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World: The Suez Canal’s Bleak Centennial

4 minute read

A CENTURY ago this week, the French yacht Aigle, with the Empress Eugenie aboard, led a convoy of 46 vessels south from Port Said to meet Egyptian warships at Ismailia. Fireworks rocketed above the waterway, while 6,000 guests, including the Emperor of Austria and the Crown Prince of Prussia, celebrated the opening of Suez at a huge ball. Said Builder Ferdinand de Lesseps to the Khedive Ismail of Egypt: “Moses ordered the waters of the Red Sea to retire, and they obeyed him. Today, at your command, they return to their former bed.”

Neither revelry nor formal ceremonies will mark the canal’s 100th anniversary. The silence along its banks will be broken only by the whine of bullets and the scream of attacking jets. Closed since the outbreak of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Suez today is a useless relic of what was once one of the world’s busiest waterways that handled an average of 57 ships a day in 1966. Dug in on opposite banks, the Arabs and Israelis sometimes slip across the canal to launch raids. The canal thus even fails to fulfill its sole remaining function of a moat between enemies.

The outlook for its reopening was never bleaker. The Arabs have called a summit conference at Rabat in December, presumably to coordinate military action against Israel. Their attitude seems to foredoom any U.S.-Soviet peace plan for the Middle East—even if the two superpowers could agree on joint proposals.

Today the only ships in the canal are 15 vessels, which have been trapped in the Suez ever since the fighting broke out 30 months ago. One, the American freighter Observer, sits alone in Lake Timsah, 49 miles south of Port Said. The 14 others are bunched together in the Great Bitter Lake. Skeleton crews, who are rotated every three months, maintain the vessels.

Though the crews have a grandstand view of the military fireworks, their biggest enemy is boredom. To while away the time, they take part in lifeboat races and play soccer on the broad deck of the largest ship, the British bulk carrier Jnvercargill. They attend church services on the West German motorship Nordwind and watch movies on the Bulgarian freighter Vasil Levsky. The Polish freighter Djakarta even prints stamps for the marooned vessels. Egyptian postal authorities graciously allow the stamps to be used as legal postage; they have become collector’s items. Immense amounts of beer are consumed in the heat. Says one crewman: “There must be five feet worth of beer bottles on the bottom around each hull by now.”

Most of the world’s trading nations are suffering from the loss of the canal. In the first year alone, European countries lost an estimated $1 billion because of the increased cost of sending oil tankers around Africa. India must spend more for grain shipments, and its once profitable exports of iron ore to Europe are no longer economic. For its part, Egypt loses $300 million in annual canal revenues, though $250 million is made up in subsidies by Saudi Arabia, Libya and Kuwait.

To compensate for loss of the canal, shippers have turned to using huge supertankers of 200,000 tons and more, and to sending cargo from Asia to Europe via Seattle overland to New York. Egypt and Israel are building pipelines to pump Middle East oil to Mediterranean ports. Though a reopened Suez might have a diminished role in world trade, it would still be very busy. Freighters, liners and warships making up 80% of the world’s tonnage could travel it fully loaded, as could tankers up to 70,000 tons. Even supertankers, whose fully loaded hulls are too deep for the canal’s 38-ft. channels, could take twelve days off the southbound trip by sailing under light ballast through Suez to the Persian Gulf refineries rather than sailing around the Cape of Good Hope.

Beyond the task of raising two sunken ships and a downed bridge, there are few physical barriers to reopening Suez. Most experts agree that the removal and dredging operations could be completed within six months at a cost of $30 million and would restore the canal to its prewar depth. The task, however, will be painstaking and delicate. The engineers must make certain that any unexploded bombs or artillery shells that fell in the canal are fished out before the world’s ships pass once more through Suez. One problem that does not worry engineers is silting, since 90% of the normal silt is a result of currents caused by propellers’ eroding of the banks. The propellers have not turned since June 1967.

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