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Egypt inaugurates new Suez Canal section

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi yesterday inaugurated a “new” Suez Canal in a lavish and heavily secured ceremony, as Egypt seeks to boost its economy and international standing.

However, a threat by an Islamic militant group to execute a Croatian hostage kidnapped west of the capital threatened to overshadow the ceremony, showcased by authorities as proof that the country was safe.

The event in the port city of Ismailia, attended by several heads of state, including French President Francois Hollande, came two years after then-Egyptian army head al-Sisi overthrew former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi.

Morsi’s ousting unleashed a deadly crackdown on Islamists, and militant insurgency has killed hundreds of soldiers east of the Suez Canal.

The Islamic State group’s Egyptian affiliate on Wednesday released a video threatening to execute Croatian hostage Tomislav Salopek, a worker with French geoscience company CGG, in 48 hours if female prisoners were not released.

Croatian Minister of Foreign Affairs Vesna Pusic was due in Cairo yesterday to try to secure Salopek’s release.

Al-Sisi broke ground on the canal project in August last year after being elected president after he promised to improve security and revive a dilapidated economy.

Initial estimates suggested the new route would take up to three years to build, but al-Sisi set an ambitious target of 12 months to finish the project.

It has been touted as a landmark achievement, rivaling the digging of the original 192km canal, which opened in 1869 after almost a decade of work.

The new section, built at a cost of US$9 billion and funded entirely by Egyptian investors, runs part of the way alongside the existing canal connecting the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.

“It’s an achievement for the people who managed to fund it as a national project and accomplished it through perseverance and hard work,” al-Sisi’s office has said.

It involved 37km of dry digging, creating a “second lane,” and widening and deepening another 35km of the existing canal.

It is to cut the waiting period for vessels from 18 hours to 11.

By 2023 the number of ships using the canal is likely to increase to 97 per day from 49 now, the government said.

Officials hope the new waterway will more than double Suez earnings from US$5.3 billion expected at the end of this year to US$13.2 billion in 2023.

However, analysts say the increase in ships and revenue would hinge on global trade volume, not the canal’s capacity.

Banners saying “New Suez Canal: Egypt’s gift to the world” and hundreds of Egyptian flags graced the streets of Cairo yesterday.

The waterway is a cornerstone for al-Sisi to boost his regime’s legitimacy after a deadly crackdown.

Militants have killed hundreds of policemen and soldiers, mostly in the Sinai Peninsula that lies between Israel, the Gaza Strip and the Suez Canal.

“Since Morsi’s ouster, the new regime is engaged in a political conflict to prove its legitimacy inside and outside Egypt. The ability to accomplish such an economic project is part of cementing this legitimacy,” said Amr Adly of the Carnegie Middle East Center.

The canal is part of a comprehensive project to develop the area near the canal into an industrial hub.

“There is a stream of investors who want to invest, because the level of trust in Egypt and its political leadership is very high,” Suez Canal Authority head Mahob Mameesh said.

He said that about 1 million jobs are expected to be created over the next 15 years.

Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, called it “a magnificent project,” but added that it “does not resolve the structural challenge facing the economy.”


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