CAIRO — When the Suez Canal opened in 1869, it had taken hundreds of thousands of Egyptian workers 10 years to complete it.
On Tuesday, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi said he was ready to build another one.
At a lavish groundbreaking ceremony that included a military air show and the symbolic detonation of demolition explosives, el-Sissi’s government announced an ambitious plan to build a new waterway that would expand the capacity of the existing canal, while creating jobs and revenue for the government.
El-Sissi set an equally ambitious timeline for the project, which would involve the digging or dredging of approximately 45 miles of earth and wetlands, saying the new waterway would open next year.
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“We are racing time, because we are very late,” he said.
There has been talk for years of expanding the development along the canal, a crucial passage for international shipping that links the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, and one of the Egyptian government’s principal sources of hard currency.
With the government’s other sources of revenue — including tourism — drying up after years of political turmoil, plans for the canal, along with other state-led projects to stimulate the economy, have taken precedence, analysts said.
And the plan, which evokes the grand infrastructure projects of past Egyptian leaders, including Gamal Abdel Nasser, also appeared to serve a political purpose for el-Sissi, a former general still seeking broader legitimacy for his rule after leading the military ouster of Egypt’s first fairly elected president, Mohammed Morsi, last summer.
Focusing on the canal, a symbol of independence and sovereignty for Egyptians, “serves the nationalistic discourse of the new regime,” said Amr Adly, a Cairo-based scholar with the Carnegie Middle East Center.
At the same time, el-Sissi was trying to distance himself from the legacy of corruption and mismanagement in the government of former President Hosni Mubarak, who was overthrown during the popular uprising in 2011.
“He’s here to do something radical, or unprecedented, compared to Mubarak — and to show that the military has the intention to change things,” Adly said.
The plan announced Tuesday also includes the development of what officials call the Suez Canal corridor, with new ports and industrial and economic zones around the waterway. The timeline for that project, as well as the details including its financing, were still vague, Adly said.
Officials spoke in more detail about the new waterway, saying that the military would lead the effort to dig it, at a cost of $4 billion, and would supervise Egyptian companies selected to participate in the project.
The funds would be raised by selling bonds to Egyptian banks and individuals, including citizens overseas, el-Sissi said.
Sherine Hassan, a retired Egyptian admiral and maritime expert who supports the plan, said the new canal would drastically shorten the time needed for passage along the waterway and permit the Suez Canal Authority to double the number of ships passing every day.
Still, some experts were skeptical that the work could be completed in a year, as el-Sissi had ordered.
“It’s a heavy project,” Hassan said.