Feature: Century-old Suez Canal bears witness to vicissitudes of Egyptians being trapped and salvaged

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(240113) -- CAIRO, Jan. 13, 2024 (Xinhua) -- A cargo ship travels on the Suez Canal in Ismailia Province, Egypt, Jan. 13, 2024. Chairman of Egypt's Suez Canal Authority (SCA) Osama Rabie said on Friday that navigation traffic in the canal is regular in both directions. In a statement, Rabie denied reports about the temporary suspension of navigation in the Suez Canal as a result of the tension in the Red Sea's strategic Bab-el-Mandeb area. (Xinhua/Ahmed Gomaa)

On April 25, 1859, amid the great pomp of a cannon salute, a French man struck a pickaxe blow on the shores of present-day Port Said in Egypt, launching the decade-long, blood-soaked construction of a project challenging human imagination.

“Remember that you are not merely shifting earth, you are bringing prosperity to both your families and this beautiful land,” the groundbreaker Ferdinand de Lesseps, former French vice-consul in Egypt’s Alexandria, told Egyptian workers rallied around him at the ceremony.

What unfolded afterward, however, proved his speech was yet another hollow promise by Western colonizers.

A cargo ship travels on the Suez Canal in Ismailia Province, Egypt, Jan. 13, 2024. (Xinhua/Ahmed Gomaa)

In the ensuing years, 120,000 Egyptians toiled to death during the excavation. After the completion of the canal, Britain and France, scheming to control the vital maritime trade route, employed debt traps and even resorted to warfare against Egypt, plunging its populace into a century-long misery.

“Perhaps in the eyes of others, the canal is just a trade route, but for Egyptians, blood and tears flow there,” recalled Wael Kaddour, who had served as a board member of Egypt’s Suez Canal Authority.

“It’s part of our lives,” said the 80-year-old man.


Thursday marked the 165th anniversary of the Suez Canal’s excavation. The story of the canal began in 1854 when Mohamed Said, the ruler of Egypt, granted de Lesseps the concession to set up a company to build the canal and to operate it for 99 years before giving back its ownership to Egypt.

The concession stipulated that Egypt ceded the rights to dig and manage the canal to the Universal Company of the Maritime Canal of Suez founded by de Lesseps while providing the land and four-fifths of the labor force for the canal project at no cost.

A large ship travels on the Suez Canal in Ismailia Province, Egypt, Jan. 13, 2024. (Xinhua/Ahmed Gomaa)

To raise the 200 million francs needed for the canal’s excavation, de Lesseps’s company split the funds into 400,000 shares available for public purchase. However, just over half of these shares were bought, with Egypt acquiring less than 100,000 shares. None of the shares allocated for Britain, the United States, Austria, and Russia found buyers.

The French, keen to ensure the success of the Suez Canal project, encouraged Egyptians to purchase the remaining shares. However, given Egypt’s already strained finances, it seemed impossible to afford such a substantial amount. Said had no choice but to borrow large sums from Britain and France at exorbitant interest rates.

This marked the start of Egypt’s gradual fall into a carefully designed debt trap laid out by Western powers.

As the excavation progressed, costs soared, leaving Egypt with no choice but to keep borrowing from Britain and France. Egyptian railways, land, and even future canal revenues were all pledged as collateral to European nations. By the time the canal was completed, Egypt’s financial situation was on the brink of collapse.

European capital has largely swallowed up the Egyptian peasant economy. Enormous tracts of land, labor, and numerous labor products, have ultimately been converted into European capital and have been accumulated, wrote Polish-German political theoretician Rosa Luxemburg.

From the inception of canal construction until the mid-1870s, Egypt’s external debts increased 23 times, while revenues increased only five times. The debt service absorbed two-thirds of state revenues.

In 1876, Egypt, overwhelmed by its rapidly accumulating debt, declared bankruptcy. Seizing the opportunity, British creditors moved to claim Egypt’s shares in the Suez Canal, and Western powers took full control of the canal without firing a single shot.


