What Future for the Suez Canal?
IN A bygone era, one publication hailed the Suez Canal as “the marvel of the century.” It is over a hundred miles long, cutting through the Isthmus of Suez and connecting the Mediterranean and Red Seas.
When opened in 1869, the Suez Canal provided a new route for East-West travel. It cut almost 4,000 miles off most voyages from Europe to India. Why? Because ships using the waterway no longer had to sail around the Cape of Good Hope, on Africa’s southern tip. The canal, therefore, contributed measurably to national economies and to the expansion of world trade.
But Suez Canal traffic was halted during the Six-Day Arab-Israeli war of June 1967. A number of vessels were sunk there, blocking the waterway. Also, explosive mines, bombs and other war debris lay below the surface. Much of this accumulation resulted from the 1968-1970 “War of Attrition” and the Arab-Israeli conflict of October 1973.
In time, there was much talk about the prospects of a reopened Suez Canal. Obviously, if it was to be put in service again, it would have to be cleared of much rubble. Early 1974 saw Egyptian forces, a British Royal Navy diving team and some 500 United States Army and Navy personnel at work in a cooperative operation to clear the canal. It was felt that a year would pass before the waterway was reopened. Thereafter, Egypt intended to go ahead with elaborate plans for the entire canal zone.
Since the Suez Canal may play a future role in world affairs, we might ask: What do the pages of history reveal about this man-made waterway? What plans do the Egyptians have for it? And how is the reopened Suez Canal likely to affect world trade and the economic picture?
Waterway with an Ancient History
The first man-made canal on the Isthmus of Suez existed in the fourteenth century before the Common Era! It began at Bubastis (near present-day Zagazig) and followed the Wadi Tumilat from the Nile River to Heroopolis, at the head of today’s Bitter Lakes.
Eventually, silt deposits filled in a portion of the old Gulf of Heroopolis. So, during the seventh century B.C.E., Pharaoh Necho, who is mentioned in the Bible, started digging the canal south of the Bitter Lakes. (2 Chron. 35:20–36:4; Jer. 46:2) Necho never finished that canal. His laborers died in large numbers. According to the historian Herodotus: “He at length desisted from his undertaking, in consequence of an oracle which warned him ‘that he was labouring for the barbarian,’” that the waterway would aid his foes. Eventually, the Persians conquered the land of the Nile, and Darius the Great brought the canal to completion.
The Romans and early Arabian caliphs undertook additional work on the ancient waterway. However, Caliph Abū Ja‘far al-Mansūr closed it late in the eighth century C.E. to block the flow of supplies to his foes. Yet, the thought of a canal running through the Isthmus of Suez appealed to more recent rulers. Among them was Napoleon Bonaparte, who put Lepère to work on the idea, only to have it set aside when this engineer erroneously concluded that the Red Sea was twenty-nine feet higher than the Mediterranean.
De Lesseps’ “Ditch in the Desert”
It remained for Ferdinand de Lesseps, retired French diplomat, to make today’s Suez Canal a reality. He formed the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez, which was to control the prospective waterway for ninety-nine years from its completion. Thereafter the canal would revert to the Egyptian government. Work began in 1859, with 25,000 Egyptian laborers or fellahin. Later, workers came from France, Italy and the Balkans.
The opening of the Suez Canal, on November 17, 1869, was a gala affair. Flares lit up the pyramids. On the waterway was a flotilla of sixty-eight vessels of various nations, led by the yacht of French Empress Eugénie. At Ismailia, the midway point, Khedive (or, Viceroy) Ismail held a ball for some 6,000 persons. There were some mishaps, too, as when fireworks unexpectedly exploded at Port Said. Also, a thousand men had to be dispatched to free an Egyptian frigate stuck in the canal. Of course, the important thing was that the “ditch in the desert” had come to successful completion. It was a canal that required no locks to raise and lower ships, as does the Panama Canal.
In 1875 Great Britain purchased from the viceroy of Egypt 176,602 shares of stock in the Suez Canal Company. Thereafter the waterway was managed by a commission made up principally of the British and the French. According to the Suez Canal Convention of 1888, the canal was to be open to all countries in peace and war, a stipulation that warring nations often have ignored.
British troops stationed in the canal zone departed in June 1956, and during the following month, Britain and the United States withdrew offers of financial aid for the Aswan High Dam. This was among factors leading to the seizure of the Suez Canal on July 26, 1956, by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who intended to use canal tolls to finance construction of the dam. On October 29, 1956, the Israelis invaded Egypt. Two days later she was attacked by France and Britain, with a view to reestablishing international control of the canal. Fighting was halted on November 6, 1956, by United Nations action, and during March 1957 the waterway was reopened under Egyptian control. Ten years later it was closed due to the Arab-Israeli war of June 1967.
Big Plans for the “Big Ditch”
As originally constructed, the Suez Canal had a surface width of almost 230 feet. It was 72 feet wide at the bottom and had a depth of 26 feet. However, the waterway has been widened and deepened several times to accommodate larger vessels. Hence, it now has a depth of 46 feet and a surface width of over 390 feet. When the canal is in use, ships move in both directions, though most of the waterway has only one-lane traffic. Vessels are arranged in convoys and pass in the wider lake areas or the seven-mile Balah Bypass.
If Egypt carries through present plans, however, the “Big Ditch” will become much bigger. It will be expanded to a width of 520 navigable feet and a 62-foot depth by 1978, and to a navigable width of 630 feet and a 77-foot depth by the 1980’s. Suez and Port Said are to become free ports. International airports are planned for these areas. Proposed, too, is a gigantic irrigation project, intended to bring greenery to a million sandy desert acres. Agricultural and industrial strips are planned on both sides of the canal, with three principal cities and five ports.
What Prospects for a Reopened Canal?
Egypt’s six-year plan for the Suez will provide thousands of jobs and thus should improve the employment picture at home. Foreign capital is likely to be attracted too. In fact, businessmen of the world already are looking in the direction of the Suez Canal. For instance, some Japanese manufacturers are considering the establishment of factories in the free-trade zones.
About two years ago, a United Nations study revealed that the closing of the Suez Canal has cost the world 1.7 billion dollars annually in greater shipping expenses and lost trade. So, the reopened waterway undoubtedly would have a profound effect on world trade and economics. It would be likely to help such lands as Somalia and the Sudan, which once used the canal to get 60 percent of their exports to foreign markets and were obliged to end European fruit sales when it was closed. The canal’s reopening also would benefit such Mediterranean ports as Barcelona and Marseilles.
Great quantities of oil are likely to be transported through the reopened Suez Canal. Of course, even the prospective enlarging of the waterway will not enable it to accommodate certain supertankers. Yet, the size of about a third of the world’s oil tankers would allow them to go through the “Big Ditch.” Such vessels can make a trip from Persian Gulf ports to points in western Europe in some sixteen days by using the Suez Canal, compared to thirty days if they circled the Cape of Good Hope.
Fast ships traveling from Europe to the Far East around the Cape, however, have developed significant links with port cities en route. The canal is not vital to their activities. So, the reopened waterway’s actual effect on world trade and economy remains to be seen. Whether the Suez Canal will become the focal point of some future conflict also is uncertain. Admittedly, circumstances unforeseen by today’s optimistic world planners can have a big effect on the future of the “Big Ditch.”
[Map on page 16]
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Great Bitter Lake
Little Bitter Lake
Gulf of Suez