The Suez Canal is an artificial waterway that crosses the Isthmus of Suez from north to south in Egypt. It was pierced in particular thanks to the decisive intervention of the French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps, who also began work on the Panama Canal, without however completing his project. The canal shortens the sea journey between European and American ports and those located in Southeast Asia, East Africa and Oceania by more than half, preventing boats from having to bypass Africa. A major strategic and economic stake, it was at the origin of several international crises, including that of 1956.
From the pharaohs canal to the modern canal project
The Suez Isthmus, which connects Egypt to earlier Asia by separating the Mediterranean from the Red Sea, has played a large role in trade relations since ancient times. As early as the Pharaonic times, the idea was to build a waterway that would connect either the two seas, or the Nile valley and the Red Sea. It seems established that from the beginning of the second millennium BC. AD a channel connected the Pelusiac branch of the Nile to the Great Amer Lake, itself connected by another channel to the Red Sea. This canal was restored by Xerxes (5th century BC), then by the Ptolemies, but, after the Arab conquest and the decline of relations between the Mediterranean and the East, it was abandoned. from the 8th century AD. J.-C.
The discovery of the route to India by the Cape of Good Hope (1498) raised the problem of the piercing of the Isthmus of Suez, but it was not until Bonaparte's expedition to Egypt that a French engineer, Jean-Baptiste Lepère , take up this idea and seriously study it.
Given the difference in level between the two seas, Lepère concluded that a canal joining the Mediterranean and the Red Sea was impossible and advocated the reopening of the old pharaohs channel. But other projects were worked out by Enfantin and a group of Saint-Simonians in 1833 and 1846, by the director of the English shipping company Peninsular and Oriental and by the French engineer Linant de Bellefonds in 1841. Linant de Bellefonds and the Italian engineer Luigi Negrelli demonstrated that a canal connecting the two seas was perfectly feasible.
The construction of the Suez Canal
Their plans were to be used by diplomat and engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps, who, benefiting from the friendship of Egypt's viceroy Said Pasha, finally undertook the project. Having obtained a ninety-nine year concession (Nov. 30, 1854), he founded the Universal Company of the Suez Maritime Canal, with a capital of 200 million francs divided into 400,000 francs each. More than half of the shares were subscribed by the French. The concession was to begin on the date the canal opened, and upon its expiration the canal would become the property of the Egyptian government. The profits would be divided at 15% to Egypt, 10% to the founders and 75% to the company. Work began on April 25, 1859, but England opposed the construction for fear of seeing France gain a foothold in the countries of the Levant and pose a threat to the route to India.
In April 1863, under pressure from the Palmerston cabinet, the Ottoman Empire, suzerain of Egypt, even ordered the work to be stopped, on the pretext that they were carried out by forced labor provided free of charge to the Company. by Egypt. But the intervention of Napoleon III saved the company and work resumed in March 1866. On November 17, 1869 the Suez Canal was inaugurated in the presence of many personalities, the Empress Eugenie, the Emperor Franz Joseph, the heir princes from Great Britain and Prussia, Abd el-Kader, as well as writers and artists. It was on this occasion that the opera Aïda was commissioned from Verdi, which was not to be performed until 1871.
A strategic and commercial issue
The 162.5 km long canal shortened the journey from London to Bombay by some 8,000 km, which soon prompted England to revise its initial objections. In November 1875, the Disraeli cabinet bought back from the khedive Ismail, seriously in debt, the shares he owned; the British government thus became the main shareholder. The Constantinople Convention (October 29, 1888), signed by all the great powers, gave its international status to the canal, which was to be, in times of peace as in times of war, open to all merchant or military ships from all countries. .
This convention, which did not take into account the strategic importance of the canal, was not applied either during the Spanish-American war of 1898 (where Spain was forbidden the passage of its warships), nor during the two wars. world (the canal was open in principle to ships of powers hostile to England, but the English fleet blocked entry), nor from 1949 to 1975, a period during which the Egyptian authorities prohibited passage of the Suez Canal to all Israeli merchant or military vessel and even cargo ships of other nationalities suspected of carrying goods to or from Israel.
In fact, England, mistress of Egypt since 1882, until 1956 exercised absolute control over the Suez Canal, the defense of which was assumed by British troops. The German-Turks attempted unsuccessfully to seize the canal in 1915 and 1916. This was also a distant objective of Rommel’s Afrikakorps offensive in 1942.
The Suez Crisis
Suez Canal traffic had increased from 20 million tonnes in 1913 to 115 million tonnes in 1955. Colonel Nasser's Egypt obtained in June 1956 the complete evacuation of the canal area by British troops. In search of resources for the construction of the Great Aswan Dam, Nasser announced on July 26, 1956 the nationalization of the Suez Canal. This decision provoked a strong reaction from the British cabinet, but also from the French government, which believed the opportunity had come to put an end to Nasser, who was helping the Algerian nationalists.
Following a plan put together by London, Paris and Tel Aviv, Israeli troops launched a war against Egypt (October 29, 1956), and the Franco-British, under the pretext of protecting the canal against belligerents. , launched their paratroopers on Port-Said and Port-Fouad which were easily occupied. This action was halted under pressure from the U.S.S.R. and the United States. The United Nations demanded the departure of the Franco-British forces and provided technical assistance to Egypt to clear the canal, which was reopened to navigation on March 29, 1957. The Rome agreement of April 13, 1958 assured the shareholders of the Universal Suez Maritime Canal Company compensation of 28 million Egyptian pounds, approximately 300 million francs.
In 1966, the Suez Canal traffic reached 279 million tons and brought Egypt, which now collected the toll, some 25 million francs per week. In the new war they started in June 1967 during the Six Day War, Israeli troops reached the canal, which was again closed to navigation. Clearance work did not begin until nearly seven years later, following the agreement of January 1974, by which the Israelis agreed to withdraw from the eastern shore to the canal. It was reopened to navigation on June 5, 1975. Also in 1975, Egypt authorized the movement of non-military goods to and from Israel. The unrestricted use of the Suez Canal by the Israelis was ensured by the peace treaty signed between Israel and Egypt in 1979.
The Suez Canal, a permanent site
During the period of its closure, the world oil fleet had switched to the giant tankers (200,000 t, then 500,000 t, and 800,000 t in the near future) which used the Cape route. The shallow depth of the canal (12.5 m) still only allows it to accept vessels of 60,000 t; work to allow the passage of 150,000 t tankers has been undertaken. In 2014, Egypt began construction of a parallel canal aimed at relieving congestion in the Suez Canal.
The Compagnie du Canal Maritime, which became the Compagnie Financière de Suez, turned to banking (creation of the Banque de la Compagnie Financière de Suez, 1959) and, from 1965, to industry ( stake in Pont-à-Mousson).
- The epic of the Suez Canal, collective work. Gallimard, 2018.
- The Suez Canal - A Seaway for Egypt and the World, by Caroline Piquet. Bonnier, 2018.
- The construction site of the Suez Canal (1859-1869), by Nathalie Montel. Bridges and Roads, 2018.