The Suez Canal in historical imaginary

“The successful passing of three ships through the Canal during Saturday’s trial was equivalent to the passing of the nation from darkness to light,” the head of the Suez Canal Authority said in a press conference following a trial run of the new waterway on Saturday, July 25.

In a recent article about plans for a new Egyptian capital, Adham Selim said Egypt’s history could be the history of hydraulic engineering — and the Suez Canal is a leading star in that history. Successive regimes have sought to construct the canal for millennia, and ever since that elusive ambition finally materialized in the 19th century, the waterway has served as far more than just a connection between two bodies of water. It has been a key figure in constructing national identity, a symbol that has been appropriated and re-worked time and again at pivotal moments in the country’s history to propagate the dream of an Egyptian renaissance, both at home and abroad — and for the men at the helm of the country to self-immortalize.

In preparation for the grand opening of the “New” (or more precisely, slightly wider and deeper) Suez Canal on Thursday, just a year after construction began, the project has largely been presented as a moment of historical exceptionalism. But the rhetoric surrounding this fervidly hyped project serves as a reminder that this is just the latest chapter in a long story of nation building.

The colonial imaginary

The first to connect the Mediterranean to the Red Sea was Senausert III, Pharaoh of Egypt (1874BC), but his attempt was abandoned years later to silting, and was re-opened and closed a number of times in the years to follow. Napoleon Bonaparte saw Egypt as the key to dominating world trade, and wanted to build a French-controlled canal in the late 1700s that would force the British to pay for its use, or to send goods over land. He was erroneously told that the Red Sea was 30 ft higher than the Mediterranean, however, and gave up the idea.

In 1854, French diplomat and engineer Vicomte Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps enlisted Ottoman ruler Said Pasha to start work on the canal, although the project was suspended several times due to financial difficulties. It was Khedive Ismail who finally competed the project in just a few frenzied years.

Ismail initiated a number of grand development projects and administrative reforms during his reign (1863-79) — railways, irrigation projects, military schools, lighthouses, taxation policies and so on, all with an eye on Europe, which he perceived to be the pinnacle of modernity. British author William George Hamley writes that Ismail “agreed to the canal project with a view of regaining for his country an honorable place in the councils of the world, and of establishing her fame and his own.”

For the original opening of the canal in 1869, Ismail put on a show of extravagance, inviting 1,000 European guests. Over 500 chefs from around the world were commissioned to serve a banquet at the newly constructed Ismailia palace, and 67 vessels formed a flotilla to the sound of cannons, rockets and fireworks. The Gezira Palace in Zamalek was built for the wife of Napoleon III to stay in, and Verdi was commissioned to write an opera for the occasion.

No expense was spared. Khedive Ismail had cash to spend after the southern ports in the US were blockaded in the Civil War, causing the price of Egyptian cotton to soar globally. This surplus was used not only for the opening ceremony, but to construct downtown Cairo over the span of just two years, and to fund the building of the Cairo Opera House. This attempt to fast-track a country to economic prosperity — and international renown — through large-scale development projects lifted directly from Europe, as well as Ismail’s personal extravagance, eventually led to state bankruptcy.

Shortly after the original Suez Canal opened in 1869, hundreds of books, articles and pamphlets were written about its technical prowess and the splendor of its achievement. Given the popular Orientalist conception of Egypt 145 years ago as a country of ancient monuments, religion and mystery, this project and its proof of modern technology and progress seemed sure to send shockwaves through the empire.

Yet, as contemporary scholar Emily Haddad notes, the ways in which the canal was described by Victorian writers commonly linked 19th century formulations of modernity with nostalgic representations of otherness. Hamley describes the opening ceremony as having a “refined style” with “all the observances and all the magnificence of a state ball,” commenting that those responsible for the canal would not be embarrassed to stand next to the great pharaohs.

Egypt and its canal weren’t referred to in this period as “modern” in the same way the term was used widely in Europe at the time — Victorian writers tended to view Egypt through the lens of its own history, essentializing both the accomplishments of the ancient and contemporary. The canal and Ismail’s other development projects didn’t shift the colonial powers’ views of Egyptian society; rather, Europeans like Hamley compared the canal to the accomplishments of the Pharonic era, and the lavish opening ceremony to parties in the metropole.

The populist imaginary

The canal once again served as a key instrument in the construction of a nationalist imaginary under former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, this time as part of his “socialist” project.

Nasser had asked the Soviet Union to help fund his ambitious Aswan Dam. When the Unites States found out, they rescinded their offer of financial support. The subsequent nationalization of the Suez Canal was part of Nasser’s plan to make up the shortfall in cash, as well to impart a strong anti-imperial message.

The government was willing to pay the canal’s French and British owners the full market value for their shares, but they refused and invaded Egypt, along with Israel, in the Tripartite Aggression of 1956. The US, Soviet Union and United Nations forced the withdrawal of the three nations, much to the humiliation of Great Britain. Nasser was elevated as a symbol of power and independence.

Nasser addressing a mesmerized crowd about his decision to go against the West and nationalize the canal

Nasser addressing a mesmerized crowd about his decision to go against the West and nationalize the canal

“Everything which was stolen from us … when we were dying of hunger, we are going to take back … in the name of the nation,” Nasser promised roaring crowds in Alexandria when he declared the nationalization of the canal. He was exalted as a savior in Egyptian media and literature, in contrast to his villification as a communist dictator in European and American press.

