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Dark waters

World Sign of a self-determined Egypt, tool of foreign profiteers, emblem of a populist movement, and reminder of its failure - 150 years after work began on the Suez Canal, Maria Golia tallies the project's many faces.
After 1956, the Suez Canal Authority built schools, hospitals and gardens in the town of Suez; today, Suez has become an unlovely town, all oil refineries and petrochemical plants.
After 1956, the Suez Canal Authority built schools, hospitals and gardens in the town of Suez; today, Suez has become an unlovely town, all oil refineries and petrochemical plants.

Sign of a self-determined Egypt, tool of foreign profiteers, emblem of a populist movement, and reminder of its failure - 150 years after work began on the Suez Canal, Maria Golia tallies the project's many faces. On April 25 of this year, the 150th anniversary of the groundbreaking of the Suez Canal passed essentially unmarked. No one expected a ticker-tape parade - military processions have been few and far between since President Anwar Sadat was assassinated during one in 1981. But the government's silence came as some surprise, given how often the canal is touted as a God-given source of Egyptian revenue and influence, an expression of the nation's place in the world. "Egypt is endowed with a unique location at the crossroads of two continents ... and blessed with the Suez Canal," runs a typical line in a 2008 Ministry of Transport pamphlet.

Anyone who listens only to government press releases, which frequently tout the canal as among the country's top revenue generators, would be surprised to learn that the canal typically contributes just four per cent of Egypt's GDP, compared to manufacturing (14.2 per cent), petroleum and extracts (16 per cent) and the construction and telecommunications industries, which weigh in at over 10 per cent each. Indeed, many aspects of the Suez Canal are not discussed today, including the tens of thousands of Egyptian farmers drafted to dig the trench connecting the Mediterranean and Red Seas. These oversights are telling: like all great endeavours, the canal embodies an array of contradictory ambitions, perceptions and outcomes that reveal much about Egypt's history.

When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, he commissioned a canal feasibility study, but his engineers mistakenly concluded that the Red Sea was at least nine metres higher than the Mediterranean. The idea was consequently shelved - all the more so in 1801, when the British defeated the French navy off the coast of Alexandria, forestalling France's bid to dominate trade routes to the East. Where imperialists failed, a group of utopian socialists hoped to succeed. The Saint-Simonians, many of them promising graduates of the École Polytechnique in Paris, believed in love as a means of levelling social inequities, and canal building as a manifestation of technology's power to unite countries and cultures. After being expelled from France in 1833 for allegedly conducting orgies, several Saint-Simonians headed to Egypt, which they viewed as "the nuptial bed" where East and West might be joined by the parting of the desert and the marriage of the seas. This group's leader, Barthelemy Prosper Enfantin, was confident that the Ottoman viceroy Mohammed Ali would support his canal proposal, as he was in the habit of awarding foreigners concessions or limited monopolies on infrastructure projects. But Ali wanted control, not intercourse, and he refused Enfantin's proposal on the grounds that it would threaten Alexandria's monopoly on maritime trade.

Inspired by Enfantin, the Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps (formerly the French vice consul to Alexandria) convinced Mohammad Ali's French-educated son and successor, Said, that the Suez represented a destined opportunity. Awarded the canal concession in 1854, de Lesseps promised that "the names of the Egyptian sovereigns who erected the pyramids, those useless monuments of human pride, will be ignored", whereas Said's would be "blessed century after century for increasing Egypt's wealth and strengthening the bonds between civilisations".

Said died in 1863 with the canal incomplete, bogged down by objections from all who stood to lose from its success. This included Alexandrian traders, British imperialists frustrated by French involvement, and the Ottoman Sultan himself, who had never been consulted on the project. Said's nephew, Ismail, took over. Determined to demonstrate Egypt's equal standing with the West, its importance to the world, and distance from the Ottomans, he borrowed heavily from European banks and threw more round-the-clock shifts of farmers into digging the 160-km long waterway. Like the pyramids, the canal was built by corvée: workers were paid a pittance only so the Canal Company could avoid British accusations of slave labour.

Finally, the canal was ready. Even if today's Suez Canal Authority was inclined to celebrate the canal's origins, it would have had a difficult time competing with the week-long ceremonies surrounding the November 17, 1869 inauguration. Five hundred chefs prepared a massive banquet featuring "fish of the reunion of the two seas". Ismail invited the crowned heads of every nation - except the Ottoman sultan - hoping to impress them and win support for Egypt's formal independence from the Sublime Porte. There were diamond-bedecked royals, phantasmagoric fireworks, and, in the words of one attendee, "the deafening music of fifes and drums".

The opening was precisely the PR coup Ismail had hoped for. "Egypt is no longer in Africa, but in Europe," he proclaimed. Enthusiastically covered by the international press, the canal boosted Egypt's profile and placed it at the vanguard of the new. The canal shortened the route between Britain and India by 9,700km and, along with America's cross-country railway, inspired Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days (1873), whose travelling hero heralded the modern age of speed and daring. The canal also inspired the Statue of Liberty, originally envisaged by the French sculptor Auguste Bartholdi as a gigantic Egyptian fellaha (farm woman) holding a torch with a beacon light pouring from her forehead. Bartholdi called the monolith "Progress", and proposed that she be placed at the canal's entrance. But Ismail's budget was stretched too thin too afford more progress: he settled on two wooden obelisks and an electric lighthouse instead, and Bartholdi eventually repackaged Egypt's progress as America's liberty.

The canal raised great expectations that soon turned to great disappointment. Designed to facilitate Egyptian independence and prosperity, it left the nation bankrupt and at the mercy of foreign lenders and financiers - for whom the country was now more attractive a colony than ever. Costs had run to over double the original projections, and once receipts fell short, Ismail was forced to sell his shares to the British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli. "You have it Madam," Disraeli wrote to Queen Victoria in 1875, referring to Britain's 44 per cent plurality stake in the Suez Canal Company. Meanwhile, Britain used the canal to support its domination of India and other eastern colonies - not the kind of "link between civilisations" the canal's founders (much less the Saint-Simonians) had envisioned.

Soon afterwards, Ismail was forced to hand over control of Egypt's disastrous finances to an Anglo-French committee known as the Dual Control. One of its first manoeuvres was to allow a French bank to purchase Egypt's rights to 15 per cent of the canal's profit, leaving the country with zero stake in the project. At the same time, Britain suspected that the French might use their influence to obstruct British access to the East. Such meddling could only be counteracted by establishing a strong on-the-ground presence. An Egyptian uprising against foreign interference led by Colonel Ahmed Orabi in 1881 gave the British the opportunity they desired: Alexandria was bombed to bits, and Egypt became a de facto colony.

Said Pasha's name has been all but forgotten, but de Lesseps was very much remembered: his name was the code word used by the nationalist plotters during the 1956 takeover that wrested the canal from British control. To the Free Officers whose 1952 coup had formally ended the occupation and the Mohammed Ali dynasty, "de Lesseps" represented everything they despised: foreign influence, manipulation, and profitmaking off the backs of poor Egyptians. "Everything they have stolen from us ... we will take back!" president Gamal Abdel Nasser told an exultant crowd in Alexandria on July 26, 1956.

Nationalisation cut short the Suez Canal Company's 99-year concession by a decade, and redirected the profits away from foreign shareholders and toward the financing of the Aswan High Dam. To express their disapproval, Britain, France and Israel bombed the Canal Zone and Cairo Airport. But US President Eisenhower rallied the UN Security Council to impose a cease fire, awarding Egypt a victory that seemed to mark a definitive blow against imperialism. The canal that facilitated empire building had humbled the empire builders and fired the aspirations of liberation movements in Cuba, Algeria, Kenya and Ghana.

"If Egypt could stand up to the world, then Cuba can surely defeat Batista," Fidel Castro told Mohammed Hassanein Heikal, a confidante of Nasser's. "How can I not be a Nasserist?" asked Ahmed Ben Bella, the leader of the Algerian National Liberation Front, to whom Nasser had sent a portion of the nationalised canal's first-year profits. Under its new Egyptian management, the Canal Authority built schools, hospitals and gardens in the town of Suez, and a job with "the company" became a source of pride. Once again, the canal seemed to place Egypt at the forefront of a promising new era of self-determination.

This year the press conference commemorating nationalisation - the only canal-related milestone officially recognised by the state - focused on the practical challenges facing the canal, including piracy and the global recession. Perhaps these pressing issues took precedence over the canal's sesquicentennial, or perhaps history was brushed aside because it is so instructive. Before nationalisation, foreign banks and investors exploited Egypt; today, big development projects are still outsourced, with agreements not unlike the limited monopolies of old extended to certain investors and corporations. Prime coastal and Nile-side real estate is consistently sold or leased to foreign interests, placing the best Egyptian property off limits to most Egyptians. The corvée is kaput, but the average monthly salary amounts to less than the price of a steak dinner for two at a decent restaurant. To the Egyptians of a generation or two ago, the canal was a cause worth fighting for. To the Canal Authority's approximately 11,000 employees today, it means a job, little more.

Suez has become an unlovely town, all oil refineries and petrochemical plants. It is not uncommon to encounter people from there in Cairo, where jobs are somewhat more plentiful. Mahmoud K, a 42-year-old mason born and raised in Suez, visits the capital often to seek employment. His father, like the fathers of many of his friends, worked for the SCA in the 1960s and 1970s. "In those days the company took care of us and people were proud. But our gardens are filled with rubbish now, and the trees are dead. The whole town is in depression." Asked what the canal means to him, Mahmoud shakes his head. "The men who run the company ... they are not good men," he says, after a long pause during which he seems to consider several less politic descriptions. Suez has always belonged to the world of power and change; for men like Mahmoud, it is a reminder of how power has always eluded their grasp.

Maria Golia, the author of Cairo: City of Sand and the forthcoming Photography and Egypt, is a longtime resident of Cairo.

Updated: November 26, 2009 04:00 AM