In the city of Ismailia, at the foot of the Suez Canal, the biggest image rehabilitation exercise in Egypt’s post-revolution history is getting under way. An extravagant spectacle will be on show for senior foreign dignitaries, as a quarter-million police and military members stand guard, partly as a precaution against the terrorist violence that has plagued the country as of late.

The single most talked-about infrastructure project in the Middle East makes its global debut Thursday – an $8.2-billion (U.S.) expansion of Egypt’s Suez Canal. Undertaken in record time and hyped with immense domestic fanfare, the project represents much more than an audacious feat of engineering. Following years of post-revolution strife, the Suez Canal expansion has become a patriotic rallying cry for a troubled country. At a time when the Middle East’s most populous nation has seen its international image stained by government repression and terrorist violence, Egypt is spending billions to change the narrative.

For more than a year, the Suez Canal expansion has served as the signature public works initiative of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. The former military leader has framed it as both a massive economic stimulant and a demonstration of Egyptian ingenuity. The project expands a significant portion of the existing 193-kilometre canal, allowing for a longer stretch of two-way traffic. And it adds a new 35-kilometre waterway flanking the existing 145-year-old canal. As such, the project is expected to reduce waiting times – and, thus, the cost to shipping companies – at the crossing, the closest link by sea between Asia and Europe.

But more than simply an economic stimulus project, the canal expansion has also become a political panacea. In an advertising blitz that included the hiring of billboards in major international cities, the government called the canal expansion “Egypt’s gift to the world.” In a recent press conference, Mohab Mamish, the man in charge of the canal authority, described a successful trial run through the new canal as “equivalent to the passing of the nation from darkness to light.”

The economic reality, however, is somewhat less glittering. The canal expansion comes at a time when the global shipping industry has yet to recover from its 2009 slump. And Egyptian government projections seem highly optimistic. Mr. Mamish says the number of ships passing through the canal every day will double to almost 100 in the next decade, boosting the crossing’s revenue from $5.5-billion to $13.5-billion.

“All told, while the expanded Suez Canal will undoubtedly benefit Egypt’s economy, the gains are unlikely to be as large as the government hopes for,” William Jackson, a senior emerging markets economist with Capital Economics, said in a report released this week. He noted that, for the government’s projections to prove correct, global trading volumes would have to rise by a level unseen even during the prerecession boom years. “This seems unlikely to say the least,” he said.

But as a public-relations exercise, whatever benefits the canal may have will be felt immediately. Primarily, it will help take the spotlight away from myriad domestic issues – chief among them a bloody conflict between the government and increasingly radicalized Islamist groups throughout the Sinai peninsula. Indeed, despite the fact that the canal’s opening ceremony comes almost exactly two years to the day Egyptian security forces massacred an estimated 800 demonstrators in and around Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, most local coverage has focused strictly on the Suez celebration.

The Suez ceremony also temporarily eclipses other issues of international concern, such as the repeatedly delayed verdict in the trial of Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy – a story that has garnered very little attention within Egypt, but plenty of foreign coverage.

But much like its economic impact, the Suez Canal’s halo effect on the el-Sissi government’s international image may too prove to be overstated.

“They’re counting on it for sure, but there’s no way it’s going to rehabilitate the Egyptian image,” said James Gelvin, a professor of history at UCLA and an expert on modern Middle East affairs.

“That’s because the image is based upon the fact that this is the most repressive government in Egyptian history. In order to rehabilitate that image, they have to stop the repression.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Aug. 05, 2015 8:26PM EDT
Last updated Thursday, Aug. 06, 2015 2:16AM EDT