On 5 August, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi announced the nation’s plan to build a new Suez Canal. The new canal will be built alongside the 145-year-old historic waterway in a goal increase income to the Egyptian economy by expanding trade between Europe and Asia.
Egypt has suffered a severe blow to its economy since the 2011 revolution which ousted former President Hosni Mubarak. With the severe downturn in the tourism industry and a slowing of foreign investment, the bulk of the nation’s revenue now comes from the Suez, which earns Egypt approximately US $5 billion. Investors and Egyptians are hoping to establish a major international industrial and logistics trade hub and raise Egypt’s international profile. The country has, for years, had plans to develop 29,000 square miles for this endeavour. In January, Egypt invited 14 consortia to bid for project.
The new canal will run parallel to the existing canal, and span approximately 45 miles. The project is expected to cost $8 billion and create over one million jobs. Estimates suggest it will take five years to complete, although the Egyptian government has set a completion goal of three years. During a press conference in Ismailia, President Al-Sisi declared that the project would be completed within just one year, but it is unlikely that such a large project can be completed in this truncated timeline.
President Al Sisi has put the Egyptian Armed Forces in charge of the project, primarily citing security reasons. As many as twenty Egyptian firms are likely to be involved in development of the canal, but will work under military supervision. The canal has been targeted by militant groups in the Sinai on more than one occasion, including the firing of a missile at the Cosco Asia, a merchant vessel that was traversing the canal in September 2013. The group that claimed responsibility, Al Furqan Brigade, hoped to create fear in shipping companies, causing them to reroute away from the Suez Canal, and thereby weaken the Egyptian economy. The Egyptian military has since put in place increased security measures, including additional security troops and fencing off areas around the Canal Zone.
The Egyptian military is more than a national security force. The Egyptian military owns a minimum of 35 factories, where it produces a range of products including bottled water, food items, flat-screen televisions, refrigerators, cars and more. The military also owns a series of restaurants, football grounds, petrol stations, and a great deal of real estate. The Egyptian military has also been involved in joint ventures to build infrastructure and resorts. However, the business aspect of Egypt’s military is opaque; their budgets are secret, and their industrial investments are neither audited nor taxed. It is estimated by some that the Egyptian military holds a 40% stake in Egypt’s economy, however it is near impossible to verify. Sisi has stated the actual number is closer to 2%. Egypt’s military will likely be responsible for managing the first stage of the project, which will be the “dry digging” of the new canal.
In an additional effort to boost the nation’s slowing economy, Egypt is seeking US $1.5 billion in loans to repay debts owed to foreign oil companies operating in the nation. The move is another part of the scheme to revive the economy and gain interest in foreign investment. The government is avoiding borrowing money from the nation’s central bank in order to avoid putting strain on the national reserves. Simultaneously, Egypt is attempting to woo foreign oil investors into increase exploration and production. Current production rate for gas is approximately 5.1 billion cubic feet per day, and oil production is approximately 675,000 barrels of oil per day.
Egypt has been troubled by the decline in gas production in the face of the worst energy crisis in a generation. Later in August, the Egyptian government will seek bids to import gas to support the nearly 85,000,000 population. Much of the energy bills that Egypt accrues have been in the form of energy subsidies to the poor. However, shortly after Sisi’s election, those subsidies were slashed, spiking energy prices by over 70 percent.
In addition to the nation’s economic woes, Egypt is struggling to control a wave of violence that has hit since the ousting of President Mohamed Morsi in August of last year. Morsi’s removal sparked clashes between those supporting and opposing the Morsi’s organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), as well as sectarian clashes between supposed MB supporters and Christians. On 5 August, sectarian clashes broke out in Minya, reportedly after news was released that Coptic Christians were planning to build a church. However it has been revealed that the clashes were actually ignited by a feud between rivalling Christian and Muslim families, and spread rapidly. Over a dozen people were arrested. Currently the situation is stable. Minya, with its high Coptic Christian population, has seen some of the worst sectarian violence since the ouster of Morsi. The court in Minya is also responsible for a series of mass death sentence punishments against Muslim Brotherhood members for clashes that occurred last year.
