New Suez Canal a Triumph, but Egyptian President Still in Deep Water

Completed two years ahead of schedule, the new canal’s true worth is as a national symbol. Even so, it can’t wash over bigger troubles.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi attending the celebration of an extension of the Suez Canal in Ismailia, Egypt, Aug. 6, 2015.
President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi attending the celebration of an extension of the Suez Canal in Ismailia, Egypt, Aug. 6, 2015.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Only a new opera was missing from the dedication of the Suez Canal’s younger and shorter sister on Thursday. A balloon that read “Long live Egypt” cruised aloft, huge national flags fluttered and the main streets were lit up. A special video produced by the army, which was screened on television, depicted President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi as someone leading his country toward new horizons. Some 6,000 guests were invited, including official delegations from about 90 countries, along with thousands of Egyptians who won tickets via a special lottery.

The original Suez Canal, which was inaugurated 146 years ago and was initially 164 kilometers (102 miles) long, took 10 years to complete. The khedive Ismail, who commissioned the excavation, paid 150,000 French francs alone for Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “Aida,” but it fell victim to the Franco-Prussian War and wasn’t able to arrive in time for the ceremony. It was first performed only two years later, in 1871, at a new opera house built by the khedive; at the ceremony, it was replaced by “Rigoletto.”

But “Aida” remains the opera most associated with the canal. On Thursday, well-known Egyptian composer Omar Khairat was invited to conduct the orchestra in the “Triumphal March” from “Aida” in honor of the new, $8 billion canal, which will henceforth be associated with Sissi.

The new canal’s economic value is far from negligible. According to estimates, it’s expected to double the number of ships passing through Suez and more than double Egypt’s earnings from the canal – to $13 billion a year, compared to $5.5 billion today. But even more than that, it’s a national symbol.

President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956, in response to the British and French rejection of his request for funding to build the Aswan Dam, led them to launch the Sinai Campaign (together with Israel) and bolstered the status of both Nasser and Egypt. The war symbolized Egypt’s final liberation from foreign occupation.

Today, the new canal similarly symbolizes Egypt’s liberation from dependence on foreigners. A substantial amount of the construction cost was financed by donations from Egyptian citizens and companies; some of the rest was financed by government bonds bearing 12 percent interest. But Egypt also had to borrow large amounts from the banks and seek assistance from several Gulf states, primarily Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Six international companies and more than 9,000 workers dug the new canal, which is 45-kilometers long. And they produced another Egyptian miracle: The work was finished in a year, even though it was expected to take three.

This isn’t just an engineering achievement; it might restore Egyptians’ faith in their government. Sissi’s predecessors also frequently promised huge projects, but those projects remained on paper.

Crippling cost of war

Yet the fleet of ships that inaugurated the new canal – and even the public appearance of Egypt’s only female captain – can’t raise the anchors that are weighing Sissi down. The war against Islamic terror in both Sinai and Cairo is far from won. Even as the inauguration ceremony took place, the Egyptian air force was bombing targets near El-Arish, killing at least 12 terrorists, military sources said. Meanwhile, Islamic State’s Sinai affiliate, Wilayat Sinai (formerly known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis), keeps killing Egyptian soldiers and attacking civilian targets.

This war is eating deep into Egypt’s budget, which relies heavily on grants and loans from Saudi Arabia. Egypt is getting military and technological assistance from the United States and Britain, and its recently renewed strategic dialogue with Washington will likely produce more. But it’s Egyptians who are being killed.

A Palestinian watches as smokes rises from an Egyptian coastguard vessel on the coast of northern Sinai, as seen from the border of southern Gaza Strip with Egypt July 16, 2015.Credit: Reuters

British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, who attended the ceremony, noted the huge sums British companies have invested in Egypt over the last five years – about $24 billion – as well as the sophisticated bomb-detection technology his government has given Cairo. But his praise for Sissi focused primarily on the expectation that Egypt will continue to be part of the coalition against Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) in Iraq and Syria, which concerns Britain far more than the war on terror inside Egypt does.

Cairo has no problem with the war against Islamic State. But it does have a problem with Riyadh’s position in this war. Egypt suspects that Saudi Arabia is more interested in pushing Iran out of the Middle East than in eradicating ISIS. Riyadh’s desire to establish a “Sunni axis” to oppose the “Shi’ite axis” led by Iran is liable to come at the expense of Egypt’s policies.

This Sunni axis already includes Turkey, which Egypt views as a hostile state. Last month’s “historic” meeting between Khaled Meshal, head of Hamas’ political bureau, and Saudi King Salman – which is meant to ensure that Hamas severs ties with Iran and joins the Arab-Sunni axis instead – also didn’t go down well with Sissi.

Above all, Riyadh’s willingness to support Syrian militias affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood has caused teeth-grinding in Cairo. And while Egypt joined the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis in Yemen, it isn’t exactly thrilled with the Saudis’ support for a Yemenite government that relies on support from Yemen’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood at a time when Sissi himself is waging uncompromising war against his own branch of it.

Granted, Riyadh is making great efforts to show unreserved support for Egypt. A week ago, it signed a cooperation agreement with Cairo. At the canal dedication, it was represented by the king’s own son, who is also responsible for the kingdom’s foreign policy. The Saudi-owned paper Asharq Al-Awsat published a long article on the eve of the ceremony detailing the history of relations between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and the frequent meetings between the countries’ senior officials, including those between Salman and Sissi. And this week, the Saudi ambassador met with senior Egyptian journalists to assure them nothing had changed in his country’s policies toward Egypt.

But it seems as if these demonstrative efforts merely underscore the fact that a grayish-black cat has crossed the two countries’ paths. The sourness in bilateral relations stems not only from Saudi Arabia’s sudden turn toward the Muslim Brotherhood, but, primarily, from the fact that Egypt no longer holds any levers with which to influence diplomatic moves in the Middle East.

For instance, Washington made Riyadh, not Cairo, the focus of its campaign to sell the nuclear deal with Iran overseas. Egypt isn’t considered a key country in the war against Islamic State, and the Arab coalition against the group relies primarily on the Gulf states. In the absence of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Egypt has lost the most important diplomatic lever it once had. And should the process resume, it’s Riyadh, not Cairo, that will play the lead role.

Although Washington’s attitude has changed enough that it agreed to resume providing Egypt with sophisticated weaponry – primarily to keep it from making arms deals with Russia – it continues to view Egypt as being on probation with regard to human rights. Washington, which doesn’t dare demand that Saudi Arabia, Qatar or the United Arab Emirates enact democratic reforms, doesn’t hesitate to poke sharpened spurs into Egypt’s loins to promote democratization there.

The pomp of the canal’s inauguration, with its spectacular fireworks, will fade in another few days. But the real explosions will continue. Egypt does have a new canal, whose importance shouldn’t be underestimated. But by 2025, the United Nations predicts, it will suffer from a severe shortage of drinking water for its population. A canal full of ships won’t help it then.

Click the alert icon to follow topics: