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Volume 28, Number 5September/October 1977

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Suez Reborn

Written by Elias Antar
Photographed by Tor Eigeland

In Port Said, the Italian Achille