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Suez Canal Brief History: From Building to Modern Times Term Paper

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Updated: Nov 28th, 2021


Suez Canal is an artificial shipping canal in Egypt connecting the Mediterranean Sea and the Red sea. The canal was established in 1859 and has greatly improved the navigation between Europe and Asia. Before its development, navigators had to go round Africa for them to access Asia and vise versa. Its development facilitated quick access to the Far East which was rich in oil trade. This meant that many European nations could manage to conduct trade with countries in the Far East. To gain control of trade, these countries had to have control of the canal. This made most of the European countries have an interest in controlling Egypt. For a long time, the canal was managed by foreign companies. All the money collected from the Canal could be plowed back to Europe. Despite the canal being in Egypt, Egyptians did not benefit from the Canal proceeds. This made President Nasser declare his intentions of nationalizing the canal in 1956. The British, French, and Israelites knew that they could no longer enjoy control of the Canal leading to them waging war against Egypt. Since then, the canal has been significant in Egypt’s economy contributing to approximately four percent of the country’s gross domestic products (Dessouki PP. 46-60).

Building of the canal

About four thousand years ago, early Egyptians had started constructing some artificial waterways in an area called Isthmus. However, the canal ceased being used and was covered with soil. The idea of establishing a shorter distance between Europe and Asia was forgotten. It was in the eighteenth century that Napoleon, after raiding Egypt discovered that there had been a past attempt to link Europe and Asia through a manmade waterway. He resolved to revive the construction of the canal. In 1859 Ferdinand de Lesseps began construction of the Suez Canal. It took him ten years to establish the canal. His first work was to build a small canal from the Nile that could supply clean water to his approximately twenty thousand laborers. Construction entailed excavating a twenty-four feet deep channel that connected varied lakes towards the Red Sea. Camels were used to supply the labor force with drinking water on construction sites. With time, the labor force was substituted with machines. In areas where the canal was wide sixty meters, long chutes were used. Ripraps were erected along the canal banks to reduce erosion that was being caused by passing boats. Floating dredgers and other metallic machines were used to widen the canal. Steam engines containing scoops and shovels were used to remove sand, gravel, and mud from the canal bed. Approximately thirty thousand Egyptians were forced to work in building the canal. About twelve thousand Egyptians died when working in the Canal (Franklin Par.1-3).

For France to start constructing the Canal, it had to get a green light from Said Pash who was the king of Egypt. Lesseps was to come up with a company that could manage its construction. Egyptians hoped that they would influence its development. This was not the case on the ground. Egyptians were forced to work on the canal with France taking full control of its building.

French and British interest in Egypt and Imperialism

British political interest in Egypt was noticed when it started gaining influence in India during the eighteenth century. During this period, Britain had started acquiring colonies in the Middle East and India. She, therefore, required efficient contact with the region to monitor her colonies. Egypt offered great opportunities to Britain as it was readily accessible from India. As Egypt did not have enough funds to facilitate in construction of the canal, Britain volunteered to fund them. Egypt accumulated a lot of debts to an extent that they could hardly manage to repay. Having no alternative, they decided to sell their part of Canal ownership to the British. This gave the British an opportunity to manage operations of the canal.

Oil was the source of energy being used by most countries. The major suppliers of this vital product were from the Middle East. Suez Canal provided an opportunity for quick access to these countries. For Britain to dominate in the oil market, it had to take control of the Canal which could only be possible if they were established in Egypt (Kinross PP. 60-75). Most of the British industries were deficient in cotton. They had to look for sources of cotton to supply their industries. Egypt is one of the countries that produced quality cotton made Britain has the great desire of establishing themselves in the country. They started investing in cotton production in Egypt. Khedive’s authority, at that time, had a go-getting working program. This favored British industries and businessmen leading to them settling in Egypt in a bid to get labor force and raw materials. After the establishment of the Suez Canal, Britain enhanced its interests in Egypt. This is because the time taken to sail from Britain to Egypt was greatly reduced (Marlowe PP.29-33).

France wanted to have full control of Egypt with two intentions: Egypt’s agricultural productivity and its convenient importance to the Anglo-French competition. In the eighteenth century, France dominated most of Egypt’s trade with European countries. It considered Egypt as an important place where they could obtain grain and other raw materials for their industries. Egypt’s fertile soil and industrious population meant that France could regularly get raw materials and food for their country throughout the year. The French and the British were competing for colonies. The French also were interested in developing a Canal that would link the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. Egypt is the most convenient place for this meant that they had to settle there. France aimed that by having quick access to India, they could manage to conquer some of the territories that were being colonized by Britain. They intended to gain a lot of assets from India that could lead to Britain accepting to strike a deal with them.

