A container ship passes a man fishing in the Suez Canal.
Jason Larkin/Panos Pictures

The drive from Rafah, the Egyptian town that borders the Gaza Strip, down to Ismailiyya, a port on the Suez Canal, is tedious. Although the route skirts al-Arish, the capital of the northern Sinai governorate, it passes an otherwise featureless landscape for 150 miles. Toward the end of the trip, if the timing is just right, out of nowhere an oil tanker or container ship might suddenly disrupt the horizon as it appears to glide through the Egyptian desert.  

Nearly 150 years after its completion, the Suez Canal continues to inspire awe, living up to every cliché ever written about it. The 120-mile waterway is a vital link between Europe and Asia, a strategic asset, and a man-made wonder. But the world has evolved since 1869. Have new developments in politics, economics, and security rendered the canal irrelevant? Or does global change make it as important as ever?  

To some observers, three years into this turbulent chapter in Egyptian history, Cairo’s importance to the United States seems to have diminished, with power apparently shifting in the region and so many accepted truths about the Middle East refuted by all the upheaval. Whether Egypt remains vital, however, depends in large part on whether the Suez Canal is a relic of the past or an enduring hotspot in international politics. And any notion that the canal is losing its strategic or economic importance must contend with a longer view of the canal’s place in Egyptian history and a deeper understanding of how it has shaped Egypt’s relations with the world.

FROM THE MED TO THE RED

The Suez Canal is almost exclusively associated with two figures from the latter half of nineteenth century: the French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps and the Egyptian Khedive, or viceroy, Ismail Pasha, grandson of Mohammed Ali, the Ottoman general who ruled Egypt from 1805 to 1848 and is regarded as its modern founder. Yet the idea for a waterway between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea predated both. The earliest idea for the waterway, according to Zachary Karabell’s illuminating book Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal, can be traced back to 1798, when Napoleon invaded and briefly occupied Egypt. Napoleon’s vision for a canal never came to fruition, but some thirty years after he departed, another Frenchman, an engineer named Barthelemy-Prosper Enfantin, did much to make the idea of the canal a reality. De Lesseps merely made Enfantin’s work his own in the 1850s and enlisted the support of Said Pasha, the youngest son of Mohammed Ali, to finance the project.

After ten grueling years of construction, the canal was opened under Ismail in 1869 to a grand celebration at Port Said intended to mark Egypt’s modernization and growing independence from the Ottoman Empire, which had been a goal of Mohammed Ali, Said Pasha, and Ismail. The latter even imported military officers from the Union and Confederate armies after the American Civil War to train the Egyptian military, in the hope that it could better resist any effort from Istanbul to control Egypt, a nominal Ottoman province. But the U.S. military mission failed, given resistance from Egypt’s local Ottoman army, led by Turks, Circassians, and Balkans who were either indifferent or hostile to Ismail’s goals of autonomy.

Ismail’s ambition to establish Egypt as an independent power in its own right led to other follies, most of them expensive. The khedive wasted enormous resources on quickly developing Cairo along the lines of a European capital, the rapid construction of a national railway, and other infrastructure projects, which depleted Egyptian financial resources. He also expanded Egypt’s domain in Sudan. Egypt’s balance sheets were only further compromised by the vast amounts of patronage required to fulfill Ismail’s dreams.

Consequently, in 1875, racked with debt, Ismail sold all of his (meaning Egypt’s) shares in the Suez Canal Company to the United Kingdom. The next year, he was forced to accept a joint British and French Commission on Public Debt, which supervised the khedive’s obligations to various financial institutions in Europe. For the British and the French, the commission had the intended effect of drawing them deeper into Egyptian affairs, which led to the establishment of a de facto British protectorate in 1882 to prop up Ismail’s son, Tawfik. To officials in London and Paris, Egypt itself was not intrinsically important other than as a means to other places of greater strategic interest. British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli made this clear when, after the purchase of Ismail’s shares in the canal, he triumphantly announced to the House of Commons that Britain’s hold on its colonial possessions in Asia, especially India, had been strengthened.

For all of Ismail’s shortcomings, he and his uncle, Said Pasha, understood that the creation of the canal would have a long-term, transformative effect on Egypt. The vital waterway placed the country at the center of global commerce and of important geostrategic issues of the age -- even if it put Egypt under the control of colonial powers until the 1950s.

A NATIONAL ASSET

Eight decades after London acquired Egypt’s interest in the canal, Egyptians finally reaped the benefits from a project that tens of thousands of their countrymen, mostly peasants, had built. In 1952, Gamal Abdel Nasser and a group of other upstart military men known as the Free Officers overthrew and exiled King Farouk in a coup. But the end of the British-backed monarchy did not end British influence and control of the canal until Nasser announced, to a massive crowd in Alexandria’s Manshiya Square, on July 26, 1956, that the canal had been nationalized. Nasser declared that henceforth all revenue derived from it would be used for Egypt’s development, in particular the Aswan High Dam. Nationalizing the canal was, for Egyptians, the final act in their long struggle for liberation. The canal’s centrality to Egypt’s national narrative was only reinforced when Egyptian soldiers successfully stormed Israeli fortifications on the East Bank of the waterway at the beginning of the October 1973 war. Ever since, “the crossing” has represented national redemption.

