Earlier this month, Egypt celebrated the 60th anniversary of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal.
Nasser’s decision to expropriate the canal’s lucrative operator, the Suez Canal Company, in July 1956 was an entirely unexpected response to Washington’s surprise decision to withhold funding for Nasser’s grand scheme to build a dam across the Nile at Aswan.
Nationalisation was a historic moment in the history of Egypt and in the political fortunes of Nasser himself, whose storied place in history can be traced to this momentous decision.
The Aswan Dam was Nasser’s signature mega-project on the scale of the construction of the canal itself a century earlier. Taming the Nile was a grand demonstration of the young regime’s commitment to modernisation and reform.
What better image for Nasser’s beleaguered heir, former General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, to cultivate? Two years after the revolutionary ouster of Mohammad Morsi, Sisi faces a host of intractable economic woes – youth unemployment approaching 50 percent, a falling currency and remittances, a crisis in tourism and foreign investment, and a controversial $12bn agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) foremost among them.
The anniversary offered the Egyptian president a ready-made opportunity to bask in the reflected light of Nasser’s – and Egypt’s – historic achievements, and to make his own claim to leadership of Egypt’s 21st century economic and political renaissance.
The centrepiece of the celebration was a nationally televised speech by Sisi from the canal’s port city of Ismailia, built to memorialise Khedive Ismail Pasha, who had ruled during the canal’s construction more than a century and a half ago.
The canal has long been part Egypt's sovereign control, but Sisi's, like Nasser before him, appears determined to leverage the canal's value in order create a multifaceted infrastructure to assure Egypt's profitable integration into today's global economy.
Sisi, like his royal predecessor, has enlisted the canal in his battle to establish both economic and political stability as Egypt makes a place for itself in the global economy.
The Egyptian president tied the canal’s July 26, 1956, nationalisation to the first anniversary of his grand opening of the “New Suez Canal” in August 2015, celebrating the canal’s modernisation.
This is the first phase of Sisi’s signature mega-project to establish along the revitalised waterway an integrated maritime, industrial and agricultural infrastructure capable of placing Egypt at the centre of international maritime trade, manufacturing and commerce – goals not unlike those motivating construction of the canal itself 150 years ago.
A cautionary legacy
Sisi’s speech focused on a rebuttal of those who cast doubt on the value of the project.
“What is being done to you, Egyptians, is an attempt to defeat your will,” Sisi said. “The objective of all the doubting is to undermine every achievement and strike at the will of the people. But it is an impossible task.”
In defensive and often angry remarks, Sisi acknowledged the Egyptian pound’s declining value and rising prices for basic goods, but repeated the refrain that his achievements of the last two years would normally have taken 10-15 years to accomplish.
He stressed the identity of the canal with economic progress and a tolerant Islam against those who would question it.
Despite his problems, Sisi – according to a recent latest Baseera poll – enjoys popularity ratings that would be the envy of Western leaders. The canal project, despite its shortcomings, remains a key positive factor among his supporters.
Under Sisi’s leadership, the effort to emulate Nasser’s masterful use of the canal for political as well as economic advantage has, however, fallen far short – as a scathing leader in the Economist points out.
Not only that: The checkered history of the canal itself offers a cautionary legacy to those hoping to win Egypt a favoured place in the international economy.
Bloodshed in the canal’s history
The canal was a French creation, built by the modern-day equivalent of a Pharaonic army of corvee (slave) labour numbering in the tens of thousands.
The construction marked Egypt’s uneasy entry into an international economy dominated by imperial interests centred in Paris and London. Egypt fared poorly in such a contest, then as now.
Paying foreign bondholders became a fatal albatross around the neck of the country. The canal, conceived as a force of national liberation, instead opened the door to foreign occupation.
The canal’s costly construction was a key element in Egypt’s growing indebtedness to Western creditors during Ismail’s reign.
His inability to confront the challenges of Egypt’s new international role soured relations with London and Paris and led to his ouster at their insistence and instigation.
A military insurrection against the Khedive by a new class of native Egyptian officers led by Ahmad Urabi in 1882 and a nascent Nationalist party of traditional notables was crushed only when British forces intervened, short-circuiting a revolution against the palace led by the army that was only consummated by Nasser seven decades later.
British rule and military occupation was centred upon control of the canal and its environs, a policy that was only decisively discredited by an American diktat in the aftermath of the ignominious “tripartite aggression”, also known as the Suez crisis of 1956.
The symbol of sovereign control
The canal has long been part Egypt’s sovereign control, but Sisi’s, like Nasser before him, appears determined to leverage the canal’s value in order create a multifaceted infrastructure to assure Egypt’s profitable integration into today’s global economy.
He wants to rejoin Sinai, long separated from the Egyptian heartland by the canal, to the Egyptian mainland by tunnels and a massive programme of economic development that aims at sucking the energy out of a costly, bloody armed insurrection led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in central and northern Sinai that shows no sign of abating.
At the Ismailia ceremony, Prime Minister Sherif Ismail declared that “the new canal is the first fruit of the national project for the complete development of the Suez Canal Zone.”
“It seeks to transform the Suez Canal from being a mere waterway to being an integrated development zone that includes commercial, industrial, logistic and residential areas that contributes to supporting the Egyptian economy and creates job opportunities for young people, and that creates development spheres in the Sinai and links them with the rest of the governorates of Egypt.
Khedive Ismail could not have said it better.
Geoffrey Aronson writes about Middle Eastern affairs. He consults with a variety of public and private institutions dealing with regional political, security, and development issues.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.