Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1307, (11- 17 August 2016)
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1307, (11- 17 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Canal generates hope

This week saw celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, an occasion to remind doubters of recent achievements, writes Galal Nassar

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Last Saturday Egypt celebrated the 60th anniversary of the nationalisation of the Suez Canal on 26 July 1956 and the first anniversary of the inauguration of the New Suez Canal on 6 August 2015. A huge ceremony was staged on a platform erected on the eastern bank of the new waterway, but the general mood seemed to be dominated by a determination to respond to attempts to cast doubt on the value of the ambitious project.

Critics have charged that the new branch of the famous canal has not achieved its envisioned goal and that constructing it in a single year overtaxed the national budget, depleted the Central Bank’s dollar reserves and sparked soaring prices and the collapse of the Egyptian pound against the dollar. The speeches by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, Prime Minister Hisham Ismail and Chair of the Suez Canal Authority Mohab Mamish at the event were clearly intended to put limit to such charges and dispel any scepticism.

President Al-Sisi warned that attempts to cast doubts on the country’s achievement sought to destroy the will of the Egyptian people which he said would be impossible. On the question of rising prices, the pound-to-dollar crisis, the blows to the tourist industry and other economic challenges, he said that such difficulties were in part the price of the progress Egypt is now experiencing. Building was difficult and required effort and willpower, he said, whereas tearing things down and questioning every achievement was easy.

He added that the progress that the Egypt people would see within the next few months in all domains could not have been accomplished in 10 or 15 years without the new canal and other mega-projects. He cited the attempted assassination of the former mufti of Egypt on Friday as an attempt to spoil the joy the Egyptian people felt on the occasion of the first anniversary of the inauguration of the new canal. The purpose of that assassination attempt was to portray Egypt as an unstable country following the successful military operation that eliminated Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis leader Abu Doaa Al-Ansari and 45 of his followers in Al-Arish on Thursday.

Addressing the attempts to discredit the country’s achievements, Al-Sisi said that “there has been a chronic crisis in the electricity sector for years. No sooner was it solved than some people emerged to say that bills were too high. The drive to go beyond the narrow Nile Valley has long been a popular demand. But when we began the project to cultivate 1.5 million feddans, some people began to tear into the project and denigrate its value. When we initiated major projects to develop the Sinai in keeping with our desire to build up the peninsula, critics popped up asking ‘why did you ignore Upper Egypt?’”

“Those who used to complain of accidents on the highways and the deterioration of their condition turned around to attack the 7,000 km road development and construction project we have initiated. There were those who have traded in the suffering of the inhabitants of informal areas who, they have claimed, have been ignored by the state. But those same people then attacked the new urban development and housing projects designed for the poor on the grounds that the poor were not sophisticated enough to live in such housing and needed programmes to educate them.”

“Just as we were about to complete the construction of 600,000 housing units to be opened in April 2017 in order to solve the problem of social housing, some asked ‘who are you building all those houses and residential quarters for,’” Al-Sisi said. “There are also those who condemn the programme to equip the Egyptian army with the most modern weaponry in the global arsenal as if they were blind to what was happening in the region and the challenges that threaten the survival of every country in it.”

Prime Minister Sherif Ismail focussed on the comprehensive nature of what critics have dismissed as a “mere” canal construction project. “The new canal is the first fruit of the national project for the complete development of the Suez Canal Zone. It seeks to transform the Suez Canal from being a mere waterway to being an integrated development zone that includes commercial, industrial, logistic and residential areas, that contributes to supporting the Egyptian economy and creates job opportunities for young people, and that creates development spheres in the Sinai and links them with the rest of the governorates of Egypt,” he said.

The prime minister explained that the Suez Canal Zone Development Project, which will cover approximately 460,000 square kilometre, will generate “an economic region of a special character.” The region will fall under the General Economic Authority of the Suez Canal Zone and will consist of a port to the west of Port Said, an industrial zone in West Qantara, a high-tech valley east of New Ismailia, and the ports of Al-Adabiya, Ain Al-Sokhna, Al-Arish and Tor.

Chair of the Suez Canal Authority Mohab Mamish’s response to sceptics focused on the actual and projected economic returns from the Suez Canal with its new branch. “In spite of the stagnation in international trade, which plunged 14 per cent from $19 trillion in 2014 to $16.5 trillion in 2015, according to the world trade performance indexes published by the Council of Ministers’ Centre for Information and Decision-Making in July 2016, the Suez Canal has generated $3.183 billion in revenues from 1 January 2016 to 6 August 2016, which constitutes four per cent growth in dollar revenues compared to the same period last year. This is the equivalent of LE126.260 billion, or a 13.5 per cent growth in Egyptian pounds, compared to the same period last year,” he said.

He added that the canal generated the highest profit it has ever made in a single financial year in the 2015/2016 financial year and an increase of LE2.27 billion over the previous year. He noted that a fisheries development project was underway on the east bank of the canal to produce fish of the highest international quality. 600 fishery basins have already been dug and they are scheduled to go into production in October.

