Egyptian patriotism, Sisi and the shades over Suez

In all the years I have lived in the Middle East, I have always been amazed by the zig zags of conspiracy theory

Abdallah Schleifer

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As I write this on the eve of a deservedly great celebration, I pray that when the sun comes up from Sinai, east of Suez on this day, 20,000 of Egypt’s security and armed forces will suffice, that this spectacular day will pass peacefully. I take note of those Shakespearian Shades that will allegorically be present: Khedive Ismail, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat. Shades overshadowed on this day by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

In all the years I have lived in the Middle East, I have always been amazed by the zig zags of conspiracy theory. Consider, then, how ripe my swift survey of history is for conspiracy theorists who demean both heroic accomplishment and tragic loss.

Although ancient Egypt knew of a number of partially successful attempts to link the Western waters and the Red Sea, it was the 27th dynast who first did it: the Persian imperial conqueror Darius the Great, who was supportive when Bani Israel rebuilt the first structures of the Second Temple. Soon enough, and before the Roman conquest, this East-West link had silted up.

With this first phase of the New Suez Canal finished, the building of infrastructure, housing and centers of work will now be underway

Abdallah Schleifer

Fast forward past Mamluk attempts, Venetian aspirations and Napoleon’s aborted plans to debt-ridden Khedieve Ismail, who hosted a luxurious opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, only some six years later to be forced to sell Egypt’s 44 percent of shares to Britain, whose Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (a Jewish convert to the Church of England) funded the purchase with a loan from the Rothchilds.

Nearly 100 years later, Abdul Nasser responds to a foolish American and British Cold War provocation by nationalizing the Suez Canal on July 26, 1956, a move denounced not just predictably by the British but also by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Coincidentally, that date would lend itself to a totally different, far away but equally heroic event: the attempted storming of the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba in 1953, as a name for Fidel Castro’s July 26 guerilla movement. I wonder if the Brotherhood has made something of that.

Anwar Sadat, who gave the order in Oct. 1973 for the successful storming across the canal to retake the Bar Lev line - after intense shuttle diplomacy by Henry Kissenger - reopened the canal nearly a decade after the June 1967 war had closed it. Sadat went on to sign a peace treaty with Israel. The head of the assassination squad that killed Sadat had a street named after him in Tehran.

I have wanted for some time to satirize conspiracy theory that on its own denigrates both heroic and tragic moments, and I apologize for taking advantage to do so on the occasion of what is indeed an extraordinary event

Extraordinary accomplishment

Here are some of the reasons that make this celebration so extraordinary. Ismail and his predecessor Khedive Said took 10 years, using forced labor that cost thousands of Egyptian lives. Sisi has done it in one year, with few lives lost and a hard-working labor force that is as proud as any of what they have accomplished.

That sense of patriotic accomplishment is underscored by the hundreds, possibly 1,000 or so volunteers, most of them probably young, successful professionals who drove to the site this past year to take up a shovel for a few hours or an entire day as volunteers in this incredible excavation. However, it is the army that directed the operation, disciplined and on schedule - the most successful public sector institution in the country, rivaled only by the Suez Canal Authority.

Ismail let de Lesseps form a French company with Egypt as a minority shareholder not just to build the canal but to run it. The debt-ridden Ismail was forced to sell that minority share, turning the canal into an entirely Western-owned company. I am fairly certain that is why the president directed that the New Suez Canal be financed by Egypt and the Egyptians, with the Central Bank offering investment certificates to the Egyptian people.

More than 1 million individuals responded, as well as Egyptian banks. Special government issued bonds worth $8.2 billion were bought up in eight days. Most bankers assumed it would take a month to raise such a sum that depended overwhelmingly on the resources of the Egyptians.

That stunning week one year ago forced many in Europe and America, who had been following a narrative fed to the global press by articulate Brotherhood spokesmen, to finally recognize the great yearning of the Egyptian people for stability and income for both investors and the state.

For Abdel Nasser, nationalizing the canal was a heroic act, and in the long run of history his most successful achievement. This achievement was restored by Sadat as commander-in-chief when tens of thousands of Egyptian soldiers stormed across the canal to take the Bar Lev line.

Both Abdel Nasser and Sadat faced powerful opposition from abroad. Sisi is by contrast quietly heroic, and faces a locally-bred opposition that has been violent even before July 2013, when the Egyptian armed forces deposed former President Muhammad Mursi - a violence that has rapidly spread from what appeared to be the fringes of a radical militant Islamism to that movement’s mainstream.

With this first phase of the New Suez Canal finished, the building of infrastructure, housing and centers of work will now be underway in this reshaped Suez Canal district. So as for meeting the desperate hope for meaningful employment on the part of so many Egyptian youth, the process has just begun.


Abdallah Schleifer is a veteran American journalist covering the Middle East and professor emeritus at the American University in Cairo where he founded as served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for TV and Digital Journalism. He is chief editor of the annual publication The Muslim 500; a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (USA) and at the Royal Aal al Bayt Academy for Islamic Thought (Jordan.) Schleifer has served as Al Arabiya Washington D.C. bureau chief; NBC News Cairo bureau chief; Middle East correspondent for Jeune Afrique; as special correspondent (stringer) , New York Times and managing editor of the Jerusalem Star/Palestine News in then Jordanian Arab Jerusalem.

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