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the Suez Canal, an essential trade route with a tumultuous past

A container ship has been blocking the Suez Canal since March 24 and the world is holding its breath … A look back at the challenges of this essential passage for the world economy, a commercial route with a tumultuous past.

The idea of ​​providing a link between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, and beyond to Asia, is not new. Already in antiquity, Pharaoh Sesostris III (1878-1843 BC) had a canal dug from West to East and linked the Nile to the Red Sea. Over the centuries, the renovation of this waterway is frequent due to a difficult geography and permanent silting up. In the end, nature wins and the connection is abandoned.

It was not until the 19th century that the idea resurfaced with Ferdinand de Lesseps. Whoever is only a modest diplomat stationed in Alexandria will take advantage of his friendship with Saïd Pasha, future viceroy of Egypt, to obtain the concession which will allow him to dig the canal. An expensive affair which will prove to be very successful. In December 1858, the Universal Company of the Suez Maritime Canal was created.

It will take ten years, from 1859 to 1869, to succeed in digging the Suez Canal. Initially, we worked there with a shovel and a pickaxe, under the drudgery regime imposed by Saïd Pasha. Every month, 25,000 peasants are forced to come and work on the site. The number of casualties among the workers is not known. Modern Egypt has put forward the figure of 120,000 dead.

The importance of the canal will grow with the industrial revolution and colonization. It offers a seamless route between Europe and Asia, avoiding the long bypass of Africa. Its strategic stake is such that in 1888 the Constantinople convention affirms the neutrality of the canal. From 486 passages in 1870, traffic reached 15,000 annual ships in 1950, generating enormous revenues linked to rights of way.

Unlike the Panama Canal, there is no lock here, which allows for quick navigation. The connection, 193 kilometers long, also takes place via three natural lakes.

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In 2014, President al-Sisi launched a gigantic canal expansion program costing three billion euros. The aim is to partially double it over 37 kilometers, in order to allow boats to pass each other in the narrowest areas. Another part of 35 kilometers is widened and deepened. This speeds up navigation. It now takes 11 hours to get from one end of the canal to the other.

When the canal was still in the hands of the British and the French, the royalties escaped Egypt, which had no say. But on July 26, 1956, Nasser announced his nationalization. British and French intervene militarily and occupy the canal before having to withdraw under pressure from the United States and the USSR. An episode that marks the end of an era, that of colonization and the omnipotence of Europe. It is also the first time that navigation has been cut off on the Suez Canal.

The Six-Day War in 1967, then that of Yom Kippur in 1973, this time led to a closure that lasted until 1975. The canal became a de facto front line. To ensure its reopening, 686,000 anti-tank and anti-personnel devices will have to be removed. ; 45,500 mines and 209 tonnes of explosives.

18,880 boats used the canal in 2019, an absolute record that is accompanied by a constant increase in the volumes transported. Which exceeded one billion tonnes in the same year. About fifty ships cross the canal daily, representing 8% of global maritime transport and nearly a quarter of the containers transported.

Every day, around fifty ships pass through the Suez Canal.  (CHRISTOS GOULIAMAKIS / AFP)

From 2014, the Danish shipowner Maersk launches the first giant container ships : with 400 meters long and 59 wide, these ships can carry 18,000 containers (TEU). But the French company CMA CGM is now placing 23,000 containers on the latest addition to its fleet on Jacques Saade.

An 18,000 TEU container ship pays around $ 800,000 per passage. With the widening of the canal, the Egyptian government hopes to obtain 11.7 billion in revenue in 2023. A royalty which represents a third of the country’s foreign exchange earnings and its second economic hub after tourism.

Egypt is no longer a gift from the Nile, but from the Suez Canal.

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