ISMAILIYA: President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi inaugurated Thursday a “new” Suez Canal in a lavish ceremony, as Egypt seeks to boost its economy and international standing by expanding the vital waterway.
Security was tightened ahead of the ceremony, while an Islamic militant group’s warning it would execute a Croatian hostage kidnapped west of Cairo threatened to overshadow the celebrations, showcased by authorities as proof that the country was safe.
The event in the port city of Ismailiya, due to be attended by several heads of state including French President Francois Hollande, comes two years after then army chief Sisi overthrew his Islamist predecessor.
Mohamed Morsi’s ousting unleashed a deadly crackdown on Islamists, and a jihadist insurgency has killed hundreds of soldiers east of the Suez Canal.
The Islamic State group’s Egyptian affiliate on Wednesday released a video threatening to execute Croatian hostage Tomislav Salopek, a worker with French geoscience company CGG, in 48 hours if female prisoners were not released.
Croatian Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic was due in Cairo on Thursday to try to secure his release.
Sisi broke ground on the canal project last August after being elected president after he promised to strengthen security and revive a dilapidated economy.
Initial estimates suggested the new route would take up to three years to build, but Sisi set an ambitious target of 12 months to finish the project.
It has been touted as a landmark achievement, rivalling the digging of the original 192-kilometre (119-mile) canal which opened in 1869 after almost a decade of work.
The new section, built at a cost of $9 billion (7.9 billion euros) and funded entirely by Egyptian investors, runs part of the way alongside the existing canal connecting the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.
“It’s an achievement for the people who managed to fund it as a national project and accomplished it through perseverance and hard work,” Sisi’s office has said.
It involved 37 kilometres of dry digging, creating what is effectively a “second lane”, and widening and deepening another 35 kilometres of the existing canal.
It will cut the waiting period for vessels from 18 hours to 11.
By 2023 the number of ships using the canal will increase to 97 per day from 49 now, the government hopes.
Officials hope the new waterway will more than double Suez earnings from $5.3 billion expected at the end of 2015 to $13.2 billion in 2023.
But analysts say the increase in ships and revenue would hinge on global trade volume and not the canal’s capacity.