through his government’s achievements,’ Adly said. His thinking is that Suez ‘shows the government can deliver, it can commit to something and get it done.’

A diplomatic source, who did not wish to be named, recalled the deep historical and psychological significance of the Suez Canal for Egyptians. Nasser, the first president of the Republic, nationalised the canal in 1956 – provoking an ill-advised attack from Britain, France and Israel, which failed dismally. ‘Today el-Sisi is saying; “I’m walking in the footsteps of Nasser, a great revolutionary,”’ the source said.

The ‘New Suez Canal’ may boost Egypt’s economy, though perhaps not as much or as fast as the government is claiming. But it is more doubtful that it could solve el-Sisi’s legitimacy problem – which is ultimately also Egypt’s security problem – and perhaps, in the end, also its economic problem. That will take more than the invocation of ghosts from the past, no matter how impressive.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

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