Cristiano Ronaldo is known for many things – his incisive style of football, the sleek and cosmopolitan brand of Real Madrid, the masculine ideal that he performs – but Egyptian metallurgy is not one of them. Nevertheless, the steel manufacturer Egyptian Steel recently chose to star him in a series of extravagant commercials celebrating the company’s role in ushering in a “new generation” of socioeconomic development in Egypt.
In one of the bombastic advertisements, Ronaldo regurgitates some wonderfully stilted Arabic, sports an Egyptian Steel uniform complete with a hardhat, and digitally renders a handful of the development projects ongoing under President Abdelfattah El-Sisi – including the “New Suez Canal” inaugurated with much fanfare two years ago.
Although it is jarring to associate a global symbol like Ronaldo with a nationalist project like the New Suez Canal, the canal has long figured in narratives of both globalization and Egyptian development, security, and territorial sovereignty. The New Suez Canal (which is really just an extension to the existing shipping channel) has only barely begun to generate the increased shipping traffic and transit fees that the Sisi regime originally guaranteed. It remains to be seen whether it will successfully contribute toward the government’s long-term economic strategy of attracting foreign investment, addressing acute unemployment, and reducing state deficits.
In its ongoing expansions of and investments in the Suez Canal region, the Sisi regime has revealed how malleable its notions of Egyptian security and sovereignty are. The remaking of the canal region has allowed the regime to strategically invite foreign corporate and state actors into this transnational logistics space, and to govern the territory according to a distinct set of laws. National business and military elites are fortifying themselves politically and economically through this arrangement, while ordinary Egyptians are subject to the brutal force of the security apparatus.
In these ways, the Suez Canal manifests broader patterns in contemporary Egyptian politics, in which nationalist discourses of sovereignty and security function to enrich and protect a privileged minority.
Historical Contestations Over the Canal
The Suez Canal, which was built between 1859 and 1869, has never been a solely “Egyptian” space or symbol. In the words of historian Valeska Huber, it originated “in the framework of an emerging informal empire, with European firms taking advantage of the weakness of local states.” The canal’s construction began in the context of accelerating nineteenth-century trade between Europe and Asia, as well as the rise of the “Eastern Question” – the imperial competition among European states to control geographically significant parts of a vulnerable Ottoman Empire.
Direct steamship travel via the Mediterranean and Red seas would drastically reduce the time, risk, and cost of maritime travel and facilitate greater communication between European imperial metropoles and their Asian colonies. The belief that a canal would bind together the “Occidental West” with the “Oriental East” underpinned European plans for the project. It would allow the supposed civilizational progress of the former to flow unencumbered to the latter.
Amid rival plans by British naval authorities and maritime shipping companies, the French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps formally proposed the Suez Canal project in the mid-1850s. The canal was a major financial windfall for de Lesseps’ joint-stock company, which operated the shipping channel, but had far fewer benefits for the local economy. Yet as Huber has recently demonstrated, the canal region was more than just a frontier of European imperial dominance. It was a zone of competing political entities, which by the turn of the twentieth century included the British occupational authority, international consulates, the police forces of the local Egyptian government, and the officers of private shipping vessels.
Surveillance and violence were integral to the “protection” of this corridor, from the perceived threats of migrants, fugitives, and religious pilgrims. The security apparatus and institutional complexity of the canal, during this period, was significant for two reasons. First, it highlighted how globalization does not necessarily lead to free and unrestricted movement, the dissolution of political and social hierarchies, or the convergence of disparate governmental entities into a single, multinational form. Second, it became a historical precedent for the vexed interplay of security and sovereignty, which continues in the canal region today.
Over the course of the twentieth century, the Suez Canal would become a symbol of Egypt’s subordination to imperial hegemony, even after the British terminated the country’s protectorate status in 1922. Repeated battles over the canal by foreign armies, during World War I and World War II, the significant military base retained by the British in Suez into the 1950s, and the withdrawal of Western funding for the Aswan High Dam project: all of these formed an important backdrop to Gamal Abdel Nasser’s decision to nationalize the Suez Canal Company and wrest control of the canal itself in 1956. Tellingly, during his public announcement of the nationalization, Nasser explicitly invoked de Lesseps, to highlight the destructive legacy of duplicitous foreign investment in Egypt whereby “political occupation [had arrived] by way of economic occupation.”
Egypt’s subsequent invasion by British, French, and Israeli forces sparked widespread popular resistance in multiple cities along the canal and magnified the region’s importance in the hegemonic ideology of the Nasserist period. As an assertion of Egyptian sovereignty against Western powers, it was also an inspiration for people across the Third World in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Contemporary Struggles and Contradictions
Today, a new relationship between sovereignty and security has emerged in the Suez Canal, thanks to its essential role in the global supply chain. To use the critical geographer Deborah Cowen’s terminology, the supply chain is seen as a “vital system,” in which any disruption to a single constituent part, whether by labor protests or maritime pirate raids, threatens the integrity of the whole. According to Cowen, because of the vulnerability of these spaces, state and corporate actors have been driven to design “an entire architecture of security that aims to govern global space of flow… through land grabs, military actions, and dispossessions.”
