As Egyptians marked the 2nd anniversary of the January 2011 Revolution with a bout of nationwide violent protests, the rioting was all but eclipsed by violence
that ran for several days in the coastal town of Port Said. Port Said, which lies on the tip of the Suez Canal as it meets the Mediterranean was up in arms against what its residents saw as unfair sentences against 21 of its young men who had been involved in football riots a year earlier. More than 70 men died and some 500 were injured.
Defying the curfew
The army was deployed in town—also in Suez which, together with the Suez Canal town of Ismailiya, witnessed large-scale rioting—in an attempt to attain order and protect public facilities. President Mursi declared a curfew from 9:00pm to 6:00am in the three Canal towns: Port Said, Ismailiya, and Suez.
Egyptians outside the three Canal towns were stupefied at the curfew declaration. “How does Mursi imagine he can implement that?” one young man at Watani cried in disbelief. “Is that so impossible?” a younger colleague asked. “Yes, it is impossible,” was the answer given by everyone around. And sure enough, come the first night of the curfew and all three towns were wide awake and on the street till the morning hours which ended the supposed curfew. Football games were held; various makeshift folk teams competed for the “Curfew Cup”. Dancing and singing was in full swing all night, to the melodies and songs of the simsimiya, a diminutive harp-like musical instrument whose origin goes back to ancient Egypt and for which the Canal people are especially famous. Street vendors peddled their ware to willing buyers.
The Canal towns defied the curfew outright, as all Egypt watched and applauded.
But what is it that makes the Canal townspeople so uniquely indomitable? Watani decided to do a quick exploration into the matter.
The Suez Canal
The history of the two of the Canal towns, Port Said and Ismailiya, goes back to the digging of the Suez Canal. Suez itself is much older, but has also been heavily involved in the Canal history.
The Suez Canal is a 192km (119 miles) long canal connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea and facilitating maritime travel and transportation of goods between Europe and Asia. Even though the idea of a canal connecting the two seas goes back in time to ancient Egypt, some 2000BC, the modern canal was dug in the 19th century, the brainchild of the Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps who in 1854 obtained a concession from the viceroy of Egypt, Said Pasha, to construct a canal open to ships of all nations. The plans of the canal were created by Austrian engineer Luigi Negrelli. In 1858, the Suez Canal Company was established to operate the canal for 99 years from its opening. The excavation work took nearly 11 years using forced labour of over 30,000 Egyptian workers, many of whom died of thirst and hunger as they toiled in the desert under extremely harsh working conditions. The canal opened to navigation on 17 November 1869, to sumptuous celebrations and fanfare held by Said’s son Ismail Pasha who had become viceroy and who invited leading world figures to attend.
Today, the Canal is a vital link in world trade, and a major contributor to Egypt’s economy.
In July 1956 the then president of Egypt Gamal Abdel-Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal Company, in order to use the proceeds to finance the Aswan High Dam. The Israeli-British-French invasion of Egypt which followed is known in Egypt as the Tripartite Aggression but elsewhere as the Suez Crisis, and ended with the withdrawal of the invaders in response to UN pressure.
Port Said, which was established in 1859 during the building of the Suez Canal and was named after Said Pasha, lies at the northern tip of the canal. It is a fishing and industrial centre, an important harbour for exports of Egyptian products like cotton and rice, and also a fuelling station for ships that pass through the Suez Canal. It thrives as a duty-free port and a tourist resort, and is home to the Lighthouse of Port Said
Port Said’s twin town is Port Fuad, which lies on the eastern bank of the canal. The two cities coexist, to the extent that there hardly is any town centre in Port Fuad. The cities are connected by free ferries running all through the day, and together they form a metropolitan area with over a million residents that extend both on the African and the Asian sides of the Suez Canal.
In 1859 the first 150 labourers digging the Canal camped in tents around a wooden shed. A year later, the number of inhabitants had risen to 2000— with the European contingent housed in wooden bungalows imported from northern Europe. By 1869, when the canal opened, the permanent population of Port Said had reached 10,000. The European district, clustered around the waterfront, was separated from the Arab district, Gemalia, 400 metres to the west, by a wide strip of sandy beach where a tongue of Lake Manzala reached towards the sea. This inlet soon dried out and was replaced by buildings; over time there was no division between the European and Arab quarters.
At the start of the twentieth century, two things happened to change Port Said: in 1902, Egyptian cotton began to be exported via Port Said; and in 1904 a standard gauge railway opened to Cairo. The result was to attract a large commercial, multinational community into the town.