The economic condition of the Egyptians was said to be good before British imperialism. After the arrival of the British, they took control of the Suez Canal which was the major source of income to Egypt. They embarked on extorting ships that used the route for trade. Instead of using the money corrected to expand the canal or develop Egypt; they plowed back all the money to their country. This led to the deterioration of Egypt’s economy. Eventually, it was declared that Britain had taken Egypt as a colony and was using it to acquire resources for developing its country. Many Egyptians decided to move out of the country. The British knew that it would be hard for them to retain the canal in absence of the Egyptians. They realized that the profit they had been accruing from the canal would decline as Egyptians continue leaving the country. To reduce this, they imposed heavy taxation on Egyptians which was not common to them. It meant that Egyptians had to remain in their country for them to manage to pay the tax. They were subjected to working on lands managed by the British to earn money to pay the tax.

Besides the destruction of the Egyptian economy, its political status was adversely affected by British imperialism. Initially, Egyptians thought that their government would be reinforced by the arrival of the British. This gave them higher hopes of initiating rapid changes within their system of governance. They were surprised to find the British government has taken full control of their country and disregarding any opinion from the Egyptians. To counter this, they decided to come up with a government without British knowledge. This led to the reduction of the once strong Egyptian government to an association of fewer than twenty people. As the British declined to integrate their opinions in managing the government, they decided to rise against the government. They could organize forums where they came up with strategies to follow in opposing the British government. On taking control of Egypt, the British made significant changes in the Egyptian military force. However, it was managed and commanded by the British with Egyptians having no voice in determining how their military should operate. It comprised of people who were well of among the Egyptian citizens. These people were incorporated into the military since they were perceived to be capable of leaving the country or they could revolt against the British government. They were taken to British camps where all their wealth was confiscated, provided with a pair of shoes and a rifle. The military was taken through rigorous deadly exercises thinking that they would be used in defending their country. Egyptians were surprised to see them being forced to fight in battles that did not involve their country.

France and Britain continued conflicting on the management of the canal. Each country wanted to have more influence on the waterway. Each country had established trade with India and the only way to maintain this was to get hold of the Canal. Britain secretly purchased most of the canal shares to gain control of the canal. How they gained control of the canal seemed an insult to France. They could not bear it all. This led to confrontations between the two countries. Surprisingly, the only development that the British and the French introduced in Egypt was health care, farming, and education. However, this development was not meant for the Egyptians but for traders who stopped in Egypt on their way to or from the Middle East across the Suez Canal.

Nationalization of the Suez Canal

Most of the European nations had trading and economic interests on the canal. Having been established through financial support from the French, meaning that the Egyptians had no autonomous influence on the canal. In 1875, the British government agreed with the Egyptians who agreed to sell their shares to the British government. This gave them some control over the canal. The canal was greatly significant to the British as it helped them access their colonies in India, New Zealand, Far East, and Australia. The fact that the canal was not managed by a single government made it hard for any stakeholder to have full control of the canal. It meant that there had to be some consultations before embarking on imposing any regulation within activities that took place along the canal. After selling out their shares, the Egyptians had no authority over the canal. This made it hard for the Egyptian Government to nationalize the canal. For them to nationalize it, they had to ensure that they have compensated the British and the French who had already acquired the canal (Marlowe PP. 34-45).

Nasser embarked on developing Egypt. To manage this, he sought assistance from countries around the world. The fund he got from European Union and World Bank was not sufficiently compelling him to seek assistance from communist countries. His arms contract with Czechoslovakia did not please the Americans leading to them withdrawing the assistant they had been providing to Egypt. This led to Nasser nationalizing the Canal. This was not received well by the French and the British making them organize to attack Egypt in a bid to recover the canal. Israel decided to take part in the attack with aim of gaining support from European nations. The attack did not gain support from America and Russia. This led to the British and French withdrawing their soldiers from the canal. Egypt regained control of the canal and compensated the British and the French who had assisted in constructing the canal. The attack resulted in Egypt establishing a strong relationship with USSR.

Impacts of the Canal on Modern Egypt

Since the first oil crisis in 1973, the canal has proved to be of great economic importance to Egypt. It has become one of the major sources of income for the Egyptian government. The amount of money remitted on transit goods makes the canal the third biggest source of income to the government. The number of goods passing through the canal has always been the gauge for the economic prosperity of Egypt. According to information from the canal authority, the revenue from traffic amounts to 5.3 million dollars per day. This has been seen to improve due to most of the European countries relying entirely on oil from the Middle East.

