CAIRO (AFP) - President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi launched on Tuesday the construction of a US$4 billion (S$4.5 billion) “new Suez Canal” that aims to speed up traffic along the existing waterway and boost Egypt’s battered economy.
The project foresees the creation of a million jobs at a time when Egypt is struggling to recover from more than three years of political turmoil since the ouster of long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Mr Sisi, accompanied by government ministers and army generals, set an ambitious target of digging the new canal, which would run parallel to the original Suez Canal built 145 years ago.
“No matter what it takes, this project must be finished in a year. That is what Egyptians expect,” Mr Sisi said at an inauguration ceremony in the Suez Canal city of Ismailiya.
Officials said the new waterway would be funded by Egyptian and foreign investors.
Mr Sisi said 500 million shares in the project would be offered to domestic investors at a rate of 100 Egyptian pounds (about S$17) each, and US$100 per share for expatriates.
The canal would be constructed by 17 private Egyptian companies under “the direct supervision” of the armed forces, said Mr Sisi.
In a colourful ceremony broadcast live on state television, Mr Sisi was accompanied by men, women and children as he blasted away a mound of sand symbolising the start of work on the canal.
Shortly afterwards, hundreds of men were seen digging with shovels to loud music playing in the background.
The project was initially to be constructed during the rule of now deposed president Mohamed Morsi, backed by funding from Qatar, whose ties with Egypt have deteriorated since the Islamist’s ouster in July 2013.
Dubbed the Suez Canal Axis, the new 72km project would run part of the way alongside the existing canal that connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.
It will involve 37km of dry digging and 35km of expansion and deepening of the existing Suez Canal, which will help to speed up the movement of vessels.
“The total cost of digging the new canal is 29 billion Egyptian pounds,” said Mohab Memesh, head of the Suez Canal Authority.
“It is expected to provide more than one million job opportunities and will turn Egypt into an industrial, mercantile and logistic centre.”
Construction of the existing Suez Canal, which is 193km long, took 10 years and ended in 1869.
One of the world’s most heavily used shipping lanes, the Suez has been a key source of international trade, earning Egypt billions of dollars in annual revenues.
Around 16,600 ships passed through it in 2013.