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Suez Canal, the 'lifeline' for Egypt

(China Daily) Updated: 2019-11-12 07:19

ISMAILIA, Egypt - One hundred and fifty years after the Suez Canal opened, the international waterway is hugely significant to the economy of modern-day Egypt, which famously nationalized it in 1956, sparking an occupation by French, British and Israeli troops.

The canal, which links the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, was opened to navigation on Nov 17 in 1869 and was expanded in 2015 to accommodate larger ships.

Dug in the 19th century using "rudimentary tools", the canal has today become "a lifeline for Egypt and countries around the world", Admiral Osama Rabie, head of the Suez Canal Authority, said in an interview.

"We give credit to Ferdinand de Lesseps for putting forward the idea," he said, referring to the French diplomat who masterminded the waterway dug over a decade between 1859 and 1869.

In Egypt and France, stamps bearing images resembling de Lesseps have been printed to mark the anniversary. And a conference, The Suez Canal: A Place of Memories, is to be held in Egypt's famed Bibliotheca Alexandrina on Wednesday.

Rabie insisted it was the "genius" of the Egyptian people that enabled the project to really come to life.

"It was a miracle by all accounts to excavate a 164-kilometer-long canal in 10 years with rudimentary tools," he said. "A quarter of Egyptians took part in the excavations. That was about a million citizens out of the population of 4.5 million people at that time."

"Between 100,000 and 120,000 people died," Rabie added, highlighting that many succumbed to disease. Experts, however, dispute those figures, saying the fatalities were poorly documented.

In 2015, Egyptians threw their support behind President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi's project to expand the canal, "purchasing 64 billion Egyptian pounds ($3.8 million) of investment certificates within eight days".

Thanks to that project, the transit time has now been cut from 22 to 11 hours, and the number of vessels crossing has increased from an average of 40 to 45 daily up to 60-65, he said.

Nowadays, container ships account for more than half of the canal's total traffic. Some of them are among the largest in the world, reaching a capacity of up to 23,000 TEU(twenty-foot equivalent unit).

Giant oil tankers carrying more than 200,000 tons can now transit through the canal as well.

Authorities have also sought to develop the Sinai Peninsula, which lies on the eastern edge of the canal.

"We have also dug six tunnels under the Suez Canal to facilitate movement crossing to and from the Sinai," Rabie said.

"Before we used to talk about developing the Sinai Peninsula without any serious decisions having been taken. Now access is easy for people and investors."

Egypt is also developing a free-trade Suez Canal Economic Zone, which will span 461 square km.

"Many projects exist along the banks," said Rabie, citing ship supply zones, pharmaceutical factories and car assembly plants.

He maintained also that the canal "is perfectly secured" under the command of the Egyptian armed forces.

Egypt has also dedicated a museum, currently under construction, to the canal in the city of Ismailia at the historic premises of the Suez Canal Company. But no opening date has yet been set.

Agence France-Presse

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