The Suez Canal: Foundation, Crisis and Beyond

The Suez Canal: Foundation, Crisis and Beyond

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Today’s exploration will take us to the Suez Canal. Does it really need an introduction? ​Technically speaking, the Suez Canal is the artificial waterway running north to south across the Isthmus of Suez in Egypt, connecting the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. The Canal separates the African continent from Asia, while providing the shortest sea route between Europe and the Indian and western Pacific oceans. Nowadays, the Canal is 193km long, 24 metres deep and 225 metres wide. To give you an idea of just how much traffic goes through Suez, in 2018 alone, 18,714 ships sailed through the Canal, for a total of 1.1B Tons of cargo. Beyond the numbers and the stats, Suez enjoys a well-earned iconic status, resulting from decades of complicated history. In today’s Geographics, we are going to look at some of the events in which the Canal has been played not just a mere setting, but a true protagonist. The Canals Before the Canal Let’s start with a little test.
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Don’t worry -- it’s a multiple choice one. Can you name the decade in which the first Canal linking the Mediterranean to the Red sea was dug? Is it The 1860s CE, or The 1860s BCE Well, what if I told you that both answers are at least kind of true? The Suez Canal was opened to navigation on the 17th of November in 1869 CE, but the first waterway connecting the two seas, albeit not directly, was dug during the reign of Pharao Senausret III, from 1887 to 1849 BCE. This canal was not a straight link ‘from the Med to the Red,’ as is often heard, but rather, it connected the latter sea with a branch of the Nile. For 4000 years ago, that’s still pretty impressive! The Canal of Senausret was often abandoned due to silting: the process of becoming filled or blocked by sandy or clay-like deposits. However, Egyptians never shied away from a massive infrastructural project, so time and again they set themselves to the task of reopening and expanding the Canal.
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Under the reign of Necho II, around 610 BCE, another canal was dug between the Pelusian branch of the Nile and the northern end of the Bitter Lakes, which are located halfway between the shores of the Mediterranean and the Red sea. The cost of the enterprise? According to Greek Historian Herodotus … 100,000 lives! Those 100,000 workers must have been delighted to hear that this canal also fell victim to neglect, disrepair and silting. It took a foreign ruler, Persian Emperor Darius I [Caption: Darius I, 522-486 BCE] to bring the Canal back to its glory days. Herodotus again writes that the canal was wide enough that two triremes could pass each other with oars extended, and that it took four days to sail from the Mediterranean to the Great Bitter Lake. During the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus, [Caption: 285-246 BC] the canal was extended by linking the Bitter Lakes to the Red Sea. Once again, from the days of Senausret, a ship could travel from the delta of the Nile to the Red sea, without having to unload its cargo and cross the desert by other means. After yet another stint of neglect, it was the Roman Emperor Trajan’s [Caption: 98-117
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CE] turn to join the club of the canal revivalists, but guess what? It didn’t last long. Skipping a few centuries ahead, in the 7th Century CE, ruler Amro Ibn Elass rebuilt the canal, after the Islamic takeover of Egypt. The canal was used for shipping grain to Arabia and transporting pilgrims to the Holy Land. The canal was finally blocked once and for all in 767 CE by the Abbasid caliph El-Mansur. His aim was to cut off supplies to insurgents located in the Nile Delta and in Medina. It was one of the earliest instances of how a waterway could play a strategic role in times of conflict and strife. Do we like the Canal? It took more than one thousand years before another military leader would even consider digging a new canal, and it was none other than Napoleon Bonaparte, conqueror of Egypt in 1798. The Corsican General envisioned the project as a means for the French Navy to control trade with the Indian Ocean.
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French Engineer Charles Le Pere set off to work in 1799, but his team soon ran into a big problem. It appeared that the Red Sea was 10 metres, or 30 feet, higher than the Mediterranean. This meant that digging a canal would cause the Red sea to burst through the Sinai and the Nile Delta: a catastrophic flood. In reality, this was totally wrong -- it was a mathematical miscalculation! But it was enough to discourage Napoleon, who, had other problems to occupy him, anyway, and work was quickly suspended. Despite Napoleon’s lack of followthrough, his attempt left an important legacy: a semi-modern idea of directly connecting the Med and the Red across the isthmus of Suez, without using a branch of the Nile as a bridge. In 1833, a group of French intellectuals known as the Saint-Simoniens arrived in Cairo, and they became very interested in the Suez project, despite the perceived problem of the different sea levels. Unfortunately, at that time, Egyptian Viceroy Mohammed Ali Pasha had little interest in the project, being involved in a war against his theoretical boss, the Ottoman Sultan.
