Cairo: Officially inaugurated on November 17, 1869, the Suez Canal has since shaped Egypt’s history and become a lifeline for the world economy.
The canal is a short artificial shipping route linking the Mediterranean and Red seas, and Asia and Europe.
Since its inception and until today, the canal is the main gateway for the global trade movement and a prime shipping destination due to its unique geographical position.
The waterway was the brainchild and obsession of dominate European powers in the 19th century who saw it as a massive shortcut for trade routes going to India and Asia as previously they would have to sail around Africa.
The shortcut would spare them precious time and money for their trade fleet expeditions.
The canal stretches from the Egyptian city of Port Saeed on the Mediterranean Sea to the Port of Suez on the Red Sea.
When built, it was 164 kilometres long and eight metres deep.
Upgrade works have since expanded it, raising its depth to 24 metres.
It has tremendous significance because of its strategic location which has made it the centre of and a witness to regional wars that forced its shutdown on several occasions.
In 1956, then-president Jamal Abdul Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal, in a defiant and anti-imperial act that the international media dubbed “The Suez Crisis”.
Who first came up with the idea to build the canal?
French explorer Napoleon Bonaparte came up with the idea while commanding a French expedition to Egypt in 1789.
He thought that such a canal would give France a strategic advantage in the trade and shipping industry to its then-rival, Great Britain.
The idea never came to fruition because of a mistake made by his surveyors.
They thought that the levels of the two seas were too high and the project would flood Egypt’s Nile Delta.
However, the idea did not die there.
In 1854, Ferdinand de Lesseps, France’s then-assistant consul in the Egyptian Mediterranean city of Alexandria, convinced Egypt’s ruler Mohammad Saeed of a similar project and secured his approval.
Four years later, the Universal Company of the Maritime Suez Canal, co-owned by France and Egypt, was established to build the proposed waterway and operate it for 99 years.
How long did it take to build?
10 years. Digging the canal began on April 25, 1859.
Around one million Egyptians, mostly peasants, were recruited to do the job under harsh conditions including poor wages.
They had to remove about 74 million cubic metres of earth.
Around 120,000 of the labour died in the process due to food shortages, lack of health care and ill-treatment.
The canal was completed in 1869 at a cost of 433 million francs.
How was the canal inaugurated?
In preparation for its grand opening, Egypt’s ruler Khedive Ismael, who succeeded Saeed in 1863, travelled to Europe to invite royals, heads of the governments and leading politicians to the lavish inauguration.
On November 17, 1869, the canal was opened for international navigation with an extravaganza in Port Saeed where 6,000 guests gathered to celebrate.
Among the attendees were European dignitaries including Napoleon III's wife, Empress Eugenie de Montijo.
Guns fired celebratory shots in honour of top guests including Empress Eugenie of France.
Some 6,000 chefs served the dignitaries.
In Cairo, an opera house was also opened in conjunction with the canal’s launch.
The celebrations cost about 1 million pounds sterling, according to some historians.
How did Britain get involved?
Just six years later, Britain purchased Egypt’s shares in the waterway for 400,000 pounds sterling after the latter’s debts mounted and teetered on the brink of bankruptcy.
However, France continued to have the majority stakes.
Amid tussles for control, major powers signed in 1888 the Constantinople Convention that gave the waterway international status and open to all ships in times of war and peace. Egypt was not a signatory.
The provision was not always respected, including during the two World Wars.
Although the 99-year contract of the Canal was valid until 1968, the operating company sought to extend it, taking advantage of Egypt’s dire financial situation.
In 1910, the company proposed to the Egyptian government to stretch the contract by 40 more years in return for giving Egypt a share of the profits.
The proposal, backed by the British occupiers of Egypt, sparked an outcry in the country. Egyptian nationalists, led by Mohammad Farid, campaigned against the proposed extension, seeing it as a new attempt to exploit their ancestors’ excruciating work in building the shipping route.
That year (1910) also saw the assassination of Egypt’s then prime minister Boutros Ghali, who favoured the extension.
Faced with public pressure, the Egyptian parliament rejected the extension offer, keeping the original 99-year concession that iconic nationalist leader Gamal Abdul Nasser terminated in 1956.