Suez Canal is termed as one of the major projects that have led to Egypt becoming modernized. Despite it consuming a lot of the country’s resources and consuming Egyptian energy, it has led to the tremendous growth of Egypt’s Economy. The canal triggered international attention that has made the country popular in the world. Many traders and farmers migrated from Britain and France establishing farms in Egypt. Consequently, numerous industries emerged that used resources acquired from these farms. Today, the canal has great value to the country. Its establishment marked the beginning of Egypt’s exodus to the modern world making it one of the major players in international affairs. Even though the project plunged the country into debt with other countries, today it has led to the growth of some of the major Egyptian cities (Kunz PP. 12-16).

The canal has also greatly influenced the political environment within Egypt. The role of foreign countries in Egypt concerning the management of the Suez Canal greatly influenced the development of the present Egyptian constitutional structure. Its constitution was associated with a lot of instabilities with various constitutions being developed and disposed of within fifteen years. It led to Egyptians ceding most of their socialistic ideologies to embrace both Islamic and open-minded values. The canal has led to the emergence of various industries within the country. This is due to improved access to the ready market as Egypt has been opened to Europe and the Far East. Consequently, most Egyptians have been assimilated in these industries leading to improvement of their living standards. It has been one of the major sectors that have greatly supported the Egyptian economy in this era of economic crises. Before the coming on of the economic crisis, the canal helped the country in raising its economic growth to seven percent. This has greatly helped the government in managing all its expenses during this period of crisis (Schonfield PP125-134).

One of how the canal has been detrimental to Egypt is through pollution. In the last few months, the country has spent over thirty million Egyptian pounds in an attempt to curb the pollution in the canal. This has been caused by oil spills from tankers leading to the damage of coral reefs and a decline in the number of fish. It has drastically affected the tourism industry. Most of the pollution has resulted from the negligence of the ship owners. As the canal is very narrow, any spilled oil spreads rapidly along the canal. This is facilitated by the high-speed currents that are found within the canal. Fish production in the country has been one of the fields that are severely affected. This has led to the Egyptian government looking for measures to contain the situation.


The desire to link the Mediterranean Sea and the Red sealed the development of the Suez Canal. The main aim of linking these Seas was to reduce the distance between Europe and the Far and the Middle East. Initially, traders had to go around Africa through the Cape of Good Hope for them to access the Middle or the Far East. The first link was aimed at connecting the Nile to the Mediterranean Sea, thus linking the two seas indirectly. The construction of a modern canal began when the French arrived in Egypt. The French hoped that by constructing the canal, they could be able to reduce the British dominance in trade. Being unable to manage the canal alone, they decided to sell part of their shares through an open market giving the British an opportunity to control the canal. The British managed to buy most of the shares helping them have a greater influence on the canal than the French. This led to British imperialism in Egypt. They started taxing heavily all the ships that used the canal for trade. The emergence of the United States as a super power led to the fall of British imperialism in Egypt (Karabell 58).

Despite the canal being in Egypt, it had no great importance to the country as most of the money obtained from the Canal was being remitted back to Britain. This was until Nasser decided to nationalize the canal. The canal has led to the growth and development of numerous industries and cities in the country. Not only has the Canal led to improvement of the living standards among the Egyptians but it has also been one of the pillars that have greatly supported its economy during this period of economic recession.

Works cited

Dessouki, Sami. Suez Canal: Changing World 1956-2000. Canada: Heinemann. 1982.

Farnie, D. A. East and West of Suez: The Suez Canal in History, 1854-1956. Broadbridge: Clarendon Press. 1969.

Franklin, Dave. “The building of the Suez Canal.” 2009. Web.

Karabell, Zachary. Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal. New York: Random House. 2004.

Kinross, Patrick, Balfour. Between Two Seas: The Creation of the Suez Canal. New York: William Morrow. 1969. 306pp.

Kunz, Diane, B. The Economic Diplomacy of the Suez Crisis. North Carolina: UNC Press. 1991.

Marlowe, John. The Making of the Suez Canal. London: Cresset Press. 1964.

Marlowe, John. World Ditch: The Making of the Suez Canal. Australia: Macmillan. 1964.

Schonfield, Hugh, J. The Suez Canal in World Affairs. East Valley Parkway: Philosophical Library.

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