Experts predict it could take weeks to dislodge the massive container ship Ever Given, which has been stuck on a sandbank in the Suez Canal, blocking traffic, since Tuesday.
Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi hopes to avoid a global debacle as the flow of goods and canal duties are disrupted while dozens of vessels wait to sail through the canal.
For Egypt, the Suez Canal is a precious national icon symbolising the greatness of its ancient civilisation. Egyptians are proud of the modern nation's ability to guide traffic smoothly through one of the world's vital waterways.
Like the pharaohs, Sisi has tried to distinguish his rule by indulging in mega projects.
The first was to deepen the canal and construct a second channel at a cost of $8 billion borne by the Egyptian public. Egypt’s military was involved in the project but foreign specialists have been imported to shift the Ever Given. The longer the blockage lasts, the greater Sisi’s chagrin and Egypt’s costs.
Keen on establishing his legacy, Sisi is also constructing a new $58 billion administrative capital east of overpopulated, crumbling Cairo. After all, the pyramids at Giza are named for pharaohs who built them.
For 4,000 years Egypt’s rulers have repeatedly dug canals linking the Nile River to the Red Sea. In the 8th century a canal existed between Old Cairo and the port of Suez on the Red Sea but it is not clear whether Romans or Muslim Arabs built it.
During the 16th century, the Ottomans mapped a canal from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea but abandoned the project. Two centuries later Napoleon considered a canal but gave up the idea because his engineers wrongly believed the Mediterranean’s water level was higher than the Red Sea.
After the French proposed various plans, Ferdinand de Lesseps launched a company to build a canal. Work began in 1859 and the opening of the canal was celebrated in 1869 by Khedive Ismail Pasha, a great builder. He commissioned Italian composer Gusiuppe Verdi to write an opera – Aida – for the occasion and constructed a bijou palace on the Nile in Cairo for French empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III. The palace still stands between the glum twin towers of Cairo's Marriott Hotel.
The canal along with Egypt and neighbouring Sudan became a British protectorate in the early 20th century until Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser ousted the king in 1952 and nationalised and took over the canal in 1956.
Britain, France and Israel attacked with the aim of toppling Nasser but US president Dwight Eisenhower intervened to halt the war, which was seen as the last gasp of Western colonialism and coincided with the Soviet invasion of Hungary.
Nasser emerged the victor and became an Arab hero. The canal closed from October 1956 until March 1957, when Israel withdrew from Egypt’s Sinai peninsula. Israel’s 1967 war closed the canal once again until 1975, creating prolonged dislocation of shipping.