ISMAILIA (Egypt) • President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi kicked off a lavish ceremony yesterday to unveil a "new" Suez Canal, as Egypt sought to boost its economy and international standing by expanding the vital waterway.
Mr Sisi, dressed in ceremonial military uniform, began the ceremony by leading a naval flotilla aboard a historic yacht as fighter planes and helicopters flew overhead.
Security was tight, with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group's warning - that it might execute a Croatian kidnapped near Cairo - threatening to overshadow the celebrations, which the authorities aimed to showcase as proof the country was safe.
ISIS' Egyptian affiliate released a video on Wednesday threatening to execute hostage Tomislav Salopek - an employee of French geoscience firm CGG - within 48 hours unless Egypt frees jailed Muslim women.
Croatian Foreign Minister Vesna Pusic was due in Cairo yesterday to try to secure Mr Salopek's release.
The event in the port city of Ismailia, attended by several heads of state, including French President Francois Hollande, comes two years after Mr Sisi, at the time the army chief, overthrew his Islamist predecessor Mohamed Morsi.
Representing Singapore at the inauguration ceremony was the Foreign Minister's Special Envoy to the Middle East, Mr Zainul Abidin Rasheed, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
Mr Zainul called on President Sisi on Wednesday to congratulate him on the successful completion of the Suez Canal project, and conveyed an invitation from President Tony Tan Keng Yam to make a state visit to Singapore, the statement said.
It is an achievement for the people who managed to fund it as a national project and, who accomplished it through perseverance and hard work
OFFICE OF EGYPTIAN PRESIDENT ABDEL FATTAH AL-SISI
Mr Sisi, elected last year on a promise to strengthen security and revive an ailing economy, broke ground on the canal project in August last year.
Initial estimates said the new route would take up to three years to build but Mr Sisi set an ambitious target of 12 months. It is touted as a landmark achievement, rivalling the construction of the original 192km canal, which opened in 1869 and took about a decade to build.
The new section, built at a cost of US$8.2 billion (S$11.3 billion) and funded entirely by Egyptian investors, runs part of the way alongside the existing canal that connects the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.
"It is an achievement for the people who managed to fund it as a national project, and who accomplished it through perseverance and hard work," Mr Sisi's office said.
It involved 37km of dry digging, creating what is effectively a "second lane", and widening and deepening another 35km of the existing canal. It will cut the waiting period for vessels from 18 hours to 11.
The government expects the number of ships using the canal to increase from 49 a day now to 97 by 2023. Officials hope the new waterway will more than double Suez's earnings, from US$5.3 billion expected at the end of this year to US$13.2 billion in 2023.
However, analysts are sceptical. "The first priority for shipowners and traders is to cut costs, not speed. The trend in recent years has been for ships to travel at lower-than-normal speeds just to... save on their fuel bills," said Mr Ralph Leszczynski, research head at Italian shipbrokers Banchero Costa. "I do not see any shipowner happy to pay higher fees for shorter waiting hours," he added.
Other economists said it is unlikely to transform the water passage from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. The added capacity will do little, they said, because the canal has not been operating at full capacity anyway, and global shipping remains in a slump.
The waterway is part of a comprehensive project to develop the area adjacent to the canal into an industrial hub.
"There is a stream of investors" who want to invest in Egypt, Suez Canal Authority chief Mahob Mameesh said last week. He added that around one million jobs are expected to be created over the next 15 years.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NEW YORK TIMES