Egypt has completed a major expansion of the Suez Canal after a furious year of construction, opening the new 22-mile cut in a third of the time that was initially forecast.
The $8.5 billion expansion allows two-way traffic and deepens and widens portions of the existing channels to accommodate larger vessels. Before the new construction, about 50 vessels a day transited the 146-year-old canal linking the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.
The new channel is a source of national pride and a political coup for the authoritarian regime of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who inaugurated the project last August, with the goal of finishing in a year. The project had first been projected to take three years.
The Associated Press says it has been "billed as an historic achievement needed to boost the country's ailing economy after years of unrest."
According to the AP: "The new extension involved digging and dredging along 72 kilometers (45 miles) of the 193-kilometer canal, making a parallel waterway at its middle that will facilitate two-way traffic. With a depth of 24 meters (79 feet), the canal now allows the simultaneous passage of ships with up to 66 ft. draught."
Merrit Kennedy, reporting for NPR from Cairo, says the center of Cairo is festooned with lights and that Egypt has declared a national holiday. In the canal city of Ismailia, foreign dignitaries attended an elaborate ceremony amid tight security measures following a series of attacks by Islamic militants in the Sinai Peninsula and the capital, according to the AP.
Merrit says "al-Sissi has staked his legitimacy on this project. The government hopes the extension will bring in new revenues to an economy battered by years of unrest."
But there is considerable skepticism over the economic value of the project, which comes as Panama — half-a-world away — is nearing completion on its own canal expansion.
The Economist offers praise for "a feat of brawn" but calls it a "questionable endeavor at a time when the government is struggling to provide adequate services to its citizens."
The newspaper writes: "True, the channel is a significant source of revenue. Last year it pumped $5.5 billion into an economy weakened by years of turmoil. But both this sum and the number of ships transiting the canal have been flat since 2008."
Khaled Diab, writing for Al-Jazeera, also praises the project being completed in record time and for being domestically financed:
"According to government projections, the expanded capacity and faster passage time will propel the canal's revenues from the current $5.5bn to an astonishing $13.5bn.
"Many international and local experts are [skeptical] this will happen because the canal is currently running at below capacity, and the rate of annual growth in global shipping would have to be considerably higher than it is today."