Amid pomp and fanfare, Egypt unveils Suez Canal extension

Among those at the ceremony were French President Francois Hollande, King Abdullah of Jordan, and Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.

The Egyptian Presidency/REUTERS
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi stands on a boat on the Suez Canal as he attends the celebration of an extension of the Suez Canal in Ismailia, Egypt, in this August 6, 2015 handout photo supplied by the Egyptian Presidency.

With much pomp and fanfare, Egypt on Thursday unveiled a major extension of the Suez Canal billed by its patron, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as a historic achievement needed to boost the country's ailing economy after years of unrest.

Mr. Sisi, wearing his ceremonial military uniform and trademark dark sunglasses on a sweltering August day, flew to the site aboard a military helicopter and immediately boarded a monarchy-era yacht that sailed to the venue of the ceremony.

The yacht was flanked by navy warships as helicopters, jet-fighters and military transport aircraft flew overhead. A visibly triumphant Sisi stood on the vessel's upper deck, waving to well-wishers and folklore dance troupes performing on shore. At one point, a young boy in military uniform and holding an Egyptian red, black and white flag joined him on deck.

Later in the day, the president changed to a dark grey business suit and took his seat at the main stand for an elaborate ceremony in the canal city of Ismailia, attended by foreign dignitaries and organized amid tight security measures following a series of attacks by Islamic militants in the Sinai Peninsula and the capital, Cairo.

"Egyptians have made a huge effort so as to give the world this gift for development, construction and civilization," Sisi said at the ceremony. Egyptians, he added, "showed their ability to efficiently make history and leap to the future for the prosperity of humanity."

His address was interrupted by the ship horns of container vessels using the new extension, something that brought a smile to the president's face and cheers and whistles of some of the attendees.

Among those at the ceremony were French President Francois Hollande, King Abdullah of Jordan and Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Kuwait's Emir Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras also attended, as well as Yemen's exiled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.

The unveiling of the $8.5 billion extension has been trumpeted as a historic achievement by pro-government media and has revived the nationalistic personality cult built around the 60-year-old Sisi, who as army chief led the overthrow of an Islamist president in 2013 and was elected to office last year.

Egypt's black, white and red flags now adorn streets across much of the nation, along with banners declaring support for Sisi and hailing his latest achievement. The government declared Thursday a national holiday, and banks and most businesses were closed.

The new Suez Canal extension involved digging and dredging along 45 miles of the 193-kilometer canal, making a parallel waterway at its middle that will facilitate two-way traffic. With a depth of 79 feet, the canal now allows the simultaneous passage of ships with up to 66 ft. draught.

The project was initially estimated to take three years, but Sisi ordered it completed in one.

The government says the project, funded entirely by Egyptian investors, will more than double the canal's annual revenue to $13.2 billion by 2023, injecting much-needed foreign currency into an economy that has struggled to recover from the 2011 uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak and the years of turmoil that followed.

Economists and shippers have questioned the value of the project, saying the increased traffic and revenues the government is hoping for would require major growth in global trade, which at this point seems unlikely.

Sisi said the project also reassured his countrymen and the world that Egyptians "are still capable" of great accomplishments.

But the man-made waterway linking the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, which was inaugurated in 1869, has long been seen as a symbol of Egyptian national pride. And pro-government media have compared Sisi to former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose nationalization of the canal in 1956 is seen as a defiant break with the country's colonial past.

"Egypt makes history," read the banner headline of Thursday's pro-government daily Al-Watan. The front page of another daily, Al-Maqal, said "Rejoice, it is worth it!"

But Thursday's ceremony was partially overshadowed by an Islamic State affiliate's threat to kill a Croatian hostage kidnapped in Cairo last month — a grim reminder of the threat posed by Islamic militants to Egypt's stability.

The affiliate, calling itself the Sinai Province of the Islamic State, released a video Wednesday threatening to kill the Croatian in 48 hours if Egyptian authorities do not release "Muslim women" held in prison, a reference to female Islamists detained in the government's broad crackdown on former President Mohammed Morsi's supporters.

The 30-year-old Croatian father of two, Tomislav Salopek, was kidnapped on July 22. There have been conflicting reports on where he was snatched. An official at the French company he worked for in Egypt said he was taken from his car at 7 a.m. in an area west of Cairo while making his way to the city's airport from a company site. Other reports spoke of him being snatched in the Cairo suburb of Maadi, a quiet and leafy neighborhood where many of the city's Western community live.

If confirmed, a broad daylight kidnapping of a foreigner in a Cairo suburb could cause panic among the city's security-conscious expatriate community. Croatian state TV reported on Thursday afternoon that Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic left for Cairo together with Salopek's wife, Natasa.

Sisi made no mention of the Croat's kidnapping, but denounced the Islamic militants battling his government as "the evil people" seeking to "hurt Egypt and the Egyptians."

"Without a doubt, we will triumph over them," he added.

Egypt has seen a surge in attacks by Islamic militants since Morsi's ouster, in both the restive north of the Sinai Peninsula and the mainland, focusing primarily on security forces.

The violence continued on Thursday, with militants shelling two homes near security checkpoints in northern Sinai, killing two people and wounding nine, according to Egyptian security officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Also Thursday, a soldier standing guard at a military checkpoint in northern Sinai was killed by sniper fire, the officials said.

Militants have also targeted foreign interests, including the Italian Consulate in Cairo, which was hit with a car bomb last month. That came just days after another bomb killed Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat in an upscale Cairo neighborhood.

However, Wednesday's video was the first to be released by Islamic militants showing a kidnapped foreigner in Egypt, an ominous escalation as the country tries to rebuild its vital tourism industry. The professionally-made video resembled clips released by the IS group in Syria and Iraq, indicating closer ties with its Egyptian branch.

The government says it has taken major steps to prevent anyone from disrupting Thursday's ceremony, and pro-government media have portrayed the canal extension itself as a victory over extremism.

"Rejoice, for it is a victory over terror," wrote Al-Maqal's editor Ibrahim Issa. "Rejoice, for it is a tremendous win for a country suffering from the blows of terror."

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