This image made from a militant video posted on a social media website on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, purports to show a militant standing next to another man who identifies himself as 30-year-old Tomislav Salopek, kneeling down as he reads a message at an unknown location. The video purportedly released by the Islamic State group threatens to kill the Croatian hostage if Egyptian authorities do not release "Muslim women" held in prison within 48 hours. (Militant website via AP)
This image made from a militant video posted on a social media website on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, purports to show a militant standing next to another man who identifies himself as 30-year-old Tomislav Salopek, kneeling down as he reads a message at an unknown location. The video purportedly released by the Islamic State group threatens to kill the Croatian hostage if Egyptian authorities do not release “Muslim women” held in prison within 48 hours. (Militant website via AP)

CAIRO: Egypt is to unveil a major extension of the Suez Canal today, a mega-project that has emerged as a cornerstone of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s efforts to restore national pride and revive the economy after years of unrest. The 1869 inauguration of the canal linking the Red Sea to the Mediterranean was hailed as a leap into the modern age, and President Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s nationalization of the British and French-run waterway in 1956 was seen as marking Egypt’s decisive break with its colonial past. That sparked the second of four wars with Israel, including a 1973 offensive launched across the canal that Egyptians celebrate as their greatest military victory.

The government hopes for another historic moment today, when it unveils an $8.5 billion extension of the waterway funded entirely by Egyptians, without foreign aid. The media and government supporters across the board have breathlessly repeated the same message – after four years of strife and the overthrow of two presidents, Egypt is back. “Our culture can be very sentimental, and this was the first time Egyptians have been so galvanized,” said Adel Beshai, professor of economics at the American University in Cairo. “It was a brilliant idea by Al-Sisi – the Egyptians now own the canal.”

He views the expansion as the first step in a new area of development, free of the public sector’s notoriously crippling bureaucracy. The key global trade route is already one of Egypt’s top foreign currency earners, and is run by a semi-independent authority with 25,000 employees that is considered one of the country’s most competent bodies. “It is opening infinite horizons. It is going to be handled outside the ossified bureaucracy that has been holding us back. What is being done there is done with extreme efficiency and a scientific approach,” Beshai said.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s affiliate of the Islamic State group threatened yesterday to execute a Croatian kidnapped in Cairo last month within 48 hours if Muslim women jailed in Egypt are not freed. The man is the first foreigner to be abducted and threatened with death by militants in Egypt since an Islamist insurgency erupted two years ago. In a video posted online by the jihadists, the Croatian identifies himself as Tomislav Salopek working for a French company, and appears kneeling at the feet of a hooded man holding a knife.

Reading from a sheet of paper, he says he will be executed within 48 hours if Egypt’s government fails to release Muslim women held in prisons. Salopek, wearing an orange jumpsuit, did not say when the countdown began. He said he works for French company CGG’s branch office in Cairo. He said he was abducted on July 22 by the Sinai Province group, IS’ Egyptian affiliate based in the Sinai Peninsula.

Formerly known as Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, the group changed its name when it pledged allegiance to IS in November. Two days after the kidnapping, the Croatian foreign ministry said in a statement that he was abducted as he travelled to work. “The armed group stopped his car, forced the driver out and drove away in an unknown direction,” the ministry said at that time, without elaborating and identifying him only as TS. Salopek is the first foreigner to be abducted and threatened with death by militants in Egypt since the Islamist insurgency broke out after the army’s ouster of president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.

The new Suez Canal extension involved digging and dredging along 72 km of the 193-km canal, making a parallel waterway at its middle that will facilitate two-way traffic accommodating the world’s largest ships. With a depth of 24 m (79 ft), the canal now allows the simultaneous passage of ships with up to 66 ft draught. Originally planned as a three-year project, Sisi ordered the new segments to be finished in just one, citing the pressing need for an economic boost. Work has been non-stop ever since, and at one point 43 massive dredging machines were cranking away. The canal drew in a record $5.3 billion last year, a figure the government estimates it can raise to $13.2 billion by 2023 if it doubles the number of ships transiting daily to 97.

Economists and shippers, however, say that’s overly optimistic. “It’s not about capacity, it all depends on trade between East and West, growth in the world economy, especially in Europe, and how the (authority) handles its fees,” said Xu Zhibin, managing director for the Egyptian affiliate of China’s state-owned COSCO, one of the world’s top container shippers. Others suggest that sluggish world trade makes it unlikely the project can deliver immediately on its promise. Ahmed Kamaly, an economist with the American University in Cairo, said the projections were “wishful thinking”. “There was no viability study done, or known of, to assess the viability of the project,” he said.

For the project to reach its revenue targets, world trade would have to grow by 9 percent annually until 2023, said William Jackson of Capital Economics – higher than the 3 percent average seen over the past four years. Since 2011, Suez Canal revenue growth has failed to even keep pace with growth in world trade. While global trade volumes rose by an average of 2.9 percent from 2011-2014, Suez Canal revenue rose by just 2 percent during the same period, Jackson said.

The project’s success also depends on the security situation. Security has been stepped up along the canal ahead of today’s ceremony, which is expected to be attended by Sisi and foreign dignitaries. Military spokesman Brig Gen Mohammed Samir said extra troops have been deployed to “deal with threats and potential aggression”. An Interior Ministry statement carried by state news agency MENA said major steps were being taken to hinder the “terrorist Brotherhood” and other “terrorist infiltration”, adding that since July, security forces had launched an extensive crackdown in cities along the canal, combing nearby farms and verifying the identities of people in hotels and rental properties.

Video released by the military and broadcast continually on state and private television shows masked special forces patrolling the canal in boats, tanks and armored personnel carriers, with US-made Apache attack helicopters and F-16s soaring overhead. Some analysts say security remains a concern for foreign investors, whose capital is needed for the next stage of the project – the expansion of the canal zone to include a logistics hub and manufacturing centers. “In theory at least, Egypt has many of the ingredients to become a manufacturing hub,” wrote William Jackson, senior emerging markets economist with Capital Economics, in a note. “We remain concerned that Egypt’s security situation and poor business environment may deter investment.”

That second stage, which would generate badly needed jobs for Egypt’s surging population, is still being developed and would take years. Sisi’s office said the next step would focus on the East Port Said area, the expansion of its harbor and the development of an industrial zone that would cover 40 million sq m and eventually generate some 400,000 jobs. “It will take time to see tangible investment,” said Angus Blair, chairman of Mideast business consultancy Signet. “There is significant interest in the areas to get developed around the canal which, if developed well, should generate new jobs and business development.”

In the meantime, the canal extension has stirred intense national fervor. Authorities have declared today a national holiday, suspended fees for public transport and posted a sermon to be delivered in mosques on Friday which declares that “all Egyptians, here and abroad, must support this giant project”. Cairo’s Tahrir Square is decked with lights, TV networks are running countdown clocks, and some visitors arriving at Cairo’s airport have been given commemorative passport stamps calling the canal “Egypt’s gift to the world”. More than 9,000 km away, in New York’s Times Square, a billboard reads “Egypt boosts the world economy”.

One organizer of the opening, interviewed on popular private broadcaster Mahwar, said no one should doubt the project’s grandeur. “For those who are skeptical or denying, tell me who they are so that we can drown them in the new canal’s 27-meter depth,” Sami Abdel-Azizi said. The TV presenter replied: “No, we will do that for you.”- Agencies