Egypt has officially unveiled a major new expansion of the Suez Canal — the strategic maritime passage that connects the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea.
An opening ceremony held Thursday and attended by foreign leaders and international dignitaries marked the end of a major expansion project that Egypt's government hopes will revive the country's economy, which has been left in tatters by four years of political unrest.
French President François Hollande, King Abdullah of Jordan, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and Greek Premier Alexis Tsipras joined Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as he officially opened the historic canal's new lane, which authorities have dubbed "Egypt's gift to the world."
During the ceremony, Sisi honed in on the country's fight against terrorism, saying Egypt would overcome these threats.
"Work did not take place in normal circumstances, and these circumstances still exist and we are fighting them and we will defeat them," Sisi said at the opening. "Egypt during this year stood against the most dangerous terrorist threat that would burn the world if it could."
According to government projections, the expansion is expected to double the revenue generated by the canal.
"It's a colossal [project]," said Yves Bouvart, former director of the western French port of La Rochelle, and currently a ports consultant at the Sorbonne in Paris. Speaking to VICE News, Bouvart likened the project to "turning a road with traffic lights into a toll highway."
Opened in 1869 after 10 years of construction, the Suez Canal is the fastest trade route between Europe and Asia and is an "unavoidable crossing" for many international carriers, said Bouvart.
In 1867, French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi unveiled a design for a giant statue of a woman brandishing a torch to symbolize "Egypt bringing light to Asia" through the canal. Local support for the statue waned eventually and it ultimately ended up in New York harbor in 1886, and was renamed the Statue of Liberty.
In July 1956, the canal became the symbol of Egyptian nationalism when then-president Gamal Abder Nasser triggered a diplomatic crisis by wresting the waterway back from the companies that controlled it and nationalizing it.
In response, Britain, France, and Israel invaded Egypt, withdrawing only as a result of pressure from the US and the Soviet Union.
Today, more than 1,400 ships pass through the canal each month — a number the government hopes will double with the $8.5 billion expansion. The new lane, which increased the length of the canal from 101 to 123 miles, will be able to accommodate a wider variety of vessels, including Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC) supertankers.
Egyptian authorities expect revenue from the canal to increase from $5 billion in 2014 to $13.23 billion by 2023 — a prediction Bouvart qualified as "ambitious."
Critics of the canal have challenged the government's revenue projections, and some have expressed doubt that the canal can revive the country's faltering economy.
"Just because 97 ships could pass through each day doesn't mean that 97 ships will, just overnight," said Bouvart, who described Egypt's investment as "risky." Revenue from maritime transport, he explained, is "highly dependent on the state of the global economy and on fuel prices."
Since the popular uprising that led to President Hosni Mubarak's downfall in February 2011, and the July 2013 coup in which Egypt's military removed Mohamed Morsi — the country's first democratically elected president — the country has been mired in political strife and instability.
Egypt is also struggling to cope with an escalating Islamic State (IS) insurgency. "The security aspect is a major challenge for the future of the Suez Canal," Bouvart told VICE News. Operating mostly in the Sinai Peninsula, which lies to the east of the canal, IS militants have recently threatened to kill a Croatian hostage abducted in the Egyptian capital of Cairo, if Muslim women aren't released from the country's jails.
Bouvart also highlighted the threat of pirates, who operate in the Red Sea. "The canal will attract better targets," he warned, adding that increased maritime traffic should go hand in hand with "an international effort to secure the area."
In February, the government purchased 24 Rafale fighter jets and a multipurpose naval frigate from France as part of a military weapons contract worth over $5.7 billion. Thursday's elaborate inauguration ceremony featured an airshow, in which three of the French Rafale aircrafts and twelve F-16 jets from the US drew plumes of smoke across the sky. Back in March, US President Barack Obama announced the Washington would provide Egypt with an annual military assistance package worth $1.3 billion.
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Image of Suez Canal bridge via US Navy/Wikimedia Commons