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Suez Canal: Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the dream of greatness

Black sunglasses, beige dress uniform, his chest full of medals: Abdel Fattah el-Sisi had dressed up when he welcomed heads of state and government from all over the world on the Suez Canal in August 2015. It was a special day for the Egyptian dictator. Before the eyes of the world, in the pose of the great helmsman, he inaugurated his first prestige project – the second fairway of the legendary Suez Canal.

Now the world is looking again at the Suez Canal, which connects the Mediterranean with the Red Sea and, according to Egyptian information, 18,829 ships passed through last year. The reason: the container ship “Ever Given” has been blocking the waterway for days. The international logistics industry operates with emergency plans. The topic is trending in social networks.

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi should not be amused by this.

The second fairway he inaugurated will not solve the problem with the stuck tanker either. Because: The “Ever Given” is stuck at the southern entrance to the canal – and the second fairway only begins further north.

More than a source of income

In Egypt’s state-affiliated media, the blockade is reported rather cautiously. Probably also because the Suez Canal is more than a – undoubtedly central – source of income for the Egyptians. History has made the international waterway a symbol, one that stands for Egypt’s independence, for the will to stand up to the world and for the continuing international relevance of the 100 million people.

The Suez Canal, planned by the French Ferdinand de Lesseps, was opened to shipping in 1869. Giuseppe Verdi composed an opera especially for the opening ceremony of the international waterway, which Johann Wolfgang Goethe and the polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz had already dreamed of.

The Egyptian people, however, had nothing to celebrate. For a long time others made money with the Suez Canal, the shareholders of the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez. French private investors were among them, the British crown – and the Vatican. That changed in 1956.

Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. With this decision, the future Egyptian dictator de facto threw the British out of the country. The result: the Suez crisis. On the one hand Egypt, on the other an unlikely alliance of Great Britain, France and Israel.

The Suez Crisis marked the definitive beginning of the end of the British colonial empire. Under pressure from the new world powers, the USA and the Soviet Union, the trio had to withdraw, and then British Prime Minister Anthony Eden lost his job. Nasser, on the other hand, became the leader of the Arab world.

Symbolic meaning of the second fairway

When Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who likes to present himself as Nasser’s successor, announced the construction of the second canal in 2014, economists questioned the purpose of the project. In view of the modest growth forecasts for the global economy, it was anything but clear that the channel would soon be able to recoup the roughly eight billion dollars in construction costs. But Sisi knew about the symbolism and carried out the gigantic project.

State-related media celebrated him as the new “strong man” at the head of the Egyptian army, which was once again portrayed as the savior of the nation.

To finance the construction of the second fairway, the Egyptian leadership had sold so-called “Sisi bonds” to the people – with attractive interest rates and the promise of being part of a prestigious national project. As with all major infrastructure projects, however, the military junta may also have acted out of its own economic interests.

The Egyptian army controls about 40 percent of the Egyptian economy, depending on the estimate. From building roads and cities to running supermarkets, producing milk powder or air conditioning systems to the pharmaceutical industry, Egypt’s generals are present as managers in many places.

The head of the Suez Canal Society is also a military man: Osama Mounir Rabie. The man in his mid-sixties wears a mustache and holds the rank of Vice-General – but the highly decorated soldier has not yet found a solution to the problem. After all, the man seems to be familiar with delicate operations. He started his army career with the mine clearers.

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