The World

The Big Stuck Boat Saga Played Out Differently in Egypt

The country was much less delighted with the initial event, and much happier with the resolution.

A ship navigates Egypt's Suez Canal on March 30, 2021, a day after a cargo vessel was dislodged from its banks. - Egyptian authorities have presented the freeing of the megaship, which was stuck for nearly a week and caused a 425- ship tailback to the north and south, as a major vindication of the country's engineering and salvage capabilities. (Photo by Tarek WAJEH / AFP) (Photo by TAREK WAJEH/AFP via Getty Images)
A ship navigates Egypt’s Suez Canal on Tuesday, a day after a cargo vessel was dislodged from its banks. Tarek Wajeh/Getty Images

The head of the Suez Canal Authority says Egypt is still several days away from having its port return to normal. The waterway was clogged for about a week thanks to the enormous ship that ran ashore, got stuck, and captured much of the internet’s heart as it stayed stuck. My colleague Joshua Keating attributed our global fascination with the big ol’ boat to the fact that “it was a rare massive global disruption during which—in stark contrast to the pandemic that also stretched global supply lines—no one was hurt.”

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It’s true that no one was harmed physically, but with about 12 percent of all global trade typically passing through the Suez Canal, this mishap has disrupted $9.6 billion worth of goods. It cost Egypt specifically approximately $15 million each day. Which means that during the week that many spent making memes about the boat, Egyptians were worried about their global reputation, and their finances. Before the Ever Given clogged the canal, Egyptians were celebrating record breaking revenue earned in 2020, perhaps thanks to people’s pandemic purchasing boosting global shipping. But the canal seemed precarious enough that in January 2020, Egypt Independent, a local paper, remarked on how increased traffic in the narrow passing meant that improvements to the navigation course were probably necessary.

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Another reason why Egyptians were paying very close attention to this story is because of the country’s recent history with the canal. The Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi prioritized the Suez Canal immediately after seizing control via a military coup in July 2013. By 2014, construction for the 35 kilometer expansion was underway, and the larger canal was officially opened about a year later. Sisi called the $8 billion project “Egypt’s gift to the world.” It was supposed to be the turning point after years of political instability.

International critics doubted it was necessary, and brought attention to the deteriorating conditions for daily life of Egyptians in the capital and other major cities, like rolling electrical blackouts and food scarcity. Within Egypt, support for the expansion was split. Some saw wisdom in wanting to expand Egypt’s annual revenue, but some lamented how the money for the project “simply could have been put to better use.” But most were united in mocking the 4-kilometer-long (2.5 miles) red carpet the president used during the unveiling. (Spokespeople insisted they had it just lying around and that it wasn’t purchased for the event.)

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Nonetheless, Sisi must be feeling pretty good right now. The ship got stuck south of the where the canal was expanded, but the president of Egypt has used the clogged waterway as proof he was right to spend so much to renovate it. “We didn’t hope for something like this, but fate was doing work,” he said. “It showed and reaffirmed the reality and importance [of the canal.]” The world is joining him in celebrating the dislodging of the vessel, which was freed by a dredger named Mashhour (Arabic for famous), that removed sand from beneath the massive cargo ship. Local paper Al Masry Alyoum interviewed crewmates who were part of the mission to rescue the ship, emphasizing that the subjects were “100% Egyptian.” An American with a travel channel on YouTube, who got closer to the trapped ship than most Egyptians have, congratulated Egyptian authorities because “after seeing that ship, I’m amazed that anyone was able to move it.” After the ship was freed, Egypt’s largest newspaper, Al-Ahram, ran a cover story about the “Suez Sea Shanty” that went viral on TikTok, by British comedian Sophia Smith Galer. The video of Egyptians celebrating just after freeing the massive ship, chanting “number one!” was seen around the world, and was particularly celebrated in Egyptian WhatsApp groups. The Saudi regime was especially flattering, saying “The Kingdom particularly appreciates the leadership.”

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My family is Egyptian, and I’m in regular contact with many of my family members who live mostly in Cairo and Alexandria. My cousins were happy to celebrate with me over the phone over Egypt’s achievement; one even called it “Sisi’s pyramids.” “This is the best thing ever,” another family member told me, saying that Egyptians need a tough leader like Sisi to rule like the ancient pharaohs did thousands of years ago. “He gets things done, even things you don’t think can be done. If they say five years, he’ll say do it in two, and it gets done.” They pointed to his achievements in constructing a new capital city in record time, and a brand new mortgage system to increase home ownership for Egyptians as further proof.

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It seems as though this is something that most Egyptians can get behind, even if some doubted the expansion of the canal six years ago. Who wouldn’t be pleased to see their country’s coffers resume filling up. But it’s difficult to know how genuine Egyptian newspapers’ lauding of the president is, because criticism of Sisi is typically rare in Egyptian media. Many locals fear even verbalizing their discomfort with the regime, fearing the incredibly loose “counter terrorism” laws that the UN says erode human rights. (The Egyptian government justified the establishment of “state-of-emergency courts” as necessary in the fight against terrorism, but critics have noted how the courts have been used to prosecute activists, journalists, and protesters.) United States legislators joined other countries in demanding Sisi release political prisoners, which included journalists being held for reporting “fake news.”

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As for my family, they seem content with the job he’s done and reluctant to say anything further. When I ask about any criticisms they might have of Sisi, the subject quickly changes. “Did you see what Ethiopia is doing?” they say. This refers to the drama unfolding to Egypt’s south, a planned hydropower plant on the Nile that threatens to disrupt Egypt’s access to fresh water. (Sisi released a new statement today confidently saying Ethiopia won’t take “a single drop” of the Nile away from the Egyptians.)

It does feel good to be an Egyptian right now. With the problem solved, and nobody hurt, I’m looking back on the last week with a grin. Egyptians were faced with a seemingly insurmountable engineering catastrophe. Without the best equipment, I was expecting a much more drawn out saga before traffic could resume in the canal. But 5,000 years after the Pyramids of Giza were built by Egyptians, it feels good to think that we’re still capable of greatness.

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