Even as the Suez Canal has become a touchstone of Egyptian nationalism, the great power of today -- the United States -- tends to see the waterway in similar terms as the colonial powers of the past. Like Disraeli, U.S. presidents and strategic planners have long regarded the canal as a means to another end -- a critical component of global trade and a vital conduit for U.S. warships between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. The question is no longer about control; Egyptian control of the canal is universally accepted. Yet as the debate about U.S. military aid to Egypt raged after the July 3 military coup, and as the subsequent low-level insurgency broke out in the Sinai Peninsula, analysts have begun to question just how secure the canal is -- and whether that even matters anymore.

Recent spikes in attacks on Egyptian security forces and installations in northern Sinai have apparently exposed the canal’s vulnerability. With a width of only about 900 feet, it would not take much in the way of weaponry for militants to disrupt the operation of the canal and attack large ships in its confined space. This is precisely why the Egyptian armed forces have devoted significant resources to ensure safe transit. Egypt’s army, navy, air force, air defense forces, and internal security services have fortified the route and its related facilities to mitigate the possibility of an attack. Of course, there are no guarantees -- and plenty of reasons to question the effectiveness of the Egyptian military, especially given the trouble it has encountered in the Sinai and its often bungled, always heavy-handed attempts at running the country since Hosni Mubarak’s fall. Nevertheless, both Egyptian and U.S. officials regard the potential for terrorists to disrupt the functioning of the canal a “low probability.”

The current debate about U.S. military assistance to Egypt, sparked by the military’s takeover in July, in fact hinges in large part on the canal. If, for example, changes in regional politics, global economics, and American strategic interests have rendered the Suez Canal less important than it once was, the consequences for the United States of suspending aid to Egypt’s defense establishment would be modest, since any loss of access to the canal would hardly be a loss at all. This would resolve a central Middle East policy problem of the last decade, reconciling Washington’s desire to promote democracy in Egypt with its short-term security concerns, among them guaranteeing unfettered access to the canal. With less at stake on the security front, American policymakers might be more willing to cut Egypt’s annual $1.3 billion defense subsidy to compel Egyptian leaders to take meaningful steps toward democratic change.

PLUS ÇA CHANGE 

Although this scenario may entice some observers, the argument that the canal is no longer as vital as it once was does not match reality. Despite all the changes in the Middle East, U.S. President Barack Obama’s pledged pivot to Asia, and the growing importance of ideas and knowledge, rather than goods loaded into containers, on the global economy, the collective vision of Enfantin, de Lesseps, Said Pasha, and Ismail endures. The canal remains busy: before the full effects of the global economic downturn, for example, 21,415 vessels transited through it in 2008. Although traffic has recently decreased to a little more than 17,000 ships per year, the canal handles eight percent of global seaborne trade and, in 2012, accounted for $5.12 billion in revenue for Egypt, which has mounting and myriad economic needs. 

In the abstract, the U.S. Navy does not necessarily need the Suez Canal. A two-ocean navy affords U.S. military planners flexibility. Ships can be moved, for example, from the Pacific into the Indian Ocean and onward to the Persian Gulf in the event of a crisis there. Yet there are other contingencies that would require the movement of naval vessels into and out of the Mediterranean Sea quickly. With the Suez Canal, the voyage from the Arabian Sea to French ports in the Mediterranean is nearly 4,700 miles. To sail around the Cape of Good Hope instead adds more than 6,000 miles to the trip, requiring eight days at maximum speed.

From the perspective of the navy, the Suez Canal remains the most efficient, effective, and economical way of meeting the demands on it, especially at a time of deep budget cuts. Until there comes a time when the United States rethinks its commitments in Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean, Africa, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia, the Suez Canal will be an unrivaled asset for U.S. naval officers and policymakers.

The Suez Canal was the product of a particular European sensibility of the era in which it was constructed. It came about both because of imperial competition and because of the Europeans’ modernizing mission -- and was helped along by an Egyptian leader eager to please London and Paris. And while it contributed considerably to the European domination of Egypt, it has also helped ensure the country’s enduring importance. Egyptians are inheritors of a great civilization, the center of Arab culture, and, historically, a bellwether of the Middle East. These are important attributes, but the way they contribute to Egypt’s prestige is largely subjective. The pyramids are extraordinary and the history of al-Azhar fascinating, but they are not the reasons that the United States has provided $77 billion in aid to Cairo since the mid-1970s. That largesse guarantees, in addition to regional peace, a certain privileged access to the Suez Canal. The players may have changed, but in many ways, the relationship that the canal sustains for Egypt and its foreign backers remains the same.