Egypt has unveiled a major extension of the Suez Canal that president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has billed as an historic achievement needed to boost the country’s ailing economy after years of unrest.
Mr Sissi, wearing his ceremonious military uniform and trademark dark sunglasses, flew to the site aboard a military helicopter and immediately boarded a monarchy-era yacht that sailed to the venue of the ceremony.
The yacht was flanked by navy warships as helicopters and fixed wing aircraft flew over. Mr Sissi, standing on the vessel’s upper deck, waved to well-wishers and folklore dance troupes performing on shore.
Later in the day, the president is to host an elaborate ceremony in the canal city of Ismailia attended by foreign dignitaries amid tight security measures following a series of attacks by Islamic militants in the Sinai Peninsula and the capital.
The unveiling of the £5.5 billion extension has been trumpeted as a historic achievement by pro-government media and has revived the nationalistic personality cult built around the 60-year-old Mr Sissi, who as army chief led the overthrow of an Islamist president in 2013 and was elected to office last year. Egypt’s black, white and red flags now adorn streets across much of the nation, along with banners declaring support for Mr Sissi and hailing his latest achievement. The government declared yesterday a national holiday, and banks and most businesses were closed.
The new Suez Canal extension involved digging and dredging along 45 miles of canal, making a parallel waterway at its middle that will facilitate two-way traffic. With a depth of 79ft, the canal now allows the simultaneous passage of ships with up to 66ft draught.
The project was initially estimated to take three years, but Mr Sissi ordered it completed in one.
The government said the project, funded entirely by Egyptian investors, will more than double the canal’s annual revenue to £8.5bn by 2023, injecting much-needed foreign currency into an economy that has struggled to recover from the 2011 uprising that toppled president Hosni Mubarak and the years of turmoil that followed.
Economists and shippers have questioned the value of the project, saying the increased traffic and revenues the government is hoping for would require major growth in global trade, which at this point seems unlikely.
But the man-made waterway linking the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, which was inaugurated in 1869, has long been seen as a symbol of Egyptian national pride. And pro-government media have compared Mr Sissi to former president Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose nationalisation of the canal in 1956 is seen as a defiant break with the country’s colonial past.
“Egypt makes history,” read the banner headline of Thursday’s pro-government daily Al-Watan. The front page of another daily, Al-Maqal, said “Rejoice, it is worth it.”
But yesterday’s ceremony was partially overshadowed by an Islamic State affiliate’s threat to kill a Croatian hostage kidnapped in Cairo last month – a grim reminder of the threat posed by Islamic militants to Egypt’s stability.
The affiliate, calling itself the Sinai Province of the Islamic State, released a video yesterday in which it threatened to kill the Croatian in 48 hours if the Egyptian authorities do not release “Muslim women” held in prison.