Suez Canal: A red line not to be crossed

Hassan Tahsin

Published: Updated:

Linking the Red Sea with the Mediterranean by a canal is an old idea. Ancient Egyptians studied the idea from its geological and geographical aspects and agreed that the most suitable location for the canal was its present site, although it could have been dug anywhere else since the Levant region (Syria, Lebanon and Palestine) was under Egyptian rule at that time.

Ancient times

In the 19th century BC, the Egyptians dug a canal linking the River Nile with Timsah Island which at that time was the northern terminus of the Red Sea. This was the Sesostris Canal which represented the first attempt to link the Red Sea with the Mediterranean.

When the Red Sea receded, Necho II tried to clean the canal and relink it with the receding Red Sea but the invasion of the Persians prevented him from doing so. Persian King Darius the Great tried to complete the project but again the Bay of Suez receded.

A possible threat

When the Arabs conquered Egypt, they found that the canal was completely destroyed. Muslim army leader and later ruler of Egypt Amr Bin Al-’As dug the canal again naming it the “Bay of the Emir of Believers”. The second Muslim Caliph Omar Bin Al-Khattab ordered his army leader not to extend the canal to the Mediterranean because this might threaten the safety and security of Egypt and of Arabs in other regions. He said this would increase the ambitions of the West to occupy Egypt. The fears of the farsighted Caliph came true. The Europeans occupied the Arab countries after the canal was dug.

On 30 November 1854 an ordinance to dig the current Suez Canal was issued. It took the French developer Ferdinand de Lesseps 10 years to dig the canal which was opened in 1869. It has a total length of 195 kilometers.

Remarkable achievement

The Suez Canal has immense historic, economic and heritage value for Egypt. Egyptians and Arabs from the Arab Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean will never forget the day when the canal was nationalized to become Egyptian property. On 26 July 1956, former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser announced the nationalization of the canal while addressing a public rally in Alexandria. No one will forget his famous words: “In the name of the nation, I hereby announce the nationalization of the Universal Company of the Suez Maritime Canal making it an Egyptian joint-stock company”.

Although the decision was mainly of concern to Egyptians, it triggered feelings of pride and dignity in the entire Arab world. The Arabs felt that they had finally regained their rights from the colonizers who had stolen much of their wealth.

The decision to nationalize the Suez Canal was not as easy as it seemed. There were differences of opinion among the Egyptian rulers at the time. Some of them preferred to wait until the franchise given to the British and the French expired in 12-years-time. The opponents of the decision wanted to avoid military confrontation with the two countries who were the major beneficiaries of the waterway.

There were differences of opinion also among the colonizing countries. While some of them called for reinvading and recolonizing Egypt, others preferred to seek a diplomatic solution by agreement with Egypt on the basis of financial compensation. Many countries also rejected military aggression against Egypt.

The end result was that Abdel Nasser took the decision to nationalize the Suez Canal and Britain and France took the decision to go to war. Israel joined them with the hope that it would gain some of the loot.

The tripartite aggression failed. British Prime Minister Anthony Eden resigned. The British lion lost its tail in Port Said. Britain was never called Great Britain after that. French Prime Minister Guy Mollet also resigned. Egypt regained its right through the blood of its martyrs.

The city of Port Said was destroyed during the aggression. Many of its residents were buried under the rubble. Many French and British soldiers lost their lives at the hands of Egyptian freedom fighters. No one dared to call them terrorists. Port Said became one of the most developed and economically viable cities in Egypt. It is a lighthouse guiding ships to cross the canal.

What happened today?

Political leaders in Egypt are today divided. Instead of joining hands like the did from 25 January to 11 February 2011, they have split into two factions running after power and ignoring plots against Egypt especially as far as the Suez Canal and the Sinai Peninsula are concerned.

To those people working undercover in the sands of Sinai whether Egyptians or Arabs and to Israel, I repeat what I said during the time of the deposed president Hosni Mubarak. I said then that “Egyptians can bear anything except when it comes to bread”. What I said turned out to be true. The revolution broke out because of bread. Today, I say to everyone that the Suez Canal is a red line that should not be crossed. If the canal is threatened the Egyptian people will rise up to foil any conspiracies. They will then start a second revolution which may be devastating. May Allah protect Egypt against any evil.

This article was published on the Saudi Gazette on Feb. 28, 2013.

(Hassan Tahsin is an Egyptian writer and political analyst. He can be reached at htahsin-8@hotmail.com )

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.