Egypt unveils giant expansion to Suez Canal

  • Expansion brings the Suez Canal's length to 120 miles and depth to 78 feet 
  • World's largest vessels will be able to pass side by side through the canal
  • Project involved digging and dredging along 45 miles of the busy waterway
  • The canal is one of Egypt's top foreign currency earners, with around 10 per cent of the world's trade passing through it

Egypt is to unveil a major expansion of the Suez Canal tomorrow in what the government hopes will be a moment of national pride following years of political unrest.

Around 10 per cent of the world's trade flows through the waterway, which links the Red Sea to the Mediterranean and allows vessels to avoid making having to sail all the way around Africa.

The canal is one of Egypt's top foreign currency earners and is seen as a symbol of a modern state.

It has been repeatedly expanded over the years, from an initial length of 102 miles and a depth of 26 feet. The latest expansion brings its length to 120 miles and its depth to 78 feet, allowing it to accommodate the world's largest vessels.

Welcome: Ferries cross through a brand new section of the Suez Canal in Ismailia, Egypt. The major expansion will be formally unveiled tomorrow in what the government hopes will be a moment of national pride
Location: The latest Suez Canal expansion brings its length to 120 miles and its depth to 78 feet, allowing it to accommodate the world's largest vessels, which will now be able to pass side by side as they travel between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea
An Egyptian soldier stands guard near the Suez Canal as an American container ship crosses the Suez Canal

An Egyptian soldier stands guard near the Suez Canal as an American container ship crosses the Suez Canal

Construction site: An Egyptian labourer stands as a bulldozer works on a new section of the Suez Canal

Construction site: An Egyptian labourer stands as a bulldozer works on a new section of the Suez Canal

The 1869 inauguration of the canal linking the Red Sea to the Mediterranean was hailed as a leap into the modern age, and President Gamal Abdel-Nasser's nationalization of the British and French-run waterway in 1956 was seen as marking Egypt's decisive break with its colonial past. 

That sparked the second of four wars with Israel, including a 1973 offensive launched across the canal that Egyptians celebrate as their greatest military victory.

The government hopes for another historic moment tomorrow, when it unveils an $8.5 billion extension of the waterway funded entirely by Egyptians, without foreign aid. 

He views the expansion as the first step in a new area of development, free of the public sector's notoriously crippling bureaucracy. 

The key global trade route is already one of Egypt's top foreign currency earners, and is run by a semi-independent authority with 25,000 employees that is considered one of the country's most competent bodies.

'It is opening infinite horizons. It is going to be handled outside the ossified bureaucracy that has been holding us back. What is being done there is done with extreme efficiency and a scientific approach,' Beshai said. 

Brand new design: A woman is photographed looking at a newly built section of the Suez Canal last week

Brand new design: A woman is photographed looking at a newly built section of the Suez Canal last week

At work in the sand: An Egyptian labourer works at the site of the upgrade project of the Suez Canal in Ismaili

At work in the sand: An Egyptian labourer works at the site of the upgrade project of the Suez Canal in Ismaili

Now: Egyptian Presidency, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi (left) speaks with an official during his visit to the Suez Canal in Ismailia earlier this year

Now: Egyptian Presidency, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi (left) speaks with an official during his visit to the Suez Canal in Ismailia earlier this year

Then: In this 1935 photo, passengers take in the view from one of the steamers passing along the Suez Canal

Then: In this 1935 photo, passengers take in the view from one of the steamers passing along the Suez Canal

The new extension involved digging and dredging along 45 miles of the 120 mile canal, making a parallel waterway at its middle that will accommodate the world's largest ships passing both ways.

With a depth of 79 feet the canal now allows the simultaneous passage of ships with up to 66 ft. draught.

Originally planned as a three-year project, el-Sissi ordered the new segments to be finished in just one, citing the pressing need for an economic boost. Work has been non-stop ever since, and at one point 43 massive dredging machines were cranking away.

The canal drew in in a record $5.3 billion last year, a figure the government estimates it can raise to $13 billion by 2023 if it doubles the number of ships transiting daily to 97. 

Economists and shippers, however, say that's overly optimistic.

'It's not about capacity, it all depends on trade between East and West, growth in the world economy, especially in Europe, and how the [authority] handles its fees,' said Xu Zhibin, managing director for the Egyptian affiliate of China's state-owned COSCO - a top container shippers.

The project's success also depends on the security situation. To the east of the canal, a long-running insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula has intensified since the military overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013.

An Islamic State affiliate has carried out several major attacks on Egyptian security forces, killing scores of soldiers and policemen there. 

The Egyptian mainland has also seen a series of attacks, including the bombing of the Italian Consulate in Cairo last month, which was claimed by ISIS.

Pride: Egyptian Premier Gamal Abdel Nasser waves to cheering supporters as he moves through Port Said to raise the Egyptian flag over the Suez Canal on June 18, 1956 after more than 70 years of British occupation

Pride: Egyptian Premier Gamal Abdel Nasser waves to cheering supporters as he moves through Port Said to raise the Egyptian flag over the Suez Canal on June 18, 1956 after more than 70 years of British occupation

On the march: In this 1956 file photo, Egyptian President Gamal Nasser, fourth from left, salutes as he watches the parade of Egyptian troops who are to take over the Suez Canal zone from the British

On the march: In this 1956 file photo, Egyptian President Gamal Nasser, fourth from left, salutes as he watches the parade of Egyptian troops who are to take over the Suez Canal zone from the British

The Greek cargo Tasmania anchored in the harbour of Port Said, Egypt, waits to sail toward Suez with the first Egyptian piloted convoy after midnight. The government hopes for another historic moment tomorrow

The Greek cargo Tasmania anchored in the harbour of Port Said, Egypt, waits to sail toward Suez with the first Egyptian piloted convoy after midnight. The government hopes for another historic moment tomorrow

Modern: This May 26, 1953 photo shows an aerial view of the Suez Canal Zone near Ismailia, Egypt. The 1869 inauguration of the canal linking the Red Sea to the Mediterranean was hailed as a leap into the modern age

Modern: This May 26, 1953 photo shows an aerial view of the Suez Canal Zone near Ismailia, Egypt. The 1869 inauguration of the canal linking the Red Sea to the Mediterranean was hailed as a leap into the modern age

The government blames almost all the attacks on Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, which prevailed in a series of elections held after the 2011 overthrow of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak but is now branded a terrorist group. 

Morsi and other top leaders have been jailed and sentenced to death, and a sweeping police crackdown since his ouster has killed hundreds of Islamists and jailed thousands.

Security has been stepped up along the canal ahead of tomorrow's ceremony, which is expected to be attended by el-Sissi and foreign dignitaries.

Military spokesman Brigadier General Mohammed Samir said extra troops have been deployed to 'deal with threats and potential aggression.'

Some analysts say security remains a concern for foreign investors, whose capital is needed for the next stage of the project - the expansion of the canal zone to include a logistics hub and manufacturing centres.

The canal extension has stirred intense national fervor. Cairo's Tahrir Square is decked with lights, TV networks are running countdown clocks, and some visitors arriving at Cairo's airport have been given commemorative passport stamps calling the canal 'Egypt's gift to the world.'

One organizer of the opening, interviewed on popular private broadcaster Mahwar, said no one should doubt the project's grandeur.

'For those who are skeptical or denying, tell me who they are so that we can drown them in the new canal's 27-metre depth,' Sami Abdel-Azizi said.

The TV presenter replied: 'No, we will do that for you.'


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