Egypt is also struggling to maintain national security as it is faced with threats on all of its land borders. To the west, Egypt has increased security and closed its borders with Libya as the threat of violence in their neighbouring nation threatens to spill over. To the south, Egypt is battling human trafficking that is filtering up from Eritrea and Sudan, the latter of which has been fighting an escalated war with recently separated South Sudan. To the east, the Egyptian border with Gaza has been closed after a breakdown of relation with Hamas in 2013, and in particular since the escalation of fighting between Palestine and Israel. Egypt is also targeting radicalised bases in the restive Sinai Peninsula, and attempting to protect the nation from home-grown radicalism that has grown through the chaos of building a new government in the nation.
Ten Egyptian soldiers have been killed, and at least 35 wounded when a roadside car bomb detonated near a two-bus convoy which was carrying soldiers back to Cairo for their leave. The attack, which occurred on the road between Rafah and el-Arish, and is the latest and most severe attack on security forces in the Sinai since the removal of President Mohammed Morsi in July.
The attack targeted troops from the Second Field Army, which is headquartered in Ismailia. The Second and Third Field Army are responsible for security within the restive Sinai Peninsula and the economically critical Suez Canal. The army has heavily stepped up security in the region to ensure safe passage for ships travelling through the canal, and is in the midst of a large operation to eradicate radical groups from the peninsula, which has been rife with extremist elements since the 2011 revolution which saw the removal of President Hosni Mubarak.
As of yet, no group has claimed responsibility; however in another attack, Ansar Bayt al Maqdis (a.k.a. Ansar Jerusalem), an al-Qaeda linked group from the Sinai, has taken responsibility for the murder of a high-ranking member of Egypt’s National Security Agency outside his home in eastern Cairo earlier this week.
A statement posted to jihadist forums on 19 November revealed that the group was responsible for the 17 November shooting that killed Lieutenant Colonel Mohammed Mabrouk. Mabrouk was responsible for the managing the security surrounding the cases against the Muslim Brotherhood, including the investigation of the escape case of President Morsi and other leading members in the Muslim brotherhood from the prison of Wadi El-Natron in 2011. Mabrouk was due to testify against former president Mohamed Morsi when his trial begins in January 2014.
According to the statement released by Ansar Bayt al Maqdis, the attack on Mabrouk, conducted by its Mu’tassim Billah Battalion, was in response to the arrest and interrogation of Muslim women by Egyptian security forces. According to the statement, the battalion is responsible for attempting “to liberate the female prisoners and to pursue who[ever] participated and contributed in capturing them, from officers and individuals of the Interior Ministry.”
Mabrouk was denounced by Ansar Jerusalem as “one of the top tyrants of State Security.” The attack on Mabrouk is “part of the series of operations entitled ‘Release the Female Prisoners from the Hands of the Tyrants’,” the statement continued.
Ansar Bayt al Maqdis also called for action from Egyptians: “Rise to defend your honour even if your lives go with it.” The group also warned that fighters are “lying in wait [to strike] those like” Mohammed Mabrouk if detained Muslim women are not released. They are seeking “any information that helps us in tracking those tyrant criminals who participated in imprisoning our sisters.”
Currently, protections remain in place in the Suez region; no disruption in the region or service of the canal has been reported.
On 19 November, several hundred Egyptians commemorated the deaths of protesters killed in 2011, calling for reforms. Many voiced criticism of the military, something rarely heard in recent times.
Since the removal of Morsi, the Egyptian police and army have been held in high regard. For the police, this is an unusual shift, as a great number of protesters in 2011 where revolting against police brutality. While the security forces have curried favour with a large population of Egyptians, the voice of criticism against the military has begun rise. Supporters of army General Abdel Fatah Al Sisi showed up at Tahrir during the protests, but were chased away by activists.
Protesters in Tahrir said the goals of the 2011 uprising had not been met and accused the security forces of acting mostly with impunity in the intervening two years. Protesters chanted, “Down with the military regime,” and, “We want to protect our country from oppression.” While many claimed not to support the Muslim Brotherhood, they also claimed that the military has more strength than it did before the end of the Mubarak era. One protester said, “We do not want Sisi as president. He is a strong defence minister and he should remain in that position. We want a civilian leader.”
At one point, security forces fired tear gas in an attempt to disperse the crowd, but were unsuccessful. Reluctant to avoid clashes on a sensitive anniversary, they departed.
