When a 35km expansion of the Suez Canal was opened six years ago, banners appeared on the streets of Cairo proclaiming it to be Egypt’s “gift to the world”.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi welcomed foreign leaders on a yacht. Helicopters and jets performed a fly-by. The expansion was hailed as a national triumph and a turning point after years of instability.
When the Suez Canal was closed unceremoniously by a 400-metre container ship hitting the bank in a dust storm on Tuesday, there was silence. For 26 hours, there was not a word about the closed canal, the shipping backing up in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, or of the Ever Given itself.
Instead, the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) issued a media statement announcing the successful transit of an Italian cruise ship with 65 Covid-19 cases aboard.
There was a media blackout. It was only on Wednesday that the lying started in earnest, with the first official statement noting that efforts were “continuing to reopen the canal”. The SCA downplayed the impacts on navigation, sending a “message of assurance that the navigation will continue as usual”. As if to reinforce that message, the authority allowed a convoy of ships to enter from the northern end in Port Said on 24 March.
Feeding the propaganda mill
The authority warned journalists not to heed any news or rumours about the most serious incident to block the canal since the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, other than statements coming from them. Egyptian journalists did not need any encouragement to toe the line. They fed the propaganda mill, celebrating the SCA’s statement and claiming the ship had been refloated. They even tried to demonstrate this with satellite images, although the images themselves still showed the ship firmly wedged in place.
The truth was even concealed from international shippers. The Gulf Agency Egypt shipping company quoted the SCA as saying that the container ship stranded in the canal for more than a day had been partially refloated and was standing alongside the bank, and that traffic would resume shortly.
The same story was fed to Lloyd’s List, which reported seeing an email from the Egyptian company sent to the China Shipowners’ Association: “We are still waiting confirmed information for the towing direction. Convoy and traffic will be back to normal within [a] very short time as soon as the vessel is towed to another position,” read the email, based on information provided directly by the SCA early on Wednesday.
On Thursday, two days after the chaos had started, the SCA officially announced that navigation had been suspended.
The Egyptian government is a practised liar. It lies to its own people every day, but, in times of crisis, it also lies to the international community.
When a Russian passenger jet was brought down in 2015 by an Islamic State (IS) missile 23 minutes into a flight from Sharm el-Sheikh to St Petersburg, Russia and the UK instantly cancelled all flights to the Red Sea resort.
Egypt’s civil aviation authority released a preliminary report claiming there was no evidence that the plane had been brought down by terrorist action, blaming the crash on a technical fault. The reason for the denial was clear: Sharm el-Sheikh is integral to the country’s tourist industry. It took authorities more than three months to admit the plane had been downed by a missile fired by Wilayat Sinai, which pledged allegiance to IS.
Two harsh lessons
But it is difficult to keep maintaining that a ship the size of the Ever Given is floating, when it so evidently isn’t.
However the Suez Canal crisis is resolved, this incident has taught the world two harsh lessons: how important the canal and Egypt still are for international shipping, and how disastrously and incompetently both are being run. Egypt’s Suez Canal: Why does its closure matter? Read More »
The incompetence of Sisi’s dictatorship, in other words, is not just a matter of international concern on the issues of human rights and the rule of law. Sisi’s incompetence threatens a major international waterway.
In the immediate future, this week’s Suez crisis could not have happened at a worse moment. It reinforces the interest of oil-and-gas-producing Gulf states in exploring ways to bypass the canal by routing their product through Israel. The Emirati normalisation deal with Israel has led to a tidal wave of contracts and projects, each of which spells an existential threat to Egypt’s monopoly on this traffic.
Whether through a long-neglected pipeline built by the shah of Iran, new internet cable or a railway line, or even a canal through the Negev desert – no greater push could be given to finding ways of bypassing the Suez Canal and Egypt than by the Egyptian reaction to an incident of this magnitude.
Sisi’s disastrous rule
In the longer term, there is now a clear pattern of decline and disaster to Sisi’s rule. Above and beyond all the other issues in which he has embroiled his country – backing the wrong side in Libya, a witch hunt against the Muslim Brotherhood at home and abroad – Sisi really had two existential things to worry about. He has failed in both.
The first was the Suez Canal; the second was maintaining the water levels of the Nile. Sisi laughed and ridiculed his boss, former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, for raising concerns about the dam Ethiopia was building in 2012, and arranged for a leak of a private meeting to embarrass the president.
The line from the Egyptian army was that the issue was too serious for a mere Muslim Brotherhood president to handle. So they shelved the issue, and Sisi then compounded his mistake by signing away Egypt’s claim in an agreement with Ethiopia and Sudan in 2015. Now, he is reportedly considering military action, just weeks before the dam – which has long been completed – gets its second crucial filling.
Instead of concentrating his meagre resources on the two issues that really matter to his country, Sisi has spent all his time obsessed with his image.
A revealing window into Sisi’s real priorities in the years in which he has run Egypt into the ground can be seen in the official record of lobbyists working for the Egyptian government, filed with the US Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
An investigation of these official records conducted by a group of Egyptian journalists at Sasapost reveals how the lobbying operation in Washington went into overdrive after the 2013 Rabaa massacre and the suspension of $260m in US military aid, a fraction of the total $1.3bn package.
Sisi’s government paid the Glover Park Group $250,000 a month to lobby senior members of Congress who opposed him, such as Senators Lindsey Graham and the late John McCain. Glover Park spent two years working on Graham until he reversed his position, Sasapost reported. Between 2013 and 2019, Sisi paid this company alone $13.25m – a huge price in the Washington lobby market.
Whitewashing the regime
What were Egypt’s concerns in Washington? Whitewashing Sisi’s image, targeting the American right and Israel’s supporters, and focusing on “religious rights,” with Joe Biden about to enter the White House. In other words, everything that Sisi has spent his money on has been about his image. None of it has had anything to do with what really matters to his country.
But these are Sisi’s priorities. He has not uttered one word about the crisis going on in the Suez Canal.
It is now commonplace to hear that Egypt is a failing state – a state that fails its citizens, one with depleted resources, a weakened economy plundered by the Egyptian army, and growing levels of poverty affecting tens of millions of people.
The international community, however, has yet to wake up to the fact that Sisi is a danger not only to his people and his country but also to international trade and stability. Perhaps a big ship jammed into a tight space will do that for them.
Article by David Hearst
David Hearst is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He is a commentator and speaker on the region and analyst on Saudi Arabia. He was The Guardian’s foreign leader writer, and was correspondent in Russia, Europe, and Belfast. He joined the Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.