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Egypt, international allies ensure Suez Canal remains open for global trade

By Mohammed Mahmoud

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Egyptian coast guards patrol as a ship navigates the Suez Canal on March 30. [Tarek Wajeh/AFP]

CAIRO -- The recent shutdown of the Suez Canal has drawn fresh attention to the vital role the strategic waterway plays in global commerce and to the efforts of Egypt and its allies to secure commercial shipping and maritime navigation.

On March 23, a 200,000-tonne container vessel became wedged across the canal during a sandstorm, blocking the passage of ships until it was dislodged, six days later, in operations involving a flotilla of tugboats and excavators.

Egypt emerged from the short crisis with credit, said Tony Munoz, editor-in-chief at trade publication Maritime Executive.

"The Egyptian government handled the blockage and closure of the critical trade lane exceptionally well, considering the intense international pressure," Munoz told AFP, noting that international specialists also played a key role.

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In this file photo from March 8, 2013, a woman takes pictures of the USS Winston Churchill crossing the Suez Canal off the coast of Ismailia port city. [AFP]

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An Egyptian guided-missile frigate conducts an exercise with a US amphibious transport dock ship in the Red Sea on March 14. [CENTCOM]

In response to the incident, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in early May approved massive expansion of the canal to avoid future blockages, AFP reported.

Though about 12% of global trade traffic passes through the Suez Canal -- a conduit that connects the Red Sea with the Mediterranean and serves as the fastest sea route between Asia and Europe -- it seldom makes headlines.

This is largely thanks to the professionalism of the Suez Canal Company, which administers the canal, and to the efforts of Egyptian and international forces, which work together in regional waters to ensure the smooth flow of global trade.

Preserving regional security

"The Suez Canal is very strategically located from a geopolitical point of view, and it is important for all international powers that traffic through it remains stable," said Egyptian MP Akmal Najati.

Egypt's international partners "always work together to keep regional security and peace, especially in times of instability in countries such as Yemen, Iraq and Syria, in order to keep the shipping route unaffected", Najati said.

The aim is to ensure global trade is not affected by political or economic conflict and to ensure freedom of navigation in key international waterways.

These principles will be put to the test in the event of a conflict with Iran, which is heavily dependent on the strategic canal.

Tensions have been mounting with the Iranian regime over its nuclear programme and ongoing support for proxy militia groups across the Middle East.

The Suez Canal serves as "an important link between manufacturing centres in Far Eastern countries such as Japan, China, Malaysia and Indonesia, and markets in the Middle East, Europe and the US", Najati said.

For decades, he noted, Egypt has succeeded in "protecting and professionally operating this shipping lane at the service of the world".

Egypt also has been making an exceptional effort to develop the Suez Canal, in recent years directing huge investments to the New Suez Canal project, said Egyptian MP Nadir Mostafa.

The project aims to deepen and expand shipping lanes and reduce waiting time for ships to enter the canal, among other objectives.

"Co-operation with the international community in the fight against terrorism in the region, as well as in consolidating stability in the Middle East, is an essential part of Egypt's foreign policy," said Mostafa.

Egypt, for instance, is part of the international coalition battling the Iran-backed Houthis (Ansarallah), who are perpetuating a six-year war that has brought untold suffering to Yemenis and who regularly attack Saudi oil and commercial targets.

Egypt, in co-operation with the international community, is constantly working "to ensure no regional conflicts occur that affect global trade traffic", he said.

Keeping Suez Canal open

The United States plays a vital role in ensuring the Suez Canal remains open to the world.

It provides Egypt with $1.3 billion in annual military assistance, and the US Navy's 5th Fleet, along with joint international forces stationed in regional waters, works to ensure freedom of navigation in the Red Sea.

The 5th Fleet, headquartered in Bahrain, operates across about 2.5 million square miles of water that include the Red Sea, Arabian Gulf, Gulf of Oman and parts of the Indian Ocean.

In addition to the Suez Canal, the expanse includes two other critical choke points for maritime traffic -- the Strait of Hormuz and Bab al Mandeb strait.

The Suez Canal serves as a vital conduit through which the United States supports military operations in the Middle East, with carrier strike groups regularly transiting on their way to the Arabian Gulf.

The United States is also a member of the Bahrain-based Combined Maritime Forces, a multinational maritime partnership that promotes security, stability and prosperity across approximately 3.2 million square miles of international waters.

The 33-nation partnership works to uphold the International Rules-Based Order by countering illicit non-state actors on the high seas and promoting security, stability and prosperity.

International maritime forces train together in regional waters and work to protect and defend shipping while it is transiting through global commerce lanes.

Protecting freedom of navigation

Due to its strategic location, "Egypt has always played an important role in regional security and peace", said Egyptian MP Mahmoud al-Qatt.

"The Suez Canal is a vivid example of how international freedom of navigation can be preserved and the world's economic interests can be kept thanks to Egypt's ability to secure, operate and develop it," he said.

Egypt and the United States have a strong partnership, he added, and "work side by side all the time to ensure stability in the Middle East so that marine traffic in the Suez Canal is not compromised".

As a key international shipping route, the Suez Canal has a mandate to remain open to all global trade traffic.

Egypt can deny transit to vessels only under very specific conditions, based on the Convention of Constantinople, according to Suez Canal Authority chairman Lt. Gen. Osama Rabie.

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