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In 1835 many of the Saint-Simoniens fell ill to a plague epidemic, and most of the survivors returned to France. Among the few who remained in Egypt was diplomat Viscount Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps. In 1847, French topographer and engineer Paul-Adrien Bourdaloue got his numbers right and confirmed that there was no difference in the levels between the Mediterranean and Red Seas. The few Saint-Simoniens in Egypt felt perky again, only to be dampened by the Viceroy’s lack of enthusiasm and by British opposition to the project. The most active proponent of the idea, De Lesseps, did not give up. He only had to wait for a change of leadership in Cairo. We don’t just like it... We dig it! Ferdinand de Lesseps was born on the November 19, 1805, to a family of French career diplomats. While posted in Egypt, he had become friends with Said Pasha, one of the 95 children allegedly sired by Mohammed Ali Pasha. Shortly after the Viceroy had failed to engage in the Canal project, De Lesseps had retired.
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But in 1854, his old friend Said Pasha became the new ruler of Egypt, and De Lesseps could not miss the opportunity for building a Canal; he returned to Egypt where Said gave him a warm welcome, and, most importantly, the permission to finally begin work on the Suez Canal. Just to clarify: De Lesseps was no engineer. He was a great organiser and planner, and, most importantly, he was a real pro at securing the necessary political and financial backing for a project of this magnitude. His chief supporter was none other than French Emperor Napoleon III, one who could not resist the sight of a tempting money-making project. Nonethelesseps, De Lesseps – excuse me. Let’s try that again. Nonetheless, De Lesseps failed to secure interest and gold from British investors. One wonders why the British Government was not happy to build a quicker route to the Raj, Australia, and other colonies. They had too much fun in circumnavigating Africa? By looking at British newspapers of the time, it seems like public opinion was skeptical that the Canal could actually be built. And even if De Lesseps succeeded in doing so, there were doubts about any sort of return
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on the investment. At the time, investing in a railroad from Cairo to Suez sounded more financially appealing. Anyhow, De Lesseps managed to collect the finances he needed through advance sales of Canal shares, on the Parisian stock market. Napoleon III would later chip in, too, as a major financier. In 1858 De Lesseps formed the Universal Company of the Maritime Suez Canal. This private company, owned by French and Egyptian shareholders, had the authority to dig the canal and to operate it for 99 years. At the end of this period, the Company would hand over ownership to the Egyptian Government. The Company’s original cost estimate was 200 Million francs. That’s about 2.2 Billion USD in today’s money. Engineers also estimated that a total of 2.6 billion cubic feet of earth would have to be moved. Excavation of the Canal began on April 25, 1859, and it was no walk in the park. The Canal Company ran into financial problems from the get go; luckily, Said Pasha came to the rescue, buying 44% of shares. Four years later, in 1863, Ismail Pasha succeeded Said. Ismail was not a supporter of the project, which was still being opposed by the British
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and Ottoman governments. Ismail had the work suspended, which prompted De Lesseps to appeal to Napoleon III. The Emperor convened an international commission in March of 1864, reaching an agreement that allowed for work to resume. Meanwhile, thousands of workers were digging in excruciating conditions, poorly compensated and exposed to diseases and the harsh climate of the Sinai. Cholera was a recurring nightmare. These issues created a high attrition rate amongst labourers and the Canal Company had to constantly renew their ranks, drafting in 20,000 new diggers every ten months. It is estimated that a total of 1.5 million Egyptians worked on the Canal. As many as 125,000 workers, or almost 10% of the total work force, died of cholera. After a decade of gruelling work, financial problems, and political meddling, the Canal was nearing completion, when De Lesseps was approached by sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi. Bartholdi pitched the idea of building a colossal statue at the Mediterranean end of the Canal, called “Egypt Bringing Light to Asia”.