A new national vocabulary was forged that was distinctly divorced from Orientalist dreams of a Pharonic past and the Khedive’s obsession with Europe. Egypt’s political alliance with the Soviet Union was also felt in the iconography of that period’s visual culture, such as in the eagle herald that appeared on the Egyptian flag after 1952. The canal was used in this context not just as a message of Egyptian might, but also to swerve Egyptians’ understanding of their own history.

Nasser deplored the notion that de Lesseps had envisioned and built the canal — he insisted that the thousands of Egyptians who toiled and died in its excavation were its proper creators. His administration appropriated the work of artists who were then attempting to create an “authentic,” contemporary visual language, free from self-orientalizing tropes, to serve this state narrative — even making use of work that was in fact critical to his regime, such as a painting of the Suez Canal by Abdel Hadi al-Gazzar, which has been widely read as a critique of labor conditions and forced displacement in the construction of the High Dam.

Gazzar painting

Gazzar painting

The neoliberal imaginary

These different dreams of the canal are now cycling through the whirlpool of history. Harkening back to the Khedive era, the New Suez Canal is due to open Thursday amid much fanfare. Some 3,000-4,000 distinguished guests have been invited to a one-day gala ceremony organized by British PR company WPP, which has spent millions of dollars on a global media campaign promoting the extension as Egypt’s “gift to the world.” Invitations have been sent to world leaders, and a flotilla and opera commissioned to mark the occasion.

The extravagant opening ceremony in 1869 cost the state 2 million British pounds (equivalent to billions today). Thursday’s ceremony is mostly financed by private companies to the tune of US$30 million, and a limited number of free invitations were issued to citizens who applied via the official New Suez Canal Facebook page, a nod to the partial crowdfunding of the canal in the first place.

The new canal marks another quest to reimagine a nation that has been adrift in successive waves of economic and political crises for the past four years. Chairman of the Suez Canal Authority Mohab Mameesh is quoted on the official website for the canal as saying, “The New Suez Canal is more than just a new waterway and an astonishing feat of engineering. It is a catalyst for the Egyptian people, who will unleash a renewed sense of pride and a more prosperous future.”

There has been a selective invocation of different historical moments in the media campaign tasked with crafting this utopian image. Sisi asked for the ceremony to be “traditionally Egyptian,” with a marketing campaign that seeks to tell “the story” of the canal to a global audience. To that end, an official website was established with a brief account of the history of the canal, and images on the New Suez Canal Facebook page present an interesting picture vis-a-vis Nasser. The current government has an inconsistent Nasserite legacy, choosing to evoke memories of the populist leader on occasion, but distancing itself when it comes to economic policy, as well as in terms of Sisi’s privileging of exceptionalism and grandeur.

Invoking the memory of Nasser

Invoking the memory of Nasser

This state of exceptionalism, in which Sisi stars as his own hero, has adopted a distinctly neoliberal discourse that seeks to erase certain “problematic” aspects of the past. It is influenced by the glitz of the Gulf, and based on a notion that the Egyptian can prove his/herself individually.

In Ismail’s day, the Egyptian version of the Statue of Liberty was commissioned by de Lesseps to stand before the canal, and later removed under Nasser as a sign of independence from the former colonial powers. Today, obelisks are littered between skyscrapers in Sisi’s model of the new capital city, while at the entrance to the new canal, another obelisk buttresses a statue of a woman with Pharonic features, flanked by two sphinxes.

Statue for New Suez Canal

Statue for New Suez Canal

The newly constructed platform for the opening ceremony — which in its current state looks more like a nautical theme park — is adorned with a giant ankh. A kitschy conception of the Pharonic — glossed over with a Gulfi, uber-modern sheen.

Hall for New Suez Canal opening ceremony

Hall for New Suez Canal opening ceremony

Over the past few days, fervor in the streets has indicated a hunger for new manifestations of nationalism and pride. And the government is doing its best to feed that hunger. The marketing campaign has flooded the canal’s logo everywhere from Egyptair flights to Times Square in New York City, and there has already been an effort to ensure it is immortalized by artists and writers. A brochure for a fine arts exhibition in Ismailia devoted to the canal is dedicated to Sisi: “Your inspirational spirit gives us positive energy to create.”

When Sisi announced work on the canal last August, like Nasser, he struck a sentimental, populist tone, exhorting Egyptians to “work hard and with unflagging efforts to shrug off poverty that is gripping the country.” And they did, Sisi proclaimed when he visited the waterway last week, eulogizing that “the people of Egypt … were able to self-finance this national project and proved their ability to deliver results through their diligence and hard work.”

Analysts have already pointed out the less-than-remarkable returns that the new canal will likely provide to the nation. But those material realities matter little in the rhapsodic dream that was born more than a century ago, and that this project has revived with vigor. In a time of volatile uncertainty, the opening of the waterway has diffused a “yes, we can” spirit through the popular imaginary. And Sisi himself has planted a remarkable flagpole — he was the one to accomplish the project that was first proposed by former President Anwar al-Sadat, and then taken up under former President Hosni Mubarak, only to fail time and again due to lack of funds.

As de Lesseps told Said Pasha back in the 19th century, “The names of the Egyptian sovereigns who erected the Pyramids, those useless monuments of human pride, will be ignored. The name of the Prince who will have opened the grand canal through Suez will be blessed century after century for posterity.”

Note: Minor edits have been made to this piece since publishing. 


You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism