THE SUEZ EXPANSION
The 150-year-old Suez Canal is the major passageway for trade between Asia and Europe, serving as the alternative to circumnavigating Africa.
The expansion involved a new parallel waterway of 35km, as well as the widening of another 35km of the almost 200km-long canal.
Despite the extremely well-funded hype, this is hardly the first time the canal has been enlarged to keep up with the increasing size of oil tankers and container ships.
Seven major enlargements of the canal have taken place since the 1950s.
The major problem with the canal is still that its narrowest parts can only accommodate traffic in one direction at a time, meaning convoys of ships take turns passing north, then south.
After the new expansion, most of the canal is bidirectional. This reduces the time advantage over the longer route around Africa and becomes a major hassle for ships that miss their convoy.
One of the frequently repeated justifications for the project is that the planned industrial zones on its banks will draw hundreds of thousands of Egyptians away from the overcrowded capital, Cairo, and also that it serves as a latter-day moat, protecting most of Egypt from the restive east, including the Sinai Peninsula, where an insurgency has been brewing.
The Suez Canal is an integral part of the national mythology because of its role in Egypt’s major post-colonial conflict with Britain when it nationalised the canal in 1956.
The new Egyptian Constitution drawn up last year even has a clause specifically committing the state to “protecting, developing and maintaining the Suez Canal as an international waterway that it owns”.
Van Rensburg was a guest of the Suez Canal Authority, a state-owned enterprise.