This was on vivid display during the construction of the “New Suez Canal,” which state officials repeatedly described as a “new artery” vital to the prosperity of Egypt and the functioning of world trade. To create the canal extension, Egyptian security forces displaced approximately 2,500 long-time residents of the expansion zone without compensation, and refused to grant them permits to work on the construction project. According to a report by Mada Masr, local police authorities cited “security concerns” as the basis for the decision to refuse them work opportunities, presumably fearing reprisals from a discontented local workforce. Even though Egyptian occupancy laws guaranteed the displaced families a right to remain on the land, as Mada Masr noted, project officials disregarded this, arguing that the law did not apply because the expropriated land was largely military and state-owned.
Nominally, the canal is Egyptian territory and under the control of a state agency, the Suez Canal Authority (SCA). But as was the case a century ago, foreign corporate and state powers passing through the channel operate according to economic dynamics and geopolitical hierarchies that place them above Egyptian law. For example, after the SCA banned commercial vessels from employing private maritime security forces in 2011, it caused a decline in canal shipping traffic. In response, the SCA reversed the decision and, instead, requested an inventory of on-board security certified by the state where the vessel was registered. Market pressures thus frustrated a state agency’s attempt to exert the same kind of control over foreign security forces as it does over Egyptian citizens. The effect is not lawlessness but rather, as we will also see with the canal region, a space of specialized governance where different people are subject to different laws. The Sisi regime is strategically accommodating the authority of outside actors, even though this subverts an important objective that we normally assume to sovereign states try to achieve, for example, legal or political uniformity across their national territories.
International treaties require Egypt to keep the canal accessible to all ships regardless of nationality. So, while it has sought to block Qatari ships from entering Egyptian ports on the canal, after the diplomatic fallout between the two states, the Sisi regime must accommodate vessels carrying valuable natural gas from Doha. In other words, the Suez Canal may often conveniently serve the regime’s exaltations of Egyptian sovereignty, but it also introduces pressures that expose the limits of this discourse and show state rule to mean different things in different places.
Preoccupation with security on the canal has shown other, similar contradictions. For example, concerns with the safety of the waterway have centered around the need for buffer zones around individual vessels, as well as the canal itself. But the notion of a security buffer is dangerously expansive. It would likely affect not only Sinai insurgents, but also Egyptian civilians working along the canal as fishermen, vendors, and ferry operators. Indeed, in 2008, a U.S. Navy charter vessel traveling through the canal attacked Egyptian civilians whose boats drew too close, killing one man onboard. In short, Egyptian civilians are potential targets of transnational security forces, even within Egyptian territory.
The Sisi regime is evidently willing to safeguard foreign powers he depends on in the Sinai, but often at the expense of the lives and livelihoods of ordinary Egyptians living there.
The Suez Canal Economic Zone and the Egyptian Military
The same patterns have manifested themselves in the broader canal region, since the 2015 creation of the Suez Canal Economic Zone (SCZ), a 290 square-mile area that stretches from Port Said to Suez and across most of the Sinai. The SCZ follows the model of other free trade zones in offering multinational corporations lower tax rates, less governmental oversight, and fewer labor regulations. The disappointing performance of the New Suez Canal means that, as official SCZ promotional material puts it, “the real treasure now lies in the Suez Canal Economic Zone” and the hope of attracting foreign investors that will transform the zone into a regional center of logistical processing, industrial manufacturing, and resource extraction.
To that end and per the zone’s legal framework, the Sisi regime arbitrarily transferred control over all land within the zone to an unelected executive board known as the SCZ Authority. The SCZ Authority’s composition openly guarantees the outsized influence of transnational capital and foreign governments, which Sisi has sought to court. It includes executives associated with multinational corporations, like Ahmed Fekry Abdel Wahhab of the Chinese-owned FAW Industrial Group, and military elites such as Admiral Mohab Mamish, who maintain deep economic ties with Gulf, Chinese, and Russian firms.
Within the actual SCZ territory, foreign corporations enjoy remarkable legal autonomy and can negotiate conflicts through the SCZ Authority’s “independent dispute settlement center” rather than through normal Egyptian courts. Although this arrangement would seem to place the SCZ outside the regime’s reach, the Egyptian state is critical to maintaining the exceptional status of this space. In fact, one of the biggest advocates for the creation of the SCZ was the Egyptian military itself.
The military is the main entity responsible for accumulating capital and ongoing dispossession in the canal region. Its various ancillary organizations, like the Armed Forces Engineering Authority, have long occupied a central role in building Egypt’s logistical infrastructures. Its ability to discretely tap public funds, draw on conscript labor, and violently repress labor protests in the SCZ is unmatched. For this reason, military elites were well-positioned to win the first lucrative contracts to develop the SCZ in partnership with foreign investors.
According to SCZ officials, who spoke at recent meeting with the Ministry of Investment, the military is involved in various projects in the zone, ranging from industrial water treatment to petrochemical processing. This is in keeping with the military’s recent expansion into a variety of enterprises across the economy’s public and private sectors.
As the military reaps untold profits from its partnerships in the canal region, the Egyptian citizens it is supposed to protect are enduring economic stagnation, painful austerity measures, and the threat of state and insurgent violence. Unfortunately, this particular injustice can only be expected in a place where, “the military has taken over the presidency,” as the political scientist Ashraf El Sherif recently described. What is perhaps most outrageous, then, is the fact that the government has tried to cloak its transnational relationships in the shallow nationalist rhetoric of Egyptian sovereignty and security, even as it is fundamentally warping the meaning of those terms for the benefit of national and foreign elites.