Problems on hold
The date 17 November marks 150 years on the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. It took 10 years to dig the great waterway which connects the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, and which created a new international trade route between East and West, most notably connecting southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent to Europe. The Suez Canal replaced the old maritime route that linked East and West through a long journey around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. The Canal offered a much shorter, safer route and, in so doing, revolutionised international trade and worked a strategic leap in the significance of Egypt’s geographic and political position. World powers coveted Egypt, attempting time and again to hold sway over her under the pretext of securing international navigation in the Suez Canal. This brought on Egypt troubles of all kinds, including a number of wars, to the point that Egyptians would occasionally wonder whether the Canal was a blessing or a curse. But it must be admitted that the Suez Canal has always been a blessing to Egypt and, in turn, to international trade. This is especially true given the country’s unfailing defence of the Canal, and the development works Egypt has long lavished on the waterway, repeatedly expanding and deepening it to accommodate the accelerated rise in size and capacity of ever-bigger ships.
Four years ago, Egypt inaugurated the most recent of the Suez Canal development projects. It involved deepening and reinforcing the 195km-long waterway, and digging a parallel canal that joined the original one at two points 60km and 95km north of Suez. In addition, the Great Bitter Lakes and Ballah by-pass were deepened and widened through a total length of 37km, bringing the total length of the project up to 72 km. That allowed the Suez Canal to become a mostly two-way course, allowing ships to sail in both directions at the same time, and significantly cutting their transit time.
The project also involved the establishment of state-of-the-art logistics and commercial centres, as well as an international free trade zone alongside the Canal, promising to take Egypt into new horizons of modernity and prosperity. The Suez Canal thus remains a source of economic pride to Egypt and one of her main public revenue sources.
As we celebrate 150 years on the opening of the Suez Canal, we cannot overlook two historic facts that remain engraved in Egypt’s national conscious. First, is that the Canal was dug by the hands and sinews of conscripted Egyptians forcefully driven to carry out this arduous work under extreme conditions for some ten years. Tens of thousands of Egyptian peasants and labourers paid their life for this gruelling work under cruel living conditions. We must remember that digging the Canal started with no modern digging equipment; under no modern labour laws or worker recognised rights. The result, despite the pain and sorrow involved, was an outstanding achievement for which our Egyptian forefathers will forever be hailed as heroes no less than those who built the pyramids. True, history gives credit for the Suez Canal project to the French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps who designed the Canal and supervised the work, just as credit for the great pyramids goes to the ancient Egyptian kings Cheops, Chefren and Micerinos. Yet history must redeem the strong hands and outstanding effort and sacrifice of the Egyptians who turned these ambitious ideas into eternal living edifices.
The other historic fact that will remain engraved in Egypt’s national conscious is the role played by the French Military Campaign led by Napoleon against Egypt, which lasted through 1798 to 1801 and is credited with bringing up the idea of digging the Suez Canal. Such pioneering ideas will remain among the historic prints that changed both the geography and history of the world, and gave humanity a push forward. In this context, history records that it was the French Campaign that had envisioned a canal that would directly join the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. But the idea had to be abandoned once a preliminary survey erroneously concluded that the Red Sea was 33 feet higher than the Mediterranean. The miscalculation stood against the implementation of the project, until a few years later more precise calculations proved that both seas are at the same level and that the canal could be dug. But the project was again frozen when Egypt’s Viceroy Muhammad Ali Pasha who governed Egypt from 1805 to 1848, was not keen on it. It was his successor Khedive Said Pasha, Egypt’s ruler from 1854 until 1863, who welcomed the idea presented to him by de Lesseps. In 1859, the digging of the Canal started. Work continued for 10 years, until the Suez Canal was opened on 17 November 1869 by Khedive Ismail Pasha, ruler of Egypt from 1863 to 1879. The opening featured unprecedented festivities attended by a plethora of world royalty, elites, and dignitaries who had been invited for the occasion; topping the list was French Empress Eugenie.
We remember today part of the great history of the Suez Canal, 150 years after it was inaugurated. I have compiled this resume from my reading of the French Campaign on Egypt, which has been cause of almost never-ending controversy: can the French Campaign be viewed today in a colonial light, or in an enlightenment perspective? This issue I will tackle in a future editorial.
For more details on the story of the Suez Canal:
17 November 2019