Egypt received a show of international support on Thursday as it inaugurated a major extension of the Suez Canal, Reuters reported.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said he hopes the New Suez Canal will power an economic turnaround in the Arab world’s most populous country.
The former armed forces chief, who led a military takeover two years ago but ran for president as a civilian last year, told a ceremony attended by French, Russian, Arab and African leaders that Egypt would defeat the terrorism that dogged the project.
“Work did not take place in normal circumstances, and these circumstances still exist and we are fighting them and we will defeat them,” Sisi said after signing an order allowing ships to cross the New Suez Canal.
“We promised a gift to the world and we accomplished it in record time — an additional artery for prosperity and for connecting civilization to enhance the movement of international trade,” he said, as the first vessel, a container ship called CMA CGM TITAN, blew its horn and passed through the canal.
The US$8 billion project was completed in just one year instead of three on Sisi’s orders, but economists and shipping analysts question whether there is sufficient traffic and east-west trade to meet its ambitious revenue targets.
The project involved extending a waterway parallel to part of the 19th century canal connecting the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, as well as deepening and widening the old channel — the shortest shipping route between Europe and Asia.
The canal expansion is the centerpiece of a grand agenda by Sisi to cement his tenure as the man who brought stability and prosperity to Egypt after he ousted elected Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Mursi in 2013 following mass protests.
The inauguration ceremony was also intended to bolster his international standing in the presence of French President Francois Hollande, Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev, King Abdullah of Jordan, the emir of Kuwait and the king of Bahrain.
US Secretary of State John Kerry was in Cairo on Aug. 2 for a strategic dialogue with Egypt, but no top-level representative of the Obama administration attended the ceremony. Ambassador Robert Beecroft and Darrell Issa, a Republican US Representative from California, attended.
Egypt’s allies are keen to burnish its image in a region beset by turmoil. Cairo too faces an increasingly brazen two-year-old insurgency based across the Suez Canal in the Sinai peninsula that has killed hundreds of police and soldiers.
Earlier Sisi, in full military regalia, sailed up the canal, flanked by a young boy in military fatigues waving the Egyptian flag, aboard the yacht El-Mahrousa, the first ship to pass through the Suez Canal when it was opened in November 1869.
Newly delivered French Rafale fighters and US F-16 warplanes staged a flypast, while helicopters flew overhead and naval vessels escorted the yacht in the televised ceremony.
In Cairo’s Tahrir Square a crowd of about 300 gathered in the square honking horns with the color of the Egyptian flag.
For many Egyptians, as well as economists and experts, the immediate benefits of the expansion, funded largely by a public subscription in Egypt, are not obvious.
The Suez Canal Authority expects a windfall of additional revenue — US$13.23 billion in annual revenue by 2023 from just over US$5 billion in 2014, with the number of daily vessels rising from 49 to 97 over the same period.
But sluggish world trade, competition from an expanded Panama Canal and a slower Chinese economy make it unlikely the project can achieve its revenue targets anytime soon or bring about a significant fall in unemployment from about 13 percent, the report said.
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