ISMAILIA – The iconic Suez Canal remains a symbol of pride and patriotism for millions of Egyptians, and a sentimental attachment that remains unshakable.
Built over 152 years ago, the canal is an international trade artillery linking Asia to Europe and is a vital source of foreign currency to Egypt. The affairs of the manmade waterway fall under the Suez Canal Authority, a state-owned company responsible for its operation and maintenance.
“The canal is much safer to cross than before. It is the most controlled authority of the Egyptian government that supports our economy with foreign currency,” a beaming Admiral Osama Rabie, chairman of the Suez Canal Authority, told African editors during a guided tour of the canal at the port town of Ismailia this week.
Through the canal authority, the Egyptian government makes about US$15 million (about N$236 million) in toll fees. At least 10% of global trade passes through the canal, which in 2021 hit a record US$6.3 billion in revenue compared to the US$5.6 billion earned during 2020.
According to figures released by the Suez Canal Authority, a total of 20 694 ships transited the canal, translating to more than 56 vessels, mostly carrying containers and petroleum goods, a day. In the preceding year, the canal had attracted 18 830 vessels.
To illustrate just how the canal remains a cherished symbol of Egyptian sovereignty, the government raised a whopping US$8.5 billion it needed to fund a new project to expand the canal in 2014.
“We needed 20 billion Egyptian pounds for this expansion and the public supported the project by donating 64 billion Egyptian pounds to this cause. The Egyptian people mobilised resources to build their own country,” spokesperson of the canal authority George Nicola added.
“When we launched this project, it was a spark of hope. We had to remove about 500 million cubic metres of sand during the first phase, while 45 dredges, representing 80% of the total dredging capacity in the world, had to be used for this initiative. It was by far the largest dredging project in the world,” said Nicola of the mega project, which included digging a new 34km canal, deepening and widening some parts of the old canal.
This gesture by the Egyptian people and which was completed within 365 days, has paid off handsomely as the canal now attracts more shipping, which enables vessels to travel in both directions in order to reduce waiting time from 11 hours to just three.
This “game-changer” remains a fascination to Kenyan-based journalist Grace Karanja.
“The experience at Suez Canal is mind-boggling. It reveals how political goodwill, commitment and proper use of resources can help transform the lives of citizens. No doubt, this is what most countries lack, and Egypt has set the precedent. Further, it has opened up trade between Europe and Asia, which has ensured money flow for Egypt, leading to investment and transformation of lives,” she said.
Lessons from Ever Given
Meanwhile, the canal authority is convinced it has drawn serious lessons from last year’s blockade crisis, which brought traffic at the canal to a standstill. This is after a container ship, the Panama-flagged MV Ever Given, which is longer than four football fields, wedged sideways about 6km north of the canal’s entrance, impeding all flowing traffic. As a result of the blockage, some container ships chose the alternative route, around the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of Africa, which can take up to 12 days.
However, over 400 vessels waited in line until the sixth day when the Ever Given was finally freed. The blockage crisis disrupted global supply chains and trade, with experts predicting losses of US$400 million per hour.
For Egypt, the country was losing between US$12-US$15 million a day.
“Many of the major shipping lines preferred to wait for those six days. This underscores that the canal has maintained a competitive edge despite the Ever Given incident. Of course, we suffered massive non-material losses, as it was the first time in its modern history that a vessel ran aground at the canal. So, you can imagine the reputation at stake,” said Nicola.