President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi unveiled an expanded Suez Canal Thursday in a lavish ceremony, with the first ships passing through the waterway in what Egypt hopes will boost its economy and global standing. Sisi, dressed in a ceremonial military uniform, arrived aboard a historic yacht at the head of a naval flotilla as fighter planes and helicopters flew overhead.
The former army chief, who later changed into a business suit, formally opened the $9 billion (7.9 billion euro) waterway to the cheers of hundreds of guests, including foreign dignitaries. “Egyptians exerted massive efforts to offer to the world a gift for the sake of humanity… in very difficult economic and security conditions,” said Sisi in a speech, as the first cargo ships passed through. He pledged to defeat militancy, which has bedevilled the country since he overthrew his Islamist predecessor, Mohamed Morsi, in 2013. Security was tight, with the Islamic State group’s threat to execute a Croatian kidnapped near Cairo threatening to overshadow the celebrations, showcased by authorities as proof the country is safe.
The event in the port city of Ismailiya attended by heads of state, including French President Francois Hollande, comes two years after Morsi’s overthrow. The ouster unleashed a deadly crackdown on Islamists, and a jihadist insurgency has since killed hundreds of soldiers east of the Suez Canal. IS’s Egyptian affiliate released a video Wednesday threatening to execute hostage Tomislav Salopek, a worker with French geoscience company CGG, within 48 hours unless Egypt frees jailed Muslim women. Sisi said “terrorist groups are trying to harm Egypt and Egyptians… Egypt’s fight against terrorism is ongoing.”
Sisi opened the ceremony by leading the flotilla aboard a refurbished yacht once owned by the former royal family, which carried French Empress Eugenie de Montijo at the canal’s 1869 inauguration. Sisi, elected last year on a promise to strengthen security and revive a dilapidated economy, broke ground on the canal project last August. Initial estimates suggested the new route would take up to three years to build, but Sisi set an ambitious target of 12 months.
It has been touted as a landmark achievement, rivalling the digging of the original 192-kilometre (119-mile) canal, which opened in 1869 after almost a decade of work. The new section, funded entirely by Egyptian investors, runs part of the way alongside the existing canal connecting the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. It involved 37 kilometres of dry digging, creating what is effectively a “second lane”, and widening and deepening another 35 kilometres of the existing canal. It will cut the waiting period for vessels from 18 hours to 11. By 2023, the number of ships using the canal will increase to 97 per day from 49 now, according to government projections. Officials hope the new waterway will more than double Suez earnings from $5.3 billion expected at the end of 2015 to $13.2 billion iReuters Analysts were sceptical over the targets. “The first priority for shipowners and traders is to cut costs, not speed. The trend in recent years has been for ships to travel at lower-than-normal speeds just to… save on their fuel bills,” said Ralph Leszczynski, research head at Italian shipbrokers Banchero Costa. Thursday’s guests included Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, King Abdullah II of Jordan, Yemen’s exiled President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi and Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah.