How apt that Egypt’s latest “gift to the world,” the “New Suez Canal,” makes a two-lane freeway out of the conduit that connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. Everything else in Egypt is going in two opposing directions. The response to the canal has been no different; polarized and circling round the real issue, like demented frigates.
In 2014 while on a visit to the United Nations, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisiannounced that Egypt intended to dust off plans for a project to expand the Suez Canal area that had been buried since the Hosni Mubarak era. A new canal, some 25 kilometers long, has been built parallel to the original canal. In addition, 23 kilometers of the original canal have been widened and deepened. The Egyptian government claims that this has “eradicated” waiting time for up to 50 vessels per day.
Initially, the project had a three-year timeline, but in a prime bit of theater Sisi enthusiastically demanded that this be reduced to a year while Suez Canal Authority head Vice-Adm. Mohab Mameesh was in the middle of delivering a PowerPoint presentation on the project to military and government bigwigs. “One year! One year and it’ll be finished!” a grinning Sisi said, holding up a finger and then brushing the palms of his hands together. “A year and it will be implemented, sir,” Mameesh replied.
And now it’s happened.
In the lead-up to the launch party on Thursday, it was Canal-this-and-Sisi-that for days. Egyptian flags sprouted everywhere like a nationalist fungus. Mysterious blow-up-bear balloons were briefly deployed in Tahrir Square before disappearing as the momentum built. The obligatory nationalist songs were issued, all of them largely indistinguishable from each other. Road markings in my local main square were renewed and a large poster about the gift to the world from “the mother of the world,” as Egyptians frequently call their country, was unveiled. On Wednesday the entire front page of one state-owned newspaper, Al-Akhbar, featured a cartoon Sisi (bizarrely, he slightly resembled Silvio Berlusconi) at the helm of a ship surrounded by identical, smiling citizen clones. Then, as befits a happening of this magnitude, it was announced that Thursday would be an official holiday, bringing even more joy to actual, real smiling citizens especially since it meant a three-day weekend.
A three-hour spectacle was announced for the canal opening. It began with a “Presidential Convoy and Naval Parade,” which involved Sisi donning a ceremonial military suit and dark sunglasses, Pinochet or Idi Amin-style, and standing on the upper deck of a yacht as it trundled down the canal, surveying the landscape and waving at objects in the distance, some of them possibly human. Fighter jets roared overhead (Egypt has recently acquired a load of Rafale and F-16 jets and seems to be taking them out for a spin).
For those of us watching at home — the opening ceremony display was shown on virtually every TV channel in Egypt — patriotic songs interspersed with pompous commentary delivered in formal Arabic apparently from an echo chamber formed the soundtrack. It was like listening to the booming, disembodied voice of the Wizard of Oz. Large men dressed in pharaonic style blew horns as the good ship Sisi sailed past. The president had by this time been joined by Mameesh and the naval baseball cap he likes to wear whenever he is onboard a vessel. The two men cruised in to the area designated for opening proceedings as the jets roared overheard and small boats circled around maniacally like toddlers experiencing a sugar rush and the pharaonic horns screeched. Then the Wizard of Oz declared that pens and tongues would be “unable to describe this historic scene,” although, strictly speaking, I just did.
Lapsing into Egyptian vernacular Arabic the commentator declared that this was, “the story of a people who rose up for dignity. A nation that revolted, that refused to be ruled by a terrorist group.”
Having stepped onto shore, Sisi disappeared for a quick costume change into a civilian suit. (Military protocol apparently required that he wear his ceremonial suit while on board the yacht.) Meanwhile, the guests, a collection of government officials, foreign dignitaries, and local celebs, were shown filing into a viewing platform underneath a giant canopy erected for the occasion. One Twitter wit, commenting on an image of a large group of Saudi Arabian guests descending from a plane on an escalator said, “someone begging from this lot could come away with 5 or 6 million Egyptian pounds,” a reference to the visitors from the Gulf who spend the summer in Egypt and whose generosity is often targeted by Egypt’s street beggars. French President François Hollande, there to join in the celebration of a new chapter for a canal that was originally developed by Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps, was given the guest-of-honor seat next to Sisi and spent much of the time fidgeting and looking at his brochure. A hand-selected collection of the hoi polloi were shown ecstatically waving flags while wearing jaunty naval caps.
Sisi delivered his speech while his upper lip battled with sweat.
Sisi delivered his speech while his upper lip battled with sweat. As is his wont, he went off script to “talk to [us] as an Egyptian citizen” and expounded on the theme of Egyptian civilization and what it has offered the world over the course of 7,000 years: “History will record that…Egypt stood up to and repelled the most dangerous, extremist, terrorist ideology…Egyptians repelled this ideology,” Sisi said. The canal was built while Egypt fought, and continues to fight, terrorism, Sisi told his guests, adding, “We will be victorious in the end; that’s certain.” Cue the applause.
“Egyptians’ joy [about the canal] confirms that they needed to prove to themselves and the world that they are still able [to accomplish things],” the president declared, possibly suggesting that the canal is a form of group therapy in addition to being all the other things it represents beyond being a mere waterway. Midway through his speech, the president was heckled by a tanker. It blew its ginormous horn as it sailed past and the crowd broke out in exultant applause. (It was all part of the script: It proved that the canal works.)
In and of itself the Suez Canal is a highly charged symbol, of resistance to foreign imperialism, of Egypt’s autonomy. It is associated with Gamal Abdel Nasser and Egypt’s victory against the tripartite aggression of 1956. To his supporters, Nasser was a strongman hero who restored Egyptian dignity — and crushed the Muslim Brotherhood. To his detractors, Sisi might be regarded as riding on Nasser’s coattails. Some of his Muslim Brotherhood opponents have certainly been scathing of the canal plan. Loudmouth Islamist Wagdy Ghoneim, who delivers diatribes on his YouTube channel,declared that “his mother’s plastic water basin” is wider than the mile-long extension, prompting equally vocal satellite television presenter and government lackey Ahmed Moussa to hit back on Thursday by enquiring about the health of Ghoneim’s mother’s plastic water basin.
Mohamed Morsi, the president Sisi deposed in 2013, put forward his own plan to develop an economic and industrial hub on the shores of the canal during his brief time in office. The plan relied on an $8 billion loan from Qatar and his opponents accused Morsi of selling the Suez Canal to the Gulf state.
Overnight, everyone in Egypt has become an expert on maritime shipping. The discussions rage on social media, polarized and driven by bias. Sisi’s supporters insist that the canal will transform Egypt’s economy. His detractors say it’s a waste of money, a fig leaf with which the regime is trying to cover its inadequacies. Even opinion within the shipping industry itself ranges from the enthusiastic to the doubtful and so it is seemingly impossible to establish with any certainty whether the Egyptian government’s projection that the New Suez Canal will increase its revenues from $5.3 billion to $13.3 billion by 2023 has any merit.
Whether it has or not is perhaps beside the point. This is a regime of grand gestures (is there any more grand a gesture than removing a president from power?) that has so far made little inroads on Egypt’s multifarious and intractable socioeconomic problems while it continues to tighten the noose on civil liberties, with apparent widespread public support.
Grand gestures are always a gamble. This one seems to have paid off — at least for now. But only very recently the state was quietly sweeping under the rug the fallout from a ludicrous but (at least at first) much-celebrated claim that the Egyptian military had discovered a cure for AIDS and Hepatitis C. But things like this get forgotten, perhaps forgiven, in the daily storm of news reports about terrorist bombings and killings.