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De Lesseps was kind of ‘yeah, I don’t really know … does it come with free shipping?’ So, Bartholdi continued shopping the idea for his statue – which by the way looked like a giant woman in ancient Egyptian robes carrying a torch high above her head. In 1886 the sculpture was unveiled in New York Harbour, now known as the Statue of Liberty. On November 17, 1869 the barrage holding back the waters of the Mediterranean was breached and the mighty waves flowed through the dig and into the Red Sea. The Suez Canal was officially opened: 160 kilometers of man-made waterway connecting Port Said in the North with Suez in the South, it was an impossibly impressive achievement. More importantly, the Canal had now linked two Hemispheres and opened endless opportunities – for trade and for conquest. But first thing’s first: the Canal Company had to party, and they knew just how to do it. The celebration gala at Port Said lasted six whole weeks and was attended by six thousand VIPs.
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Among them: Empress Eugenie of France, Franz Josef of Austria-Hungary, the Prince of Prussia, the Prince of the Netherlands and the Prince of Wales. No doubt, the British retinue was impressed by the Canal. The whole British establishment began reconsidering their official stance on the Canal, from ‘meh.’ To ‘I say, we could use with some of that, old chap. Indeed.’ In 1875 the Egyptian Government was in debt and the British offered to buy the 44% initially owned by Said Pasha. The Egyptians were happy to accept, and the Brits were in, with the story of the Empire inextricably linked to that of the Canal for the next 80 years. The Suez Canal became its lifeline to the colonies and, well, half of the World. The Canal became the aorta to Britain and France’s hearts: Enemies of the British and the French would do anything to sever that artery, and they would do anything to defend it. Seeking to Seize Suez In 1915, First World War hostilities had spread
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into the Middle East. Egypt had become a British protectorate in 1882, meaning the Empire bordered with Ottoman-controlled Palestine. In January 1915, an Ottoman expedition set forth from Beersheba, Palestine, with the intention to capture the Suez Canal and interrupt vital trade between Britain and its colonies. The leaders of the expedition were the Turkish Minister of the Navy, Djemal Pasha, and his Chief of Staff, a German General with a fantastic name: Kress von Kressenstein. Their 25,000-man assembly marched across the Sinai, ready to take the British by surprise. And when I say ‘marched’, I mean it: they literally walked across the desert, due to the lack of roads or railways in the peninsula. The other big problem for the attackers was water: they could carry only enough to sustain four days of fighting. If they did not seize the Canal in that time … well they would have to walk back home for more! Well aware of the strategic importance of the Canal, the Entente planned for a potential Ottoman attack. They suspected it may come soon, though they did not know exactly when.
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The Entente assigned 30,000 Indian troops to guard the Canal. On February 2, Djemal and Kress Von Kressenstein launched their surprise attack – which wasn’t a surprise at all. Not only did the Suez garrison expect an attack, but it also had airplanes that spotted the incoming troops. So much for the element of surprise! Djemal and Kress Von Kressenstein went on the attack until the 3rd of February, but after losing some 2,000 troops, they retreated to Beersheba. The expedition had been a failure, and the Ottomans did not attempt to take the Canal again. Some years after the end of the war, in 1922, Egypt gained nominal independence from the British Empire. This was formalised with the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936. Egypt was declared an independent sovereign state, but it was bound to allow the presence of British troops stationed in the Canal zone to protect Britain’s financial and strategic interests. This military presence was clearly not welcomed by Egyptian nationalists, but at least on paper, it was not meant to go on forever: the treaty had a time limit of 20 years, at which time the presence of troops was to be renegotiated. During WWII there wasn’t any fighting in and around the Canal; however, seizing Suez
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was a clear strategic goal for the Axis forces. After a series of offensives and counteroffensives across the Libyan-Egyptian border, Field Marshal Montgomery finally pushed back the Italo-Germans at El Alamein in October 1942. Britain had once again averted the risk of losing its second most strategically precious waterway to an enemy invasion. Little did the British know that in the next decade, it would be their turn to be the invaders. [Caption: The first more precious one is the English Channel, feel free to disagree] The Suez Crisis The end of WWII brought an upsurge in Egyptian nationalism, which escalated throughout the early 1950s. In 1951 the nationalist Wafd party won the elections: new Prime Minister Nahas Pasha asked for the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 to be revoked. The British garrison at Suez was targeted next, with attacks directed by the Egyptian paramilitary police force. On January 25, 1952, British troops launched Operation Eagle, a counter-attack against an Egyptian police unit in Ismailia, near the Canal.
