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Groundbreaking anniversary for the Suez Canal: as dawn breaks on the Suez Canal, the first of several daily convoys begins its southbound transit and will cover the 190-kilometre passage from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea by sunset.


THE LONGEST CANAL IN THE WORLD WITHOUT locks, Suez provides the shortest possible link between east and west. Without it, ships would be obliged to detour around Africa's Cape of Good Hope, adding around 9,000km and two to three weeks to the journey. When it opened in 1869, the Suez Canal made the world a smaller place, changing the course of global transport and signalling a new era for Egypt. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Suez Canal's construction, the most ambitious civil engineering project of its day.

Digging began in 1859, three years after Ferdinand De Lesseps, former French vice-consul in Alexandria, won the concession to build the canal from his friend, Egypts ruler Said Pasha. For a decade, crews of up to 20,000 men worked 10-month long shifts, excavating an estimated 75m cubic metres of earth. The canal's trajectory passed through three shallow, water-filled depressions, necessitating the use of specially designed dredging machines. But the bulk of the canal was hand-built by Egyptian fellahin (farmers) who were drafted from the countryside as unpaid, forced labour.

The pharaohs were the first to recognise the value of navigable links between the Nile and the Mediterranean and Red Seas. Canals were the first superhighways, facilitating the movement of trading goods and construction materials. Canals were also essential to Egypt's irrigation schemes, since they directed the Nile's annual flood into thirsty fields. Each year, farmers were obliged to spend several months serving the state by clearing the existing canals of silt and sand and opening new ones where necessary. Since their own farms benefited, the system worked largely without the use of force, ensuring everyone's access to water and the productivity of the land.

For the Suez project, armed guards delivered fellahin to the work site where they were paid a minimal amount, not as fair compensation but to deflect criticism from the project's use of 'slave labour'. Egypt's fellahin had a particularly hard time under Mohammed Ali (Said Pasha's father) and his successors. They were heavily taxed, and drafted en masse into the army to aid the dynasty's ambitious territorial expansions. Many a farmer cut off a finger or a toe, reducing his ability to shoot and march, so as to escape the draft. To work as unpaid labour on the Suez project was no picnic, but preferable to being sent far from one's land and families to an almost certain death.


Many Egyptians nonetheless lost their lives in Suez owing to harsh conditions, especially sleeping rough in the frigid cold of desert winter nights. The absence of precise documentation regarding casualties suggests that workers were considered expendable. At one point the British raised objections; both Britain and France outlawed the slave trade in 1807 and 1848 respectively. De Lesseps was quick to point out that British railway concessions in Egypt were built by corvee, and that the accusation was a political manoeuvre designed to stall the canal's progress.

A man of exceptional drive and persistence, De Lesseps needed all the resolve he could muster. Despite support from friends in high places (including his cousin, the French Empress Eugenie) the canal encountered difficulties from the start. Said Pasha's father, Mohammed Ali, had opposed it, preferring that everything passing through Egypt be taxed and controlled at Alexandria's port. The canal threatened Alexandria's preeminence, and the city's rich merchants were dead set against it. Egypt was an Ottoman province, and the Sultan was displeased that a high-profile project was planned without his consent. The British supported the Sultan as a means of thwarting their French rivals, who owned a controlling interest in De Lesseps' company.

When Said Pasha died in 1863, his nephew and successor, the Khedive Ismail, brought flesh energy and commitment to the project. To Ismail, Egypt was not a part of Africa, but of Europe, and the Suez Canal would ensure its place at the centre of maritime trade. Ismail borrowed heavily from European banks to finance his modernising projects: Egypt's first schools for girls, a new postal system, telegraph lines to Sudan, the new towns of Ismailia and Port Said, plus an elegant new quarter for the capital, designed to resemble Paris.

He invited the crowned heads of every nation to the canal opening ceremonies, hoping to impress them with Egypt's progress and win their support for the country's independence from the Ottoman Empire. Needless to say, the Ottoman Sultan was not on the guest list. The Khedive's 1,000 (all expenses paid) guests enjoyed a series of epic parties. The canal opening was a public relations extravaganza that cost 2m [pounds sterling].


On 17 November, 160 vessels from around the world filled Port Said harbour. The canal was blessed by Muslim and Christian clergy and officially opened 'in the service of all mankind'. But in its early years, the canal's income fell short of expectations. Unable to service his loans, Ismail was forced to sell his shares in the canal company to the British, and Egypt's rights to 15% of the profits to the French.

Broken by external debt, the state was declared insolvent and Britain and France stepped in to take control. A popular uprising against the foreign presence was swiftly quelled by the British navy's bombardment of Alexandria in 1882. Britain established troops to protect the canal and the occupation was a fait accompli. It would take more than 70 years for Egypt's nationalist movement to oust the British. Just as the canal helped bring about the occupation, it played a leading role in its abolishment.

The tactic of harassing British troops stationed in the Canal Zone provoked the massacre of some 70 Egyptian policemen in 1952. The next day, Cairo rioted and a group of 12 army officers took charge, forcing both the occupiers and the Mohammed Ali dynasty to relinquish power. Egypt rejoiced on 26 July 1956 when its first elected president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, nationalised the canal so that its revenues might finance developmental projects. A dismayed Britain joined forces with France and Israel to assert their interests by bombing the Canal Zone and Cairo. In the aftermath, with Russia and the US on Nasser's side, the Canal was placed in Egyptian hands for the first time in its history.

Today, the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) has a presidentially appointed chairman (since 1996, Admiral Ahmed Ali Fadel) and a staff of 24,000. The canal's nationalisation is annually commemorated, but this year marks another groundbreaking achievement. The canal's draft depth, originally seven metres, has been gradually increased over time. Thanks to recent renovations, draft depth is now 20 metres, enabling some of the world's largest bulk carriers to use the canal.

Following this effort, says Tarek H. Abdalla, SCA Chief of Press and Information, 'we're pausing to catch our breath' but feasibility studies are already under way for further enlargements that will allow all the world's ships to use the canal. With the maritime industry experiencing a downturn and piracy on the rise, the SCA is committed to improving services and maintaining its competitive edge. The Suez Canal contributes around 4% of GDP, and is considered one of the nation's most valuable assets. But its role in Egypt's transition from an Ottoman province to a British colony, and finally a sovereign nation, is priceless and worthy of celebration.

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Title Annotation:MOSAIC: Suez Canal Anniversary
Comment:Groundbreaking anniversary for the Suez Canal: as dawn breaks on the Suez Canal, the first of several daily convoys begins its southbound transit and will cover the 190-kilometre passage from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea by sunset.(MOSAIC: Suez Canal Anniversary)
Author:Golia, Maria
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7EGYP
Date:Nov 1, 2009
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