Egypt Rejoices! That’s the English translation of the highest trending hashtag this past month in Egypt. On 6 August 2015, the New Suez Canal was opened with grand ceremony by President Al-Sisi. Billboards heralded the opening as “Egypt’s miracle and gift to the world” as Egypt’s head of state oversaw the opening from the deck of the El-Mahrousa – the first ship to pass through the canal at its original opening in 1869.
Leaving aside the differing worldwide reactions to the new canal, let’s travel back to that first voyage of the El-Mahrousa through these waters. The original Suez Canal was opened on 17 November 1869 after 10 years of hard labour by a million Egyptian workers, under French supervision. Lacking today’s drills and cranes, it was dug manually with 100,000 laborers dying in the process. “The Suez canal has always been a symbol of the Egyptian people’s will,” Vice-Admiral Mohab Mamish, chairman of the Suez Canal Authority, told journalists in Ismailia.
The Suez Canal’s significance lies in its being the shortest route for sea transport between Europe and Asia, connecting the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea. It allows ships to travel between Europe and South Asia without navigating around Africa thereby trimming 7,000 kilometers from the sea voyage from Europe to India.
World conflicts and wars have forced its closure multiple times. Perhaps the best-known disruption was during the Suez Crisis or what is commonly known here as the Tripartite Aggression. The UK, France, and Israel invaded Egypt after former President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s decision to nationalise the canal and hand it over to the Suez Canal Authority in 1956. Another war in 1973 also led to its closure until 1975.
A few months into his presidency, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi launched a new endeavour for the canal. Known as the New Suez Canal, it would now allow two-way access for 72 kilometers. Waiting and transit time will be significantly reduced. According to the Suez Canal Authority, transit time will be shortened from 18 hours to 11 hours for the southbound convoy, and waiting time for vessels slashed to three hours at most from 8-11 hours. All of this will reduce costs and make the Suez Canal more attractive for shipping companies. The anticipated returns include increasing the average daily traffic from 49 to 97 vessels by 2023 and a boost to Suez Canal revenues from $5.3 billion at present to $13.226 billion in 2023. This is expected to greatly increase job opportunities and provide a much-needed stimulus to the Egyptian economy.
Cause for pride
These are great expectations for a nation and only time will tell whether the forecasts will be fulfilled. What no-one can deny is that the canal has given ordinary Egyptian citizens with a reason to rejoice and to be proud. To rejoice, because there finally seems to be a glimpse of hope after years of social, economic, and political chaos. To be proud, because a mammoth project that experts said would take three years was completed within a year – thanks to the thousands of Egyptians who worked day and night for 12 months through scorching summer heat and the biting cold winter. Many interviews with workers showed how happy and proud they felt at investing their time and lives into constructing something worthwhile for their nation, while others were simply happy to be employed and able to feed their families.
A climax of the Opening Ceremony was the momentous pass-by of two huge cargo ships in both lanes of the Suez Canal, watched by the president and hundreds of international leaders. It was something in which most Egyptians felt they could take pride.
“This is a huge undertaking on a world scale. It has been completed in a time that is frankly astonishing,” said Peter Hinchliffe, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping. The days preceding the Opening witnessed billboards, countdowns, and Egyptian flags in the streets, and the big day itself was made a national holiday when public transport was free and public gardens open to all.
Yet my heart wanders to the very, very poor; some 26 per cent of the population who live in miserable conditions, well below the poverty line. They need more than one day in a year to celebrate. Please join us in prayer for them; that their lives will be improved through this and future endeavours. We deserve to rejoice no more than they do. I echo the Psalmist’s words: “I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy” (Psalm 140:12).