Sources in the Suez Canal Authority told Al-Ahram Weekly that of the LE64 billion collected from public donations to fund the new canal, only LE20 billion had been spent on digging, dredging and expanding the 35 km and 24 metre deep waterway. The rest would be spent on digging four tunnels and a Nile water culvert under the canal into the Sinai and on the construction of the infrastructure for developing the areas on both sides of the canal, they said.

 

New links: A tour of the Suez Canal projects undertaken by President Al-Sisi with the internationally famous Egyptian engineer Hani Azer also seemed designed to put paid to the arguments of the sceptics.

Azer serves as a consultant to the project to construct four tunnels beneath the canal, which will be the largest of their sort in the world with a diametre of 14 metres and lengths of six to nine km. Azer said that “a railway and roads for vehicles will pass under the waters of the canal connecting the Sinai with the Delta and contributing to building new life in the area, with factories, houses and universities that will stimulate the economy, promote development, accelerate the transport of goods from home to abroad and vice versa. There will thus be a new link between the east of Egypt and the west.”

In an interview with the Weekly, he said that “I am here because Egypt has given me a lot and because President Al-Sisi asked me to come to Egypt to help in the planning and creating solutions to various problems. This is what Ibrahim Mehleb, the president’s assistant for national projects, asked me as well with regard to everything related to my specialisation in those projects which are being planned and implemented on scientific foundations and in accordance with accurate feasibility studies.”

“Nowhere in the world do infrastructure projects reap fruit the day after they are completed. That takes time,” Azer stressed. However, he indicated that people would soon be feeling the benefits of the new tunnels. “People used to have to wait for hours for goods to cross from one side of the canal to the other. Once the four tunnels go into operation, this will take at most 20 minutes,” he said.

He pointed out that all today’s economic powers started out with infrastructure projects to stimulate and revive their economies. “Digging the New Suez Canal is not burying dreams beneath the sand; it is just the starting point in a huge strategic plan. The advantages will not be felt immediately, but the projects will bring great benefit in time. It is impossible to promote development and to build industrial communities and projects without a link between them. This is what makes the canal, the tunnels and the water culverts so important,” Azer said.

He added that 4,800 Egyptian workers were engaged in the projects together with quite a few local construction and contracting firms. “All of them are working day and night to complete the construction of the tunnels within no more than 15 months, in spite of the fact that this would ordinarily take five to six years. This will be another Egyptian feat to add to the construction of the new canal in less than one year.”

Kamel Al-Wazir, chief of the Armed Forces Engineering Authority which oversaw the digging of the new canal and is currently overseeing the construction of the tunnels, roads and new cities, told the Weekly that “we tried to increase the numbers of ferries and pontoon bridges along the waterway in order to facilitate the transport of goods, vehicles and people, but that did not help much in solving the problems of overcrowding due to the growing pace of industrial and urban development in the area. The only alternative was to construct these strategic tunnels in order to solve the problems related to transport. But it was necessary to wait for the completion of the new canal before proceeding to the construction of the tunnels.”

Following his inspection tour of the tunnel construction sites, Al-Sisi underscored a point on which all strategic and security observers agree. “The construction of the Suez Canal 150 years ago created a divide between the land of Egypt in Sinai and the land of Egypt to the west of the canal and in the Delta. What we are doing today is creating a strong link between Sinai and the Delta. This is taking place in tandem with development and infrastructure projects in Upper Egypt,” he said.

This year’s Suez Canal celebrations occasioned an air and sea military display featuring some of the modern defence equipment that was recently added to the Egyptian arsenal, such as the French-made Dassault Rafale fighter planes, the American F-16s and Apache helicopters, the French Mistral class aircraft carrier now named Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the French-made FREMM class frigates and a number of missile boats and other ships.

Tribute was paid to former presidents Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Anwar Al-Sadat for the roles they played in the decision to nationalise the canal and in developing the strategic waterway. Tribute was also paid to two former heads of the Suez Canal Authority, Mohamed Ezzat Adel and Ahmed Fadel.

Adel, who was one of the leaders of the campaign to nationalise the canal in 1956, said that “when I was director of the Suez Canal Authority from 1983 to 1991, my dream, realised today, was to enable the canal to accommodate two-way traffic so as to improve its performance and its financial returns.” He stressed that it was impossible to gauge the success of any project within the space of less than a year, given the international recession. Critics who had attempted to do so under such circumstances were clearly politically motivated, he added.

He also noted that feasibility studies have already begun on a number of projects to be created in the Suez Canal Economic Zone, part of which will be developed in the area to the east of the canal in Port Said. These projects will generate jobs and stimulate economic activity in the Suez Canal area and beyond, Adel said.

“Sinai has suffered from many long years of neglect. Achieving human development there requires a massive process of change, whether in the north, middle or south of the peninsula. It requires freshwater being channelled in beneath the Suez Canal so as to put thousands of acres of land under cultivation in Sinai, in addition to the Salam Canal in Port Said, which will contribute to the cultivation of thousands of acres in the northern part of the Sinai,” he said.

He envisioned a bright future for what he termed the “economic development corridor” centred around the New Suez Canal. That corridor “will become a major artery that will feed sustainable development and that will alter the face of Egypt, turning it forever forward-looking and enabling it to progress with purely Egyptian energy,” he said.

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