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The engagement was a total success for the British, as the Egyptians suffered 50 KIA. But when news reached Cairo, violence broke out the following day: this became known as Black Saturday. British expats, along with their houses, businesses, and properties, were assaulted and burned by angry mobs. British threats to occupy Cairo prompted King Farouk to dismiss Nahas Pasha. But in July 1952, Farouk was overthrown in a military coup by General Mohammed Neguib. The General was then later deposed in the spring of 1954 and replaced by Colonel Gamel Abdul Nasser, the real puppet master behind the coup. Nasser had a clear 3-point plan: End British occupation Build up armed forces to attack Israel Boost the economy by building a dam at Aswan His plan started well: in October 1954, Nasser signed a new Treaty with London, announcing that British troops would be withdrawn by June 1956, following which the Canal would be operated by British and Egyptian civilian technicians. But then everything went pear shaped. In February 1955, British Foreign Secretary and eventual Prime Minister Anthony Eden denied
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a supply of weapons to Nasser. As a solution, Nasser turned to Czechoslovakia, purchasing Soviet-made planes, tanks, and other weaponry. This decision worried the Americans. The US Government was a major investor in the Aswan dam, but was having cold feet due to high costs and low confidence in the success of the project. The Czech arms deal was the final blow: US Secretary of State Foster Dulles announced that they were going to pull out of the dam. What did Nasser shout? ‘Dam!’ [Caption: Dramatisation] When the American pulled out, the Brits pulled out, too. ‘Dam!’ When the Brits pulled out, the World Bank pulled out their $200 Millions, too. ‘Triple Dam!’ Nasser needed cash and he realised he had it on his doorstep. In July 1956, President Nasser nationalised the Anglo-French Suez Canal Company: now all the revenues generated by shipping and trade through the Canal would go straight to Egypt’s coffers, a nice income to subsidise the dam at Aswan. This was a bold move that was bound to elicit a reaction from London and Paris. Prime Minister Eden started considering military action to overthrow Nasser, or at least regain
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control of Suez. The Americans made it clear that they would not condone such action, so London had to look for allies elsewhere. In October, Eden met with the French and Israeli Prime Ministers, Guy Mollet [Guy pronounced ‘Ghee’] and David Ben-Gurion. Their secret agreement involved an Israeli attack on Egypt, which would give the pretext for an Anglo-French intervention, i.e. protecting the canal from the Israeli-Egyptian conflict, and thus ensuring freedom of international shipping. On the October 29, 1956, the Israeli Defence Force … erm … attacked the Sinai peninsula. The next day, Britain and France, ‘visibly flabbergasted’ at the sight of these events, issued ultimatums to both combatants for a cease-fire. The Israelis continued their operations, pushing back Nasser’s army. Now came the time for the Anglo-French intervention: first, an air strike grounded the Egyptian Air Force; then, on the 5th of November, at dawn, British and French Paratroopers secured strategic areas of Port Said, at the Northern end of the Canal. This was in preparation for a seaborne landing due the next day. A force of Royal Marine Commandos, French paratroopers and British tanks overwhelmed Egyptian defences – capturing also a great deal of Nasser’s newly bought Czech weapons.
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The raid had been successful, but this was an act of aggression against Egypt that the UN could not just stand and watch. Secretary General Hammarskjöld urged a cease-fire, and the Anglo-French stopped just south of Port Said, while on their way to Suez. The invading forces had suffered 257 killed in action overall, while Egypt reported over 3000 deaths. While the invaders had made progress on land, Nasser had managed to scuttle 47 ships in the Canal, effectively shutting it for months. US President Eisenhower was furious with the British. Khrushchev, too, was not a happy chappie and he threatened Soviet intervention, without discounting the use of Nukes over Western Europe. Scorned by most of the World, Britain and France agreed to withdraw their troops from Egypt. Israel would evacuate the following year. A United Nations peacekeeping force was sent in to supervise the ceasefire and to restore order. The Suez Canal was cleared and reopened, but Britain found its ‘Special Relationship’ with the US severely strained and its influence in the Middle East diminished. Eden’s political credibility was particularly harmed, as he had kept the whole operation hidden not only to Eisenhower, but to his own parliament.