Egyptian courts have ruled that the national state of emergency ended at 4 pm on Tuesday 14 November. Curfews that have been in place since 14 August have been lifted. The curfew was in place shortly following the removal of former president Mohamed Morsi; economists are hopeful that the lifting of the curfew will result in a critical resurgence to the economy. Both the state of emergency and curfew were intended to last a month, however the government extended it for two more months on September 12. According to the Egyptian law, the government cannot extend a curfew beyond a three month period.
The Egyptian government is also in the process of drafting legislation to regulate demonstrations. To many activists, this is seen as a danger to their right to civil protests. The draft is currently in the hands of Interim President Adly Monsour, who in the absence of a parliament is the sole voice to decide on the issue.
Though the numbers have dwindled considerably, Morsi supporters have persisted in continuing demonstrations. On 11 November, protestors clashed with security forces at two universities north of Cairo on Tuesday. In Mansoura, four people were wounded in the clashes that also involved local residents. In Zagazig, five people were wounded clashes. Morsi, whose trial was delayed until January, remains in solitary confinement, reportedly at Burg el Arab prison in Alexandria. The former president will stand trial in connection to the killing of protesters outside of the presidential palace in December.
Meanwhile, Egyptians are awaiting a referendum on a new constitution, to take place in December. A 50- member committee has been tasked with evaluating and redesigning the current constitution, and have worked toward eliminating repressive passages, including restrictions on church construction. During Morsi’s tenure in office, he and his constitutional assembly, which were predominantly members of his Muslim Brotherhood party, developed a largely Islamist constitution, including a law that would make shari’a law, the Islamic legal system, applicable to the whole of Egypt.
Members of the Coptic Church, who comprise approximately 10% of the population, have felt that under the leadership of Morsi, the Christian population became increasingly marginalised. Following the removal of Morsi, the population was heavily targeted by Morsi supporters, including the destruction of Coptic owned properties and businesses.
Currently, the constitution has been redrafted to become increasingly secular. The committee eliminated a restriction that required Egypt’s Christians to obtain a presidential permit to build, repair or even renovate a church. Committee member Mohamed Abul-Ghar said, “Under a liberal constitution, all Egyptians, particularly Christians, must be allowed to build their own places of worship freely”. Still other proposals include suggestions to ban all political parties based upon religion.
Egypt is working to boost the economy with a tender for the development of the Suez Canal by the end of the month, in an effort to boost an economy struggling with political turmoil since 2011.
A spokesman for the project said, “No country is taking the lead, it is an Egyptian project and we are going to finalize the first stage by finalizing this tender by the end of this month.” Currently, Egypt’s economy benefits from about $5 billion a year in tolls for using the canal.
In addition, Egypt is also planning to launch an international tender in January to build its first nuclear power station. The development was announced on 14 November before talks with Russian officials on cooperation between the two countries. Egypt has suffered heavy fuel shortages since the 2011 uprising, which have placed a on power generating capabilities to the 85 million strong population, forcing power cuts and prompting energy-intensive industries to buy electricity from private suppliers at high prices. Former Trade and Industry Minister Hatem Saleh said in April that Russia had agreed to help Egypt develop atomic energy.
On 14 November, Russian and Egyptian senior officials met in Egypt to discuss military and economic cooperation between the two nations. While Egyptian officials have said that Egypt is not turning away from the United States, the meeting is a signal that the Egyptian government has options, with ties to Russian government going back several decades.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy downplayed speculation of a major foreign policy shift, saying, “We seek to energize a relationship that is already in existence,” and adding that Egypt is not looking for a “substitute for anyone”; Russia is too significant for such a role. Fahmy called the meeting an “activation” of existing ties and spoke of cooperation between the two countries “in multiple fields.”However the Egyptian government has expressed interest in purchasing Russian weaponry, in particular air defence missile systems and MiG-29 fighter jets, combat helicopters and other weapons. While there is speculation of how Egypt will afford the price tag of these items, an unnamed Egyptian military general close to army leadership said Egypt was close to signing a $2 billion deal with Russia for the purchase of 24 MiG fighter-jets as well as anti-tank missiles and an air-defence system.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shogiu, who vowed to develop military ties and increase bilateral contacts, said, “I expect to continue a constructive dialogue on the entire spectrum of military and military-technical issues.”