Nasser was a prominent member of a group of young army officers, who in 1952 toppled Egypt’s monarchy and installed a republican system in its place the following year.
The young revolutionaries sought to empower millions of poor Egyptian peasants and workers through a series of agrarian and labour reforms.
Upon taking office in June 1956, Nasser aimed to implement ambitious socio-economic development schemes geared towards achieving social justice and industrial progress in the country. His efforts earned him the epithet “the father of the poor”.
What was the Suez Crisis?
On June 26, 1956, Abdul Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal to use its revenues in constructing the High Dam, a hydroelectric facility, in Upper Egypt.
In response, France and Britain froze Egypt’s assets in their banks.
Militarily, France, Britain and Israel waged tripartite attacks on Egypt marking the climax of what came to be known as the Suez Crisis.
Israel first initiated the attack on October 29, 1956, an act that was followed by an Anglo-French ultimatum to Egypt to allow British and French troops to take over the canal cities of Port Saeed, Ismailia and Suez allegedly to safeguard navigation in the waterway.
They gave Egypt 12 hours to respond. Hardly had Egypt rejected the ultimatum, when Britain and France started airs raids on Egyptian areas including Cairo, triggering Egyptians’ resistance and a global outcry.
The Israelis, Britons and their French allies had to halt their attacks and pull out of the Egyptian territory under international pressure
The hostilities forced the closure of the Canal until April 1957.
How did the 1967 war affect Suez Canal?
The 1967 War, which erupted on June 5, 1967 pitted Israel against several Arab countries including Egypt.
In May, 1967, Syria accused Israel of preparing to attack it.
In a show of solidarity with Syria, Nasser declared barring Israeli vessels from passing through the Red Sea Strait of Tiran, a move that Israel called a “hostile act”.
On June 5, 1967 Israel initiated the so-called Six-Day War that pitted it against Egypt, Syria and Jordan.
The war ended with Israel capturing the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the Palestinian Gaza Strip (which was under Egyptian administration); the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria.
Military tensions between Egypt and Israel dragged on. Both were engaged in intermittent reciprocal attacks, which Egyptians dubbed the “war of Attrition” until a US-mediated ceasefire in August 1970.
The escalation forced the closure of the Canal for eight years.
During those years, the waterway was infested with various types of explosives and sunken ships.
On October 6,1973, Egypt mounted a surprise attack against Israeli forces in Sinai, an act that forced Israel to sit for negotiations.
Starting from 1974, Egypt mounted an internationally supported demining campaign with the aim of rehabilitating the Canal for safe shipping.
In a symbolic step, Egypt’s then president Anwar Al Sadat reopened the Canal to international navigation on June 5, 1975 after Cairo had sealed a military disengagement accord with Israel.
US-brokered talks between the two countries culminated in a historic peace treaty in 1979.
What is the New Suez Canal?
On August 6 2015, Egyptian President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi, joined by several world dignitaries, inaugurated a 35-kilometre two-direction extension to the original 193-kilometre canal.
The extension was meant to cut the waiting time for ships passing through the waterway to three hours instead of eight.
The eight-billion-dollar project was built in a record one year and wholly funded by Egyptians through certificates of deposits, reflecting public support for Al Sissi.
$8 billioncost of the extension project
It also increases the daily average of transiting vessels to 97 ships by the year 2023, up from 49 ships on the old canal.
The major overhaul has furthermore provided direct non-stop transit for 45 ships in the two directions.
Why is the extension so important?
The extension is part of a multi-billion-dollar ambitious development scheme designed to turn Egypt into a global trade and logistics hub.
The large-scale project features six ports and four industrial zones.
The Egyptian government expects annual revenues from Suez Canal to hit 13.2 billion by the year 2023 against 5.9 billion dollars in the fiscal year 2018-19.
Egypt pins a lot of hopes on the expanded Suez Canal, already a key source of national income, to rejuvenate its ailing economy.
The hopes have recently started fulfilling after a spell of slump blamed on weak global trade and a plummet in oil prices.
In October, the Canal’s revenues hit a record monthly of $515 million, according to a senior official.
-web package put together by Layelle Saad, Middle East Editor