By widening the Suez Canal, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi dreamed of going down in history like his predecessor Gamal Abdel Nasser, who nationalized the strategic passage between the Mediterranean and Red seas to thwart colonial powers.
El-Sisi will go down in history, but his legacy will be a brutal regime even more oppressive than the one led for 30 years by Hosni Mubarak. With an $8.2 billion project to widen the Suez Canal to two lanes last year, el-Sisi intended to multiply state revenue by increasing the number of ships passing through. But the actual results were dismal.
The latest data show the number of container ships traversing the canal dropped by 3 percent compared with the previous year. The high cost of Suez tolls, instability in Sinai caused by the Islamic State and, especially, the collapse of oil prices have driven many shipping companies to send their ships around the Cape of Good Hope. Ships haven’t prefered going the long route since 1869.
For el-Sisi, this is a blow to his development plans, including construction, which he hoped would ease unemployment that stands around 15 percent. The most serious consequence of the Egyptian economic crisis is joblessness as the country approaches 100 million inhabitants. Tourism, which is always among the main sectors for state revenue, is faltering amid the instability and violence.
Declining tourism predates the bloody coup that deposed President Mohammed Morsi in 2013, when the Washington Institute estimated Egypt was suffering $2.5 billion in tourism losses. But what followed was brutal repression of the Muslim Brotherhood and an Islamic State attack in November that killed over 200 Russian tourists on a Metrojet airliner. In this climate, el-Sisi’s plan to reach 20 million tourists and $26 billion by 2020 seems utopian.
El-Sisi’s best hope is to exploit the enormous oil field discovered off its coast. But it has yet to be shown whether this resource will prove a silver bullet for Egypt. In the immediate crisis, there are no funds to respond to the tens of millions of unemployed and underemployed Egyptians, who barely manage to survive.
Outside help is crucial to keep the regime afloat, but the Saudis, who detest the Muslim Brotherhood and generously financed the coup, appear less willing to invest their own dwindling coffers without a secure compensation policy. Cairo is delicately maintaining the obligations of its Saudi alliance against Iran while simultaneously improving ties with Damascus, an enemy of the Sunni monarchy. The Saudis, therefore, have made it clear that the promise of an $8 billion investment for fossil fuel production will only happen if el-Sisi locks step with King Salman.