Egypt has unveiled a major extension of the Suez Canal billed by its President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi as a historic achievement needed to boost the country's ailing economy after years of unrest.

Sisi, wearing his ceremonial military uniform and trademark dark sunglasses on a sweltering August day, flew to the site on Thursday aboard a military helicopter and immediately boarded a monarchy-era yacht that sailed to the venue of the ceremony.

A visibly triumphant Sisi stood on the vessel's upper deck, waving to well-wishers and dance troupes performing on shore. At one point, a young boy in military uniform and holding an Egyptian red, black and white flag joined him on the deck.

Historical facts: the Suez Canal
  • Planning for the Suez Canal officially began in 1854 when a French former diplomat named Ferdinand de Lesseps negotiated an agreement with the Egyptian viceroy to form the Suez Canal Company.
  • It was built using a combination of forced peasant labor and state of the art machinery. Beginning in late 1861 tens of thousands of peasants used picks and shovels to dig the canal. 
  • Egypt was the first country to dig a man-made canal across its lands to connect the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea via the River Nile - and the canal is the first of its kind to link both seas.
  • It was completed November 1869. The canal was under the British Mandate until Egypt nationalised it in 1956.
  • The Statue of Liberty was originally intended for the canal under the name 'Egypt Bringing Light to Asia'.
  • A fleet of ships was once stranded in the canal for more than eight years after the Suez Canal was shut down by Egyptian authorities during the 1967 Six Day War with Israel.

Later in the day, the president changed to a dark grey business suit and took his seat at the main stand for an elaborate ceremony in the canal city of Ismailia, attended by foreign dignitaries and organised amid tight security measures following a series of attacks by armed groups in the Sinai Peninsula and the capital, Cairo.

"Egyptians have made a huge effort so as to give the world this gift for development, construction and civilization," Sisi said at the ceremony. Egyptians, he added, "showed their ability to efficiently make history and leap to the future for the prosperity of humanity".

Among those at the ceremony were French President Francois Hollande, King Abdullah of Jordan and Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Kuwait's Emir Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras also attended, as well as Yemen's exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.

The unveiling of the $8.5bn extension has been trumpeted as a historic achievement by pro-government media and has revived the nationalistic personality cult built around the 60-year-old Sisi, who as army chief led the overthrow of a president in 2013 and was elected to office last year.

The government says the project, funded entirely by Egyptian investors, will more than double the canal's annual revenue to $13.2bn by 2023, injecting much-needed foreign currency into an economy that has struggled to recover from the 2011 uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak and the years of turmoil that followed.

The new extension also has its share of detractors, however, with some doubting it will prove as successful as billed.

Economists and shippers have questioned the value of the project, saying the increased traffic and revenues the government is hoping for would require major growth in global trade, which at this point seems unlikely.

Sisi said the project also reassured his countrymen and the world that Egyptians "are still capable" of great accomplishments.

 

Source: Agencies