SUEZ — There was no public feasibility study, just an order from the new president. He wanted Egypt to dig a new Suez Canal. Oh, and he wanted it completed in a year.
That was last August. And on Thursday, with much pomp and circumstance, President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi inaugurated the new waterway — an expansion of the original, really.
“The Egyptian people are rewriting history,” the chairman of the Suez Canal Authority, Adm. Mohab Mamish, said at the lavish ceremony commemorating the canal’s opening. “If the people long for life, then destiny must respond.”
For the past few weeks, the country has been bombarded with messages, slogans and propaganda — all extolling the virtues of what the government is calling Egypt’s “gift to the world.” The canal will double shipping traffic and change the world, officials say. In a countdown to the opening, the flagship state newspaper said: “48 hours… and the Egyptian dream is completed.”
The first ship passed through the new waterway on Thursday. But not before Sissi, clad in a military uniform, made his entrance by sailing in on a boat once used by King Farouk, the 20th-century monarch.
Performers dressed as pharaohs blared patriotic songs from the shore, while demonstrators flocked to Cairo’s Tahrir Square to celebrate the opening. French President François Hollande and Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev attended the ceremony. And security was tight, given that Egypt is battling a growing Islamist insurgency in the nearby Sinai Peninsula.
But less important amid the hyper-nationalist fervor, it seemed, is the fact that the $8 billion expansion of one of the world’s most important waterways probably wasn’t necessary. The expense seems even less urgent for such a cash-strapped country.
When the original Suez Canal was finished in 1869, it transformed world trade by linking the Red and Mediterranean seas, cutting the travel distance for ships between Europe and Asia almost in half. It was a boon for Egypt’s economy and the country’s standing on the world stage.
But today’s expansion, a 23-mile parallel channel, won’t have nearly the same effect on global commerce, experts say.
It will probably shave only a few hours off the time that vessels wait to traverse the canal. Global shipping, economists say, has been sluggish since the 2008-2009 world financial crisis.
“This is politics. [The government] wants to give the impression we are entering a new phase of the Egyptian economy,” said Ahmed Kamaly, an economics professor at the American University in Cairo. Egypt’s economy tanked with the turmoil of the Arab Spring, with foreign reserves plummeting and the tourism industry suffering.
“It’s all propaganda,” Kamaly said of government’s grand promises of a revived national economy. “The benefit is overestimated.”
At the gala on Thursday, Sissi said the extension was an “achievement of engineering” and a testament to Egypt’s ability to accomplish great things. When he finished his speech, Egyptian journalists broke into applause and chanted, “Long live Egypt!”
Those pledges of a quick fix for Egypt’s economy may backfire on Sissi, who last year called on Egyptians to finance the new canal through state-issued bonds. Citizens funded the project in just a few days.
But as poverty bites hard on ordinary Egyptians, discontent with Sissi’s government is likely to grow. For now, paper lanterns and white twinkling lights hang across Tahrir Square. Businesses are offering discounts to celebrate the Suez achievement. And in Cairo's wealthy neighborhoods, one bakery was selling Suez-themed cupcakes to commemorate the opening of the canal.
Cunningham reported from Beirut.