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Exaggeration invites criticism of ‘New’ Suez Canal

Any review of international coverage of the Suez Canal expansion will come to the same conclusion, that reporting was predominantly negative.

Bloomberg’s headline read “Egypt Shows Off $8 Billion Suez Canal Expansion That the World May Not Need.” The Washington Post echoed a similar sentiment, titling their article on the canal “Egypt’s ‘gift to the world’ cost $8 billion and probably wasn’t necessary.”

To many government supporters, the near unanimous criticism of Egypt as it unveils what it has touted as a “miraculous” engineering feat only confirms the biased agenda of foreign journalists and their bosses back home.

This suspicion was further compounded when Egyptians saw the leaders of major shipping firms like Maersk praise the project as an important improvement for the infrastructure of international shipping. 

What the government and its supporters fail to fully appreciate is that, by inflating dramatically the significance and benefits of the new canal expansion, they have set themselves up for criticism and even ridicule. 

As I have written previously, the canal expansion was a project that would likely be necessary in the medium term to support growing shipping traffic, but there was no urgency and certainly no justification to pay extra to complete it in compliance with the grueling schedule set by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for strictly political reasons.

What makes this caveat so vital, however, is Egypt’s dire financial circumstances. The country is running massive deficits and the population suffers from widespread endemic poverty. An US$8 billion infrastructural improvement to preserve Sisi’s cult of personality in a country with so many more pressing and costly priorities is the most significant problem with the expansion as it was conceived, timed and undertaken. 

Another problem that opened Egypt up to the barrage of critiques it sustained was its dishonest overhyped projections about the returns expected from the expansion. No serious economist has been able to confirm the government’s official figures on revenue and traffic growth. As Neil Davidson, a senior analyst at DrewryMaritime Advisors explained to the Wall Street Journal, “It’s not really clear how the government has arrived at their projections.” 

If the government had been more honest about the fact that the expansion will help the canal zone meet expanding demand in coming decades and help protect Suez’s market share in the face of competition expected from the soon to be completed Panama Canal expansion, the “New Suez Canal” could have been sold more compellingly as a far-sighted infrastructure improvement. This would still be true, even if it happened to be ill-timed given Egypt’s more pressing challenges.

Moreover, the government’s absurdist rhetoric gave critics fodder for ridicule. Expanding a canal is not a “miracle,” as officials claimed. Egyptians did not “achieve the impossible,” as crowds at the opening ceremony were repeatedly told.

Panama was undertaking a massive and decidedly more carefully studied expansion and talks are ongoing about an ambitious entirely new canal in Nicaragua. While it is an impressive achievement of management to meet Sisi’s harsh one-year deadline, it’s neither miraculous nor redefining the possible. As Angus Blair, president of the Signet Institute, an economics thinktank in Cairo told the Guardian, “If you pump enough money at something, of course it can get done. And that’s what happened.”

 

What the government did with its hyperbole was confirm what economists and political analysts were saying around the clock, that this project was driven by political not economic considerations. The celebration, which cost an estimated $30 million, only added insult to injury as far as critics were concerned. To spend such a large sum of money in such an impoverished country seemed indefensible and confirmed a perceived distance between the state’s concerns and the needs of the population. Sisi riding in in full formal military dress on the yacht that led the procession of the opening of the original canal seemed to confirm either his illusions of grandeur or his commitment to exploiting the project for heady political theater.

Egypt’s government and much of its population have been particularly sensitive about negative international coverage for the past two years, since the coup that took place in July of 2013. Indeed, much of this sensitivity was sparked by the international press referring to Mohamed Morsi’s removal as a coup, even with the caveat of the coup being popular. The government has insisted the transition was not a coup and that the military simply did the bidding of the Egyptian people. They argue this was further confirmed with Sisi’s overwhelming election victory, in which he purportedly captured 96.1% of the vote. Of course, many others viewed such an unreasonable figure as further evidence of the authoritarian political dynamics in Egypt.

 

The government’s repeated attempts to formulaically insist Egypt is behaving democratically and the disingenuous evidence it brings to the table has damaged rather than preserved its credibility. The state and its backers in the media regularly attack foreign journalists for their “biased” coverage. The State Information Service has sent emails to the press attempting to school them on proper democratic principles, such as the invented norm of not commenting on judicial opinions. In one email sent to the press, SIS condemned criticisms of Morsi’s convictions stating:

“The SIS asserts that the defendants have been accused of committing criminal acts that violate Egyptian law and are considered crimes in all countries that pay lip service to the principles of democracy. The reactions of these countries to today’s decision constitute an unacceptable intrusion into the work of the Egyptian judicial system, and display a complete lack of respect for its procedures. They also represent a blatant disregard for the core principles of any true democratic system, at their fore being separation of powers, independence of the judiciary, and the inadmissibility of comments on the verdicts of the judiciary from foreign or domestic entities, as they are considered an infringement upon the independence of the judiciary.”

All that SIS achieved in sending this email was to make them the source of even more ridicule and confirm that the government either does not understand that, in a democracy, criticizing judicial decisions is a protected right, or that the government is unapologetically dishonest when challenging its critics.

 

It’s difficult to deny that international media outlets will often subject foreign subjects to harsher criticisms than would likely be made about those same outlets in their own countries. There is no shortage of satirical articles imagining how the media would cover violent incidents in the United States if they were taking place elsewhere.

 

This, however, does not eliminate Egypt’s role in exacerbating its negative image through its statements and actions. The largely uncritical, unrealistic and even adulatory, domestic press in Egypt only compels foreign journalists to eye more critically official statements.

Indeed, local newspaper editors issuing statements promising not to criticize the government severely damages the credibility of Egypt’s media outlets. Moreover, attempts to intimidate and bully the journalists covering Egypt, be they Egyptians or foreigners, in no way encourages them to view Egypt’s actions through a more sympathetic or nuanced lens.

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Timothy E. Kaldas