Why all the fuss about Egypt?
By: Alan Murdock
| Posted: Wednesday, Aug 21, 2013 06:00 am
It’s the Suez Canal. It has always been the Suez Canal – and the shipping that travels through it.
The Isthmus of Suez joins Africa to Asia. Through it, the Suez Canal, about 160 km in length, connects the Mediterranean Sea traffic and commercial centres in the Nile valley, with the Red Sea trade routes. The present canal was originally approved for construction in 1856 but its history dates back to 2000 B.C. It is thought to be the earliest commercial canal in history. Over time, a series of canals were constructed by the Persians, the Pharaohs, the Ptolemys, the Romans and the Arabs, until the Europeans began to trade with the Far East and took over.
The present canal was built by La Companie Universelle du Canal Maritime de Suez, founded by a French diplomat, Fernand de Lesseps. His company was given a 99-year lease on the canal, which was to begin on the day of opening, November 17, 1869. This meant that the canal was to be turned over to the Egyptian government in 1968. M. de Lesseps was a personal friend of the viceroy of Egypt. At the time, Egypt was governed from Constantinople under the sultan of Turkey. The company was funded by a French and English consortium and built by Egyptian labour. The Yanks were invited to join but declined.
As part of the Act of Concession negotiated with the Egyptian government, the canal was to remain as a neutral passageway for all nations “to be free and open, in time of war as in time of peace, to every vessel of commerce or of war, without distinction of flag”, so long as they paid their fees.
That remained the case until 1950 when the Egyptian government prohibited ships bound for Israel to pass through the canal in retaliation for the outcome of the Palestinian War where Egyptian forces had been humiliated. It was a decade of political tumult with the Egyptian military starting its 60-plus years of rule by deposing King Farouk. Arab nationalism broke out in full force including Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Arab Nationalist Movement, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and the Arab Social Ba’ath Party in Syria and Iraq. Pan-Arabism called for supranational communalism among the Arab states.
Nasser broke the Suez Canal lease agreement, nationalizing the canal in 1956. His actions led to an invasion by England, France and Israel. Lester Pearson was awarded the Nobel Peace prize by convincing the UN to organize its first peacekeeping force. The canal reopened.
And now we have a repeat of the 1950s. And again, unspoken, the Suez Canal is at the centre of the Egyptian conflict with world commercial health at risk. The interesting part of all this is the political reaction of the White House. Withdrawing critical financial support of the Egyptian military is a call for anarchy and street mob rule – and the closure of the Suez Canal.
Canada once had Mike Pearson and a respected voice in the affairs of the world. Pity.
Alan Murdock is a local pediatrician.