150 years on, Suez Canal remains political issue

April 24th, 2009 - 10:39 am ICT by IANS  

By Anne-Beatrice Clasmann
Cairo, April 24 (DPA) When French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps reached for his spade in the Egyptian city of Port Said April 25, 1859, London was far from happy.

The British feared that France, with control over an artificial waterway connecting the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, would extend its political and economic power at their expense.

Today, 150 years after construction started, the Suez Canal remains a political issue.

These days security checks are strict near the canal, which marks the border between Asia and Africa. Recently, sympathisers of the Lebanese Shiite party Hezbollah were reportedly spotted showing an unusual interest in the shipping traffic between Port Said and Suez.

In addition, the Egyptian leadership under President Hosni Mubarak wants to stop illegal arms deliveries to Hamas, the militant Palestinian Islamist movement in the Gaza Strip.

All the weapons and goods delivered through smugglers’ tunnels to Palestinians in Rafah must first cross the Suez Canal. They are transported across the canal by lorry over the bridge, through the single tunnel or on one of the small ferries.

Right from the start the canal was controversial and not just due to the envy of the British, who bought the shares belonging to the bankrupt Khedive Ismail Pasha in 1875.

The brutal working conditions of the Egyptian labourers drafted in to build the waterway provoked criticism. Initially, there was a lack of potable drinking water. Then a cholera epidemic broke out. A total of 120,000 people died during the construction of the canal.

The Suez Canal, which opened with great ceremony in November 1869, played a strategically important role in the Middle East wars of 1956, 1967 and 1973.

The fees for using the canal have been a vital source of government income in Egypt for decades.

The world economic crisis and the pirate attacks south of the canal, which simplifies trade between Europe and Asia, have led to a fall in income for the company that operates the canal in the last six months. Despite this, the state-owned company has not reduced the transit fees.

This year, the Egyptians are not marking the anniversary of the start of construction in Port Said.

The Suez Canal celebration is July 26. On this date Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser announced the nationalisation of the canal to great popular acclaim. The money that flowed into state coffers as a result was used by the charismatic head of state for another large hydro project: the construction of the Aswan High Dam.

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