The valiant city
Since its establishment Port Said played a significant role in Egyptian history. The British entered Egypt through the city in 1882, starting their occupation of Egypt. In 1936 a treaty was signed between the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Egypt called the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936. It stipulated the British pledge to withdraw all their troops from Egypt, except those necessary to protect the Suez Canal and its surroundings. Following World War II, Egypt denounced the Treaty of 1936, leading to skirmishes between Port Said’s resistance force and the British troops guarding the Canal in 1951.
The July 1952 Revolution brought to Egypt a nationalist rule and abolished the monarchy. The nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956 and the Tripartite Aggression led Port Said, where the main battles occurred, to play a historic role in resistance and national defence. The withdrawal of the last soldier of foreign troops was on the 23 December 1956. This day was chosen as the national day of the “valiant city”, the nickname earned so deservingly by Port Said.
After the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six Day War which resulted in the Israeli occupation of Sinai, the Suez Canal was closed by an Egyptian blockade until 5 June 1975, and the residents of Port Said were evacuated by the Egyptian government since the town had again turned into a major battleground. When the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal into Sinai during the 1973 October War, and a peace treaty was signed in 1979 with Israel, Port Said’s original residents returned home and the town throve once more.
The town of Ismailiya lies on the west bank of the Suez Canal, midway between Port Said to the north and Suez to the south.
It was founded and designed in 1863 by de Lesseps as a base camp for the construction of the Suez Canal, and derives its name from Khedive Ismail. The town housed the operating headquarters of the Suez Canal Company and the Central Movement Office, which regulated canal traffic. The Ismailiya Regional Museum was established in 1932, housing Pharaonic, Graeco-Roman, and Islamic collections.
Ismailiya is famous for its stiff resistance to the British occupying forces. It celebrates its National Day on 16 October, a day when the people of Ismailiya ignited the spark of resistance against the British back in 1951. The resistance culminated in a police uprising against the British on 25 January 1952, which was brutally crushed by the British forces. This incident was a key event leading to the Egyptian Revolution in July that year. British forces pulled out of Ismailiya in 1954.
When the Suez Canal was closed for eight years following the Six-Day War of June 1967, the economy of the city was destabilised leading much of its population to resettle elsewhere in Egypt.
It is interesting to note that the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Ismailiya by Hassan al-Banna in March 1928.
Suez is a seaport city located on the north coast of the Gulf of Suez near the southern tip of the Suez Canal, It has three harbours, Adabiya, Ain Sukhna and Port Tawfiq, and extensive port facilities. Together they form a metropolitan area. Railway lines and highways connect the city with Cairo, Port Said, and Ismailiya. Suez has a petrochemical plant, and its oil refineries have pipelines carrying the finished product to Cairo.
Since ancient times, Suez has acted as an important port which linked Egypt to Ethiopia and eastern trade points. In the 7th century a town named Kolzum stood just north of the site of present-day Suez and served as eastern terminus of a canal linking the Nile River and the Red Sea. That canal was closed in 770 by the second Abbasid caliph al-Mansur to prevent his enemies in Arabia from accessing supplies from Egypt and the lands north of it. Nonetheless, the town benefited from the trade that remained between Egypt and Arabia, and lived through cycles of flourish and decline.
Following the Ottoman conquest of Egypt at the beginning of the 16th century, Suez became both a major naval and trading station. The Ottoman fleets at Suez were instrumental in disputing control with the Portuguese over Indian Ocean trade.
By 1798, during the Napoleonic invasion, Suez had devolved into an unimportant town. Fighting between the French and the British in 1800 left most of the town in ruins. Its importance as a port rose again only after the Suez Canal opened in 1869.
Suez was virtually destroyed during battles of the Six Day War in 1967 and the October War in 1973, and was deserted in the interim. Those years, however, saw epic battles by the Suez resistance forces against the Israelis, the stories of which have been retold again and again, and testify to the toughness and courage of the Suez people. Reconstruction of Suez began soon after Egypt reopened the Suez Canal, following the October War.
The Canal towns share the common history of having foundations based on the epic suffering of thousands of Egyptian peasants tyrannised into forced labour. They also claim the honour of bearing the brunt of having been on the frontline of the battles Egypt engaged in during the 20th century, and of spearheading the national resistance movement against invaders and occupiers. Countless tales of heroism are theirs to tell, tales that Egyptians never tire of hearing and weaving into song and film.
Is it any surprise then that these people on the banks of the Canal have acquired the sturdy, unbeatable character that stands up to legendary challenges and which sets them a tad apart from the mellow, patient Nile Valley dwellers? History proves yet again that it is master of the show where the development of humans is concerned.
17 February 2013