On July 26, 1956, Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. With this action, the young Egyptian president was catapulted to world prominence as a recognized leader of the Arab nationalist and Non-Aligned movements of the time. The nationalization secured for Nasser a reputation for resolute anti-imperialism and commitment to national autonomy. It also dealt a devastating blow to what was left of British and, to a lesser extent French, hegemony in the Middle East.
Since 1956, the Suez Canal has carried great political weight in Egyptian discourse. Soon after the nationalization, the French, British and Israelis conspired to seize the canal from Nasser by military force. While the three powers won on the battlefield, they were routed in international public opinion. Then US president Dwight D. Eisenhower, fearing that such a transparently imperialist venture would encourage newly independent states to side with the Soviet Union in the Cold War, forced the withdrawal of British, French and, eventually, Israeli forces from the Canal Zone. Nasser hailed the retreat as a great victory over outside aggressors, elevating his personal status and further convincing Whitehall that he posed an existential threat to British interests in the region.
Nearly 60 years later, another Egyptian president, ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, is seeking to channel the charisma of Nasser, and the discursive power of the Suez Canal, to strengthen his position in domestic, and perhaps regional, politics. The sycophantic fanfare that has flooded Egyptian media is eerily reminiscent of the pandering seen in Nasser’s time, but the analogy ends there.
The latest expansion of the Suez Canal (there have been several enlargements before) is neither economically nor politically equivalent to Nasser’s nationalization in 1956. Moreover, while state-encouraged propaganda was relatively new and effective 60 years ago, today it speaks more to the weakness than the strength of the government. The canal hype may begin to sow doubt among fence sitters who see a government celebrating victory while the day-to-day hardships of ordinary Egyptians grow rather than dissipate.
The increasingly over-the-top theatrics meant to cement in the eyes of the Egyptian people the great import of this latest national project have largely reduced the canal expansion to an object of international ridicule, causing a degree of discomfort to many Egyptians. Seeing supposedly independent newscasters wearing sailor suits or camouflage headscarves and saluting a stream of ship-shaped cakes hurts the credibility of any attempt at a sober account of the expansion’s potential benefits.
In reality, while the government’s wildly optimistic revenue forecasts are unrealistic, the expansion likely will protect if not expand the Suez Canal’s market share in international shipping. The 9 percent annual growth projections are almost certainly impossible. The Panama Canal is undertaking a decidedly more studied expansion to allow larger container ships to pass through in the hope of stealing traffic from Suez. That Egypt has widened and deepened its canal may, however, erode Panama’s ability to lure shipping companies away.
The more important question, however, is this: Given the enormous challenges facing Egypt and the country’s financial straits, was this expansion the right use of over $8 billion? Probably not. Given the dilapidated state of public hospitals and the abysmal quality of public education, it’s difficult to doubt that Egypt has many higher priorities.
What’s perhaps most frustrating, though, is that this question was never publicly debated before the decision to expand the canal was taken. Indeed, the lack of transparency in decision-making has been the problem with a regime dependent on strongman politics ever since the days of Nasser. A “president,” with deep roots in the military, has a self-aggrandizing vision. He works to realize it, often with little or no advance study, and the makers of Egyptian opinion rally behind him. The clairvoyance of the leader is to be trusted without question.
Now more projects are being announced without serious and public discussion of whether they fit Egypt’s priorities. The failure to settle on a parliamentary elections law that could provide Egypt with an independent legislature to review and debate the president’s decisions is a gross disservice to Egypt and its long-term interests. Without a national assembly, Egypt continues to be ruled by decree with no one in the position to exercise oversight or demand accountability.
This lack of thorough planning is a key reason for the shambolic performance of government in Egypt over the course of several decades. To stir up excitement for the economic conference held in Egypt earlier this year, the government announced plans to build an entirely new capital city in the middle of the desert between Cairo and ‘Ayn al-Sukhna. An interview with Dan Ringelstein, director of urban planning and design at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the company given the new capital portfolio, revealed that his team had come up with their scheme in a mere two months. Such a grandiose project should not be greenlighted without a great deal more research. Moreover, all of the planning happened in secret. There was no open conversation about the wisdom or the feasibility of the idea.
In the end, the memorandum of understanding with the Emirati company that was meant to bankroll and build the new capital was canceled. Now a new deal is being negotiated with an entirely Egyptian group of companies whose source of financing is thus far unknown.
With the overwrought ceremonies inaugurating the latest expansion of the Suez Canal, President Sisi is attaining neither Nasser’s prominence nor his significance. He is, however, following very carefully in Nasser’s footsteps of haphazard and opaque authoritarianism. There is no shortage of research on the consequences of that trajectory for Egypt.