Despite the loss of several friends and relatives in the war sparked by the canal’s nationalization, Kaddour said he still took pride in former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s decision made 68 years ago.

The nationalization of the Suez Canal has changed the destiny of Egypt, he said.

A vessel is seen on the Suez Canal in Ismailia Province, Egypt, on Jan. 3, 2022. (Xinhua/Ahmed Gomaa)

In 1952, Egyptian military officers led by Nasser staged a revolution, overthrowing the pro-Western monarchy, and the following year witnessed the establishment of the Republic of Egypt.

On July 26, 1956, 100,000 Egyptians gathered at Liberation Square in Alexandria to celebrate the fourth anniversary of the revolution. Before the cheering crowd, Nasser declared that he had signed into law the nationalization of the Suez Canal Company on that very day.

“We shall not let imperialists or exploiters dominate us. We shall not let history repeat itself once more,” he said.

Nasser’s decision to nationalize the Suez Canal challenged the core interests of Britain and France. Following unsuccessful diplomatic coercion and persuasion, Britain and France decided to ally with Israel, which was then at odds with Egypt, to launch a war and seize control of the Suez Canal.

As the war unfolded, to prevent the Suez Canal from falling back into the hands of Western powers, the Egyptian people scuttled dozens of ships in the canal to block its passage. Ultimately, under the pressure of global condemnation and the Egyptian people’s unwavering determination to defend the canal, the aggressors backed down and withdrew from Egypt.


Nowadays, the Suez Canal stands as a vital artery for global commerce. During its busiest periods, approximately 30 percent of the world’s container traffic and over 1 million barrels of oil traverse this waterway daily.

Strolling along the canal’s banks, one often encounters tourists of various ethnicities, snapping photos and checking in at popular spots, while colossal freighters laden with cargo glide slowly.

However, beneath the surface of tranquility, Egypt is still struggling to break free from Western control and achieve independent development.

Since the early 1990s, some international financial institutions dominated by the West have used substantial aid and loans to entice Egypt into implementing neoliberal reforms, fully opening the floodgates for Western capital to pour in.

Ironically, over a century ago, it was through such financial maneuvers that Britain and France seized control of the Suez Canal.

In Kaddour’s view, history has already presented the answers. “Think about the past — who has oppressed us? Who has helped us? Who has empathized with our suffering? Our friends are in the East,” he said.

Today, the mutually beneficial cooperation along the Suez Canal between Egypt and developing countries has borne fruitful results.

This photo taken on Aug. 10, 2023 shows an office building of the China-Egypt TEDA Suez Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone in Suez province, Egypt. (Xinhua/Sui Xiankai)

In the desert less than 50 km south of the Suez Canal, the China-Egypt TEDA Suez Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone has attracted more than 140 companies spanning a range of sectors including new building materials, petroleum equipment, high and low-voltage gear, and machinery manufacturing, creating jobs for over 50,000 locals.

On the southern Sinai Peninsula just across from the Suez Canal, a new city developed by Egypt and Saudi Arabia is rapidly taking shape. According to the plan, the city is set to emerge as a crucial hub for tourism, commerce, and technology in the Middle East.

In Egypt’s new administrative capital and along the Red Sea coast tourist areas, there is an increasing number of economic and trade cooperation projects between Egypt and other BRICS countries.

Egypt looks forward to cooperating and coordinating with (BRICS countries) to achieve its goals toward strengthening economic cooperation and raising the voice of the Global South, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi said upon learning that Egypt was invited to join the mechanism.

The century-old Suez Canal is now witnessing an ancient civilization embarking on a new chapter of development.

After retiring from the Suez Canal Authority, Kaddour, who now resides in Cairo, still occasionally returns to the canal to visit the places where he once worked.

“That’s where our dreams of independence were realized. I believe it will also be where our dreams of development come true,” he said. ■

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