Standing at the dock of Ismailia’s Beach Club, from where the world’s politicians, businessmen, and journalists depart for tours of the new Suez Canal – a large sign reads: “WELCOME TO SAFE EGYPT AND ITS SECURE CANAL”.
There’s an expression people say in England, lifted from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, that goes: “The lady doth protest too much”. It defines, for example, those moments when a market trader tells you one too many times that his product is of the finest quality and will not break.
Indeed, after ‘State of Sinai’, the Sinai Peninsula’s IS-affiliated militants, struck an Egyptian navy ship with a rocket last month – the beach club sign’s assurances perhaps do not have the intended effect.
It is a few days before the grand opening of the new canal, and local and international media are being given an early cruise. For the big day, invites have been sent to the leaders of the world’s leading countries, we are told. Many have confirmed their attendance.
According to Vice Admiral Mohab Mamish, Suez Canal Authority (SCA) Chairman and former head of the Navy, the completion of the project is a “miracle” and a result of working “day and night” to make the project a success.
“Now, as we feel proud of our achievements, we give it as a present to the world,” he says.
I am told by an American reporter that it is true; the workers and companies involved have toiled 24 hours a day to meet the 365 day deadline decreed by President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi during last year’s summer of power shortages and spluttering dysfunction. However, the reporter adds that working around the clock is normal practice in this kind of industry.
But, as you approach the new channel, not even the most cynical could be unmoved by the scale of the project. It is magnificent and monumental.
Yes, it is not a whole new canal as we initially thought – it is a deepening of the 145-year-old canal and a new 35km channel added alongside. The numbers are eye-watering too: talking costs and projections, billions of dollars were thrown around on the assumption that the future will either vindicate or forget.
According to the government, the development of the surrounding area as part of the ‘Suez Canal Corridor Development Project’ will provide 1m jobs over the next 15 years, a figure that also strikes as very optimistic rounding-up.
And yet, as we sail not far from where God parted the seas for Moses to lead his people out of Egypt, it is easy to see why so many pharaonise Al-Sisi for parting the desert to bring waves of dollars back.
Navigating the canal, the tour boat passes a huge mosaic depicting the glorious triumph of the Egyptian people in re-capturing Sinai from the Israelis in 1973’s 6th of October war. The soldiers look upwards and onwards, towards progress and towards the future.
The mosaic is designed in the Socialist-realism style of art, so beloved by 20th century movements across the world that dethroned kings and colonial powers, a branding they held on to long after they cut off their revolutionary ideologies.
The boat nears three grand marquees erected for the opening celebrations, and beside them Egypt’s other great philosophies stand sentry: a mosque and a mock-Pharaonic statue are being unpacked. So completes the holy trinity of Egypt’s guardian angels: religion, history, and military triumph.
Along the banks of the canal near to the marquees, rest ships bearing the foreign names of the foreign companies who will take home a portion of the $8bn cost. The majority of the money raised to finance the ‘miraculous’ project was provided by ordinary Egyptians who obligingly raided their savings to buy bonds, cashing in EGP 62bn in just a few days, EGP 2bn more than was called for.
Five foreign companies were enlisted to excavate the new channel, partly because Egypt did not have enough industrial equipment to dig out the 258m cubic metres of earth in one year, as demanded by the President. Originally planned to take three years, the project’s costs more than doubled because of Al-Sisi’s deadline, Wael Kaddour, a former member of the SCA, told Al-Monitor recently.
Some of the foreign ships have hoisted little Egyptian flags. The vessels are gigantic and sprout machinery that – whilst it is not clear what they- definitely do something.
Next to them along the canal’s edges, hundreds of workers scurry around diggers and trucks, clearing away the last mounds of golden rocks and sand.
One group of about 15 men sit eating their lunch together under the searing mid-day sun, when suddenly on the bank above, a digger knocks a boulder tumbling down towards them. People on our boat shout to the workers, and yet somehow the boulder stops short of martyring the unaware workers as they rest.
The tour-boat sails past a vessel travelling in the opposite direction, carrying trucks carrying rubble. On board, workers see the TV and press cameras of our boat and shout ‘Long live Egypt! Long live Al-Sisi!’ An energetic Japanese photographer shouts back in broken Arabic and unwittingly uses the feminine form of ‘long live’ while celebrating the President.
At the press conference later in the day, hundreds of members of local and international press wait for an hour impatiently before Mamish takes to the stage. He tells us that the Suez Canal has always been “a symbol of the Egyptian people’s will”.
First dug when the population was only 4.5 million, 1 million people took part and some 120,000 people lost their lives. More died too, fighting off failed British, French and Israeli attempts to control the Sinai Peninsula.
I am told earlier in the day that the workers in the 1860s carried the dirt away by holding it up in the bottom of their gallabiyas.
This time too, Mamish says, has been “a long story of hard work, to create this artery of prosperity for the whole world”. Not much is known about the conditions the 43,000 workers have endured during excavation this time, and we do not get a chance to hear their stories.
Nevertheless, ‘safety’ is the theme of the show. Mamish tells the press numerous times that he wants to “assure the whole world the Suez Canal is very safe and secure”. Perhaps it was Mamish himself who scripted the sign we saw earlier.
Mamish, who was colleagues with the President when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) ruled Egypt in 2011, takes time to praise Al-Sisi’s wise leadership. He says the SCA’s studies have found that in eight years time, the project will help bring to more than double revenues, from $5.3bn a year to $13.2bn – it is a fantastic promise of hard cash for a cash-strapped nation.
We are told that the SCA’s economic unit reached these figures using forecasts of the growth of world trade and the increased efficiency the project will facilitate, in terms of speed of transit and passage of larger vessels. Passage will grow from 47 ships a day currently, to 97 by 2023.
Taking to the podium next, a tight-lipped Englishman called Peter Hinchliffe says the project was “a huge undertaking on a world scale, completed in a time that is frankly astonishing”. Hinchliffe is Secretary General of the International Chamber of Shipping, which represents the majority of the world’s merchant shipping trade, but he says little and does not offer explicit support for every figure proposed by Mamish.
Hinchliffe says that as the world’s economy grows by 3% each year, it will create more demand for the canal. And yet, accosted outside the venue afterwards, he evades filling in the missing details between 3% and the heralded near-tripling of revenues.
During the question and answer session, Mamish and Hinchliffe deflect questions about security worries, about the numbers, about distribution of profits, and about local fishermen who have lost their livelihoods because of the works.
Mamish says that the fishermen will be compensated; they are “our people… our brothers”. No mention is made of the reported 2,000 residents who were cleared to make way for the new works.
Some other Egyptian journalists take to the microphone for questions. Perhaps they arrived late and missed the opening speeches because they ask the Englishman and the former military leader to repeat their praises of Egypt, the government, and the Egyptian people.
“We thank President Al-Sisi for his decision, we tell him we have kept our promise. We thank the Egyptian people who trusted us; the Egyptian people were the real support. I thank all the employees of the Suez Canal Authority and all those who have participated. You have made history for yourselves and your grandchildren,” reflects Mamish.
He finishes his speech, steps down from the podium to leave the venue, and is mobbed by microphones and flashing cameras.