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In December 1956 he declared to the House of Commons: ‘To say it quite bluntly to the House, there was not foreknowledge that Israel would attack Egypt. There was not.’ In January 1957, Sir Anthony Eden resigned. In June, Mollet’s government collapsed. Nasser was still in power and holding onto the Canal. Shutdown! It’s clear that due to its location, the Suez Canal would time and again find itself caught between Israel and Egypt in one of their many conflicts. Following months of escalating tensions among Israel, Syria, Jordan and Egypt, in the spring of 1967, war seemed inevitable. The Israeli Air Force did not wait; it struck first, hard and fast. Operation Focus, launched on the 5th of June, was a pre-emptive strike that destroyed on the ground most of the air forces of the allied Arab countries. This was the beginning of the Six-Day war. I will not go into the details of the conflict, rather focus on its consequences on the Suez Canal. As a retaliatory measure, Nasser ordered for the Canal to be shut down by mines and scuttled ships. The problem is that at the time of the big shut down, 15 international shipping vessels
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were moored at the canal’s midpoint, the Great Bitter Lake. The ships remained stranded in the Bitter Lake for eight years: they became known as the “Yellow Fleet”, because of the sands that had caked their decks. The shipping companies could not afford to abandon their ships and precious cargo, so they maintained rotating crews to look after them. Egyptian authorities had banned the crews from using radio and imposed a police guard on every ship, but the crews were not eager to remain in isolation from each other. Motorboats became an essential form of transport for communication and for exchanging supplies. Soon, the Bitter Lake residents grew into a full-fledged community, almost entirely male except for one woman, a Swedish stewardess known as ‘The Lady of the Lake’. The community organised a trade system to ensure that everybody had the needed supplies of food, water … and other types of drink. Captain Kensett, of British vessel Port Invercargill, calculated that 1.5 million empty beer bottles were dumped in the lake. The Bitter Lake residents had other ways to pass the time. They organised football matches on the deck of the largest ships, along with sailing races,
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waterskiing events and even movie nights, hosted by different ships in turn. In 1968 the Bitter Lakers even held their own mini Olympic Games. The event was comprised of 14 sports, including high jump, archery, shooting, and water polo. In case you wonder who got the most medals, it was the Polish team. The Germans came in second, and the British came in third. After a couple of years, the shipping companies opted to moor the vessels in groups. The crews began to shrink, and by Christmas 1969, just 50 ships remained. The following year, Nasser died, but it took several more years for the Canal to be cleared of all the mines, sunken vessels and other detritus. It finally reopened in 1975, and the Yellow fleet was free to go, although after eight years, only two ships were still seaworthy. Strange how a war that lasted only six days would cause a small fleet to endure eight years of a bizarre and static Odyssey. The Future of the Canal The Suez Canal has enjoyed increased traffic in the early 2010s, with roughly 50 ships passing through its waters every day. Shipping tolls allowed Egypt to rake in around $5 billion annually, but the canal was hampered
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by a relatively narrow width and shallow depth, which are insufficient to accommodate two-way traffic from modern tanker ships. In August 2014, Egypt’s Suez Canal Authority announced an ambitious plan to deepen the canal and create a new 35km lane branching off the main channel. The work, now completed, is projected to increase annual revenue to $13 billion per year by 2023. The geopolitics of the area are unstable, to say the least, but it seems like for the time being the Canal is set to thrive. The risks of silting, neglect, abandonment or shut down are off the table, and traffic across the Canal will increase as Asian markets continue to grow. Before I leave, a question for you: as De Lesseps said ‘no merci’ to the Statue of Liberty, whose gigantic Statue would you like to see at the entrance of the Canal?

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