It is likely that the weaponry requested by Egypt is in an effort to continue pursuit of extremist networks, particularly in the Sinai Peninsula. Since the removal of Morsi on 3 July, the region has seen a significant increase in violence, particularly aimed at security forces. On Tuesday, Officer Tareq Mohamed Zaki was gunned down in North Sinai as he left a police station in Arish.
A security cordon has been placed around the police station to hunt down the attackers. Since July, hundreds of police and military troops have been targeted. The Egyptian army has responded with what military experts are calling the largest military operation on the peninsula since Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel, with the aim of combating “militancy and terrorism.”
In continuing efforts to maintain the protection of the Suez Canal Zone, Egyptian authorities issued unprecedented increases to security. Egyptian armed forces have erected checkpoint every 20 kilometres, and have deployed army helicopters to monitor the Canal Zone. In addition, there are increased mobile security patrols, and the military has installed more security cameras in and around the waterway. The government has also been working with local tribes in the Sinai Peninsula to ensure cooperation in the region’s security.
Analysts surmise that hitting and sinking a vessel in the Canal Zone would be extremely difficult; such an endeavour would require a suicide boat attack, floating mines, or missiles. While the former two options would be almost inconceivable to get through Suez security, the option that remains is to build a small battery in a deserted area, capable of delivering a missile to attack a ship. However, the development of such a system would likely be detected by electronic or satellite surveillance, or one of the many military battalions stationed in the Suez region.
Experts have ensured that Egyptian authorities were fully capable of securing the Suez Canal and preventing potential terrorist attacks, however there is the possibility of “minor” limited attacks in the near future. Military expert Ahmed Ragae said, “I expect to see limited and ineffective attacks that aim only to raise doubts about the canal among western countries.”
Western countries are already keeping a close eye on the turmoil in Egypt. Earlier today in Nile Valley Egypt, a car bomb targeted the convoy of Egypt’s Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim in a suspected assassination attempt. The bomb did not harm Ibrahim; however, as many as 10 people have been injured in the blast. The bombing occurred in Nasr City near the home of the Minister, and in a stronghold region of the Muslim Brotherhood. No party has claimed responsibility for the attack. Egyptian police have reportedly killed two of the attackers.
Ibrahim is the head of the country’s police force, which worked with other security forces to clear out two Muslim Brotherhood protest camps last month, resulting in a deadly crackdown that left hundreds dead and thousands injured. The protesters are seeking the return of deposed president Mohamed Morsi, who was removed from office on 3 July.
Following the failed attack on the Panama-flagged shipping vessel COSCO ASIA in the Suez Canal, Egyptian authorities have bolstered security along the waterway.
Suez Canal Authority Chairman Mohab Mamish said in a statement that the military dealt “decisively” with the 31 August attempt, but gave no further details. It is known that three gunmen were arrested for opening fire on the ship, and investigations are ongoing. Sources within the Suez Canal Authority indicated that a rocket-propelled grenade had been used in the attempt; there was no damage to the ship or its cargo. It is believed that the attack was most likely conducted by foreigners, or Egyptians working with foreigners, from bases in the North Sinai.
Egyptian authorities, meanwhile, have elevated security along the Canal Zone. Commander of the Third Field Army has announced that the waterway and the ships transiting the canal are completely secure. While Egypt is under national curfew until 31 August, authorities stress that traffic through the Suez Canal remains unaffected. The Canal Zone is secured by the military, including land, sea and air patrols.
The Egyptian military and interim government are determined to keep traffic in the Suez flowing normally. Authorities have highlighted high-risk areas of threat to the canal and its land-based facilities, and are increasing security. But it is likely that such an incident could happen again. While there is intense security along the canal zone, residential areas could become trading areas for light weapons, free from the scrutiny of authorities.
Ships transiting the region are advised to pay attention to updates and recommendations from local authorities, and maintain a constant security watch.
The Joint War Committee, which is comprised of representatives from the Lloyd’s and IUA company markets, are reviewing the situation to identify whether this attack is indicative of a trend, and whether it was carried out by individuals rather than a group. They have not placed Egypt or the Suez Canal on their list of high-risk areas.
Traffic is currently uninterrupted in the Canal.