The Suez Canal

The Suez Canal represents the culmination of centuries of effort to enhance trade and expand the empires of Egypt by connecting the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Sea, but it was Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French consul to Egypt, who pursued the idea through to its conclusion. In 1854 de Lesseps presented his proposal to the Egyptian khedive Said Pasha, who authorised him to excavate the canal; work began in 1859.

A decade later the canal was completed amid much fanfare. When two small fleets, one originating in Port Said and the other in Suez, met at the new town of Ismailia on 16 November 1869, the Suez Canal was declared open and Africa was officially severed from Asia.

Ownership of the canal remained in French and British hands for the next 86 years until, in the wake of Egyptian independence, President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez in 1956. The two European powers, in conjunction with Israel, invaded Egypt in an attempt to retake the waterway by force. In what came to be known as the ‘Suez Crisis’, they were forced to retreat in the face of widespread international condemnation.

Today the Suez Canal remains one of the world's most heavily used shipping lanes. With just under 50 ships passing through the Suez each day, and yearly toll revenues amounting to US$50 billion, in August 2014 Egypt's President Sisi launched a plan to further capitalise on the canal's importance. The project to construct a new 35km-long channel running parallel to the original canal (which would be deepened and widened at the same time), effectively turns the canal into a two-lane water highway for part of its length and also allows larger ships to traverse it.

Initially costed at US$4 billion, the new canal project quickly ballooned in costs, with 43,000 workers involved in the construction and a price tag thought to be nearer US$8 billion by the completion date. Nevertheless, the new canal was completed and opened for business with much pomp and ceremony in August 2015.

The project, though, remains controversial. With the new canal in operation, the government hoped to up the number of ship daily crossings to more than 90 daily (doubling the old canal's total) and to bring in revenues of US$13 billion per year by 2023. More than two years on from its inauguration, and both daily crossings and revenues remain static. The Suez Canal remains one of the largest contributors to the Egyptian state coffers and a vital component in the country's economy. Whether the new Suez Canal can safeguard and further boost that position remains to be seen.