Commentary Magazine


Contentions

What Will Happen to the Suez Canal?

The major U.S. interest and, indeed, the main international interest in Egypt is the fate of the Suez Canal—built by the French and completed in 1869, and then overseen by the British in the wake of the 1879-1882 ‘Urabi revolt until finally nationalized by Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956. Not only does commercial shipping pass through the Suez Canal, but so too do U.S. warships heading toward the Persian Gulf.

Oil has already spiked on fears that the uprising in Egypt could interrupt shipping in the Suez. Any unrest is always troubling, but if past precedent means anything, then much of the worry is unfounded. Certainly, the Egyptian chapter of the Arab Spring brought instability to the Sinai. Bedouins upset at the Egyptian central government and extremists upset at the idea of supplying gas to Israel (and Jordan), no matter how much the Egyptian government needs the cash, have bombed the Arab Gas Pipeline a number of times since 2011. But throughout all the chaos, the Egyptian army and police have secured the Suez Canal. No tourist let alone an Egyptian can get close to the canal without getting stopped by the police and questioned. In a country where factories sit idle and the tourist industry has dried up, the Egyptians recognize just how important the hard currency generated by the Suez can be.

When ships pass through the canal—from small craft up to U.S. aircraft carriers—they take onto their bridge Egyptian pilots to navigate through the passage. No one in their right mind would call the Egyptian pilots professional in demeanor: They smoke, personify ornery, and solicit bribes of cigarettes, baseball caps, and other goods. But they did that before the Arab Spring and did not change their behavior under the Muslim Brotherhood regime. The future is uncertain. Washington Post deputy editorial page editor Jackson Diehl is right to sound the warning about how none of the instances in which mobs have cheered coups have actually resulted in liberal democracy. While governance in Egypt is uncertain for now, at least, worst-case fears regarding security in the Suez Canal appear unfounded.