POST TIME: 12 November, 2019 00:00 00 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 12 November, 2019 12:59:11 AM
Egypt marks Suez Canal’s 150th anniv
AFP, Ismailia, Egypt

Egypt marks Suez Canal’s 150th anniv

In this file photo taken in 1860s shows the construction of the Suez Canal in Egypt. As the Suez Canal marks its 150th anniversary, Egypt which nationalised the crucial international waterway in 1956 can boast of its modern-day significance to the country's economy. The canal, which links the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, was opened to navigation in 1869 and was expanded in 2015 to accommodate larger ships. AFP photo

Since the Suez Canal was inaugurated amid pomp and ceremony 150 years ago, it has become one of the world’s most important waterways. But its anniversary will only be discreetly marked in Egypt. The man-made canal was excavated between 1859 and 1869, in an ambitious project to connect the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, and cut shipping times for growing international trade from Europe to Asia. The Suez Canal is “not a prerogative of one nation,” declared Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French diplomat credited with masterminding the project, drawing from the dreams of the pharaohs who dredged a similar channel 4,000 years earlier.

“It owes its birth to, and belongs to, the aspirations of humanity,” he said in an 1864 speech. A million Egyptians, using camels and mules as beasts of burden, laboured over the decade-long construction, according to official figures. And tens of thousands died in the process, experts say.

The first ships sailed down the 164-kilometre (102-mile) canal on November 17, 1869, with hopes that fair winds would permit a faster route to and from Asia, avoiding a lengthy and perilous circumvention via the tip of southern Africa. But the waterway’s history has followed the turbulent ebbs and flows of the volatile Middle East region.

Its watershed moment came in July 1956. Egypt’s iconic late president Gamal Abdel Nasser, a staunch defender of Arab unity, defied British and French interests and nationalised the Suez Canal Company which ran the waterway.

The decision, which saw Nasser’s popularity rise at home, triggered an international crisis. France and Britain—countries which

both controlled the company at that point—as well as Israel attacked Egypt around three months later. The canal also served as a frontline during Arab-Israel wars in 1967 and 1973.

Today the vital sea route is managed by the Suez Canal Authority and was expanded in 2015 to accommodate modern, larger vessels. It has grown into a major economic asset, providing passage for 10 percent of all international maritime trade.

But the region’s volatility is never far away. Running along the southern rim of the Sinai, the canal is today heavily secured by the Egyptian army which is battling a long-running insurgency against Islamist militants in northern Sinai.

Dug in the 19th century using “rudimentary tools”, today the waterway has become “a lifeline to Egypt,” Osama Rabie, head of the authority told AFP.

In 2015, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi staged a grand ceremony for the opening of a new 72-kilometre (43-mile) lane parallel to the canal after 12 months of excavations.