CAIRO – Egypt is to unveil a major expansion of the Suez Canal on Thursday in what the government hopes will be a moment of national pride following years of political unrest.
Around 10 percent of the world's trade flows through the waterway, which links the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, allowing vessels to avoid sailing around Africa. The canal is one of Egypt's top foreign currency earners and is seen as a symbol of its modern state.
The following is a brief overview of the canal, its storied history and the latest expansion.
"EGYPT BRINGING THE LIGHT TO ASIA"
The Khedive of Egypt, Ismail Pasha, inaugurated the original canal in 1869 in a ceremony celebrating the modernization of Egypt. A French company founded by diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps had begun construction a decade earlier with capital raised by French investors and the Egyptian government. Egypt later sold its shares to imperial Britain because of a debt crisis.
The canal was built using forced labor, with hundreds of thousands of Egyptian peasants drafted into low-wage digging work with hand tools. Thousands died before the practice was banned and steam-powered excavators took their place.
Before building the Statue of Liberty, French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi proposed building a giant statue of a peasant woman holding a torch for the opening of the Suez Canal. Called "Egypt Bringing the Light to Asia," the statue was to stand at an entrance to the canal and the torch was to serve as a lighthouse.
NATIONALIZATION AND WAR
In 1956, then-President Gamal Abdel-Nasser nationalized the canal from the British and French companies that owned it, a moment cherished by Egyptians as a defiant break from imperialist control. Britain, France and Israel invaded in response, but were ordered to withdraw by the United States and the Soviet Union, in what was seen across the Arab world as a defining victory for Abdel-Nasser and Arab nationalism.
Egypt went on to fight two more wars against Israel. The last, in 1973, saw Egypt launch a surprise attack across the canal that is now remembered as the country's greatest battlefield victory. The 1979 peace treaty with Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, placing the Suez Canal well inside its borders.
The canal has been repeatedly expanded over the years, from an initial length of 164 kilometers (102 miles) and a depth of 8 meters (26 feet). The latest expansion brings its length to 193 kilometers and its depth to 24 meters, allowing it to accommodate the world's largest vessels.
The expansion will cut the time of a north-south passage from 18 to 11 hours, and a total of 97 ships will be able to pass every day, up from 49. The canal drew in in a record $5.3 billion last year, a figure the government estimates it can raise to $13.2 billion by 2023. Economists and shippers say that's overly optimistic.
The government has billed the $8.5 billion mega-project, which is entirely funded by Egyptians, as a historic achievement and the start of a new era after the years of unrest that followed the 2011 overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak. The work was initially supposed to take three years, but President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi ordered it completed in one, saying the country urgently needed the economic boost it's expected to provide.
The streets of Cairo have been decked with lights and flags in the lead-up to Thursday's inauguration, which is expected to be attended by el-Sissi and several foreign dignitaries.
Egypt's Cabinet has declared Thursday a public holiday and allowed free entrance to museums for Egyptians until the end of the month.