As a massive container ship ran aground and got stuck in one of the world’s most vital routes, Egypt’s initial response was characteristic silence, even as reports of the problem began to emerge publicly about 12 hours later.
For Egypt, the Suez Canal is more than a trade route, it is a source of national pride and a vital source of foreign currency.
However, the fervor that surrounds the waterway combined with iron-fisted information control means that few observers expect transparency about the circumstances of the grounding or the timetable for the ship’s rescue from the Egyptian authorities, which some estimate could take days or even weeks.
“The Suez Canal definitely has a special place in Egypt’s national history, it’s a strategic waterway that has historically elevated Egypt’s importance,” said Timothy Kaldas, a researcher at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
Construction began on the 193km canal in 1859, before then-Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized it in 1956, wrenching control from a British-French company.
“This was a watershed in terms of Egypt establishing its independence. It helped establish Nasser as a leader,” Kaldas said.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi tapped the same vein of national pride after seizing power in a military coup in 2013, declaring a year later that engineering works to widen and deepen a 37km stretch of the canal would be completed within one year rather than three.
The US$8.2 billion project was funded by state-issued bonds, eagerly bought by a public told that the expanded waterway would be “an artery of prosperity.”
The authorities touted the canal’s relaunch in 2015 as “a miracle and Egypt’s gift to the world.”
However, the MV Ever Given remains stuck in the single-lane, older section of the canal.
Egyptian officials were reluctant to give anything but an optimistic picture of efforts to refloat the ship, including a video released by the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) intended to portray authorities as in control of the crisis.
Initial statements from SCA chairman Osama Rabie that the problem would be solved within days proved untrue.
Ranjan Chowdhury, a captain who has sailed the Suez Canal frequently during his 35-year maritime career, said that the canal pilots, mandated by the SCA to steer transiting ships, contributed to problems.
“The canal pilots play music inside the bridge, and there’s a lack of AIS-supported backup,” he said, referring to the Automatic Identification System for tracking ships.
“They connect to it with a computer, but the canal pilots are very over-confident when it comes to navigating by sight,” he said. “Every time they’re eating food, smoking, talking a lot and asking for bribes, which keeps them very busy. Navigation is an art, and if you lose concentration for a second while navigating a narrow channel, it should be investigated.”
“We call the Suez canal Marlboro country. If we provide them with a big carton of Marlboro cigarettes they’re happy. Not every captain has done their homework before transiting [the canal],” he said.
Chowdhury was equally skeptical about efforts to examine the incident.
“The investigation will not be transparent, and it will take a long time due to bureaucracy,” he said. “More importantly, the Suez Canal Authority doesn’t take responsibility, the ship’s captain is the primary individual responsible, which is a loophole compared to the Panama Canal.”
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