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

Why Suez Still Matters

The Canal that Holds the United States and Egypt Together

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? [slideshow:140309] 

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  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.

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