Written by Jonah Kirabo
Suez is the sixth-most-populous city / town in Egypt, located in north eastern Egypt with a population over one 1.3 million people.
The city is home to various extensive port facilities and it is home to the Suez Canal, an artificial creation that links the Mediterranean sea to the Red Sea.
I was among the lucky few delegates that represented Uganda in the African Presidential Leadership Program (APLP) in Egypt last month and we were fortunate enough to visit the Suez Canal Project to learn about its history and the value that the Egyptians attach to this water way.
According to the Suez Canal Authority Chairperson and Managing Director, Osama Radea, the Canal first opened on November 17, 1869 having been constructed for ten years.
The idea behind its construction was that it would enable a more direct route for shipping between Europe and Asia, effectively allowing for passage from the North Atlantic to the Indian Ocean without having to circumnavigate the African continent.
It was dug using what could be termed as “rudimentary tools,” back in the 19th century on the orders of a French diplomat, Ferdinard de Lesseps who fronted the whole idea.
Whereas the idea was fronted by a French national, The Suez Canal boss was quick to add that it was only due to the expertise of the Egyptians that the idea was able to come to life and hence giving them a good claim to it.
Infact, Radea went ahead to tell us that it took a quarter of the Egyptian population who were just 4.5 million people in total at the time to dig up the waterway between the years of 1859 to 1869 when it was finally opened for business.
“It was the genius of the Egyptians who used rudimentary tools to dig up about 164 kilometers long canal in just 10 years. A quarter of our 4.5 million population at the time took part in the excavations,” Radea said in part.
However, this didn’t come rosy for the Egyptians, a number of them, with the number estimated to be around 120,000 Egyptians are said to have died during the process owing to several factors such as diseases like cholera, fatigue among others.
Until July 1956, the Suez Canal was owned and controlled by the United Kingdom and the French men. The Egyptian President at the time, Gamal Abdel Nasser made a decision nationalize it, leading to the Suez Crisis of October to November 1956 which Egypt, under Nasser won making him a hero for the cause of Egyptian nationalism. The United Kingdom and French troops were subsequently evacuated by the United Nations in December 1956 leaving the Egyptians in full control. The Canal is now controlled by the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) of Egypt.
Several years later, the current Egyptian President and Chairperson of the African Union, H.E President AbdelFattah El Sisi proposed the construction of the New Suez Canal Project with an aim of expanding the the then current one in order to allow for easy movement of the big ship.
According to the Suez Canal Authority, Egyptians supported their president by purchasing 64 billion Egyptian pounds ($3.8 million) of investment certificates within eight days and 5000 volunteer citizens participated in its construction.
The New Suez Canal is 72 kilometres long, making it the longest canal in the world without locks. 10% of the world maritime trade passes through the Suez with five floating bridges that cross the canal and it is the biggest dredging project in the World as per Guinness World Records.
The new Suez Canal Project also reduced transit time from 22 to 11 hours and it also increased on a number of vessels that cross daily from 40-45 to 60-65 giant vessels on a daily and it’s now a major source of livelihood to Egypt as a country and a focal trade point for the continents of Asia, Europe and Africa.
Fishing ponds were also constructed on the sidelines of the canal, giving employment opportunities to many Egyptians as well as producing fish for export.
The Suez Canal Authority also claims that the new project will double Egypt’s annual revenue to US$13.2 billion by the year 2023.
The Canal is secured by the Egyptian armed forces.
Lessons for Uganda
While hearing, seeing and learning about all this, I could not stop but think about mama Uganda. Wondering if we can have a section of our population, rallying behind the government to contribute to a national project.
The New Suez Canal Project reminded me of Gen. Mugisha Muntu’s call of putting “Country before self” and how much we can achieve if we, as Ugandans focused on moving past simply ‘defeating the current regime’ but also prepared for life after the regime has gone. For the Egyptians, it’s not about a certain section that doesn’t believe in the leadership of El Sisi or any other individual, it’s about them. It’s about the country.