REUTERS - The first cargo ships passed through Egypt's New Suez Canal on Saturday in a test-run before it opens next month, state media reported, 11 months after the army began constructing the $8 billion canal alongside the existing 145-year-old Suez Canal.
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The new waterway, which President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi hopes will help expand trade along the fastest shipping route between Europe and Asia, will be formally inaugurated on Aug. 6.
Sissi wants the canal to become a symbol of national pride and to help combat Egypt's double-digit unemployment. The old Suez Canal is already a vital source of hard currency for Egypt, which has seen tourism and foreign investment drain away in the years of turmoil since a 2011 uprising.
Three container ships crossed the new waterway, state news agency MENA reported. One was an American ship heading to Egypt's Port Said from Saudi Arabia, another was a Danish ship sailing to the United States from Singapore, and a Bahraini ship going to Italy from Saudi Arabia.
The exercise took place amid tight security. An insurgency based in the Sinai Peninsula, which borders on the Suez Canal, has killed hundreds of soldiers and police since 2013. State television said there were helicopters circling above and showed naval vessels escorting the ships.
Mohab Mameesh, chairman of the Suez Canal Authority overseer of the project, told state television that this test-run had been a success and that more would follow.
At a later news conference, Mameesh said construction of another canal near the East Port Said port on the Mediterranean Sea would begin as soon as the New Suez Canal had been inaugurated.
A senior Suez Canal Authority source told Reuters that the canal is expected to cost around $60 million and will be 9.5 kilometres (6 miles) long, 18.5 meters deep, and 250 meters wide.
It will take around seven months to build, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The existing canal earns Egypt around $5 billion per year. The New Suez Canal, which will allow two-way traffic of larger ships, is supposed to increase revenues by 2023 to $15 billion.
It should also reduce navigation time for ships to 11 hours from about 22 hours, Mameesh said last month, making it the fastest such waterway in the world.
The government also plans to build an international industrial and logistics hub nearby that it hopes will eventually make up about a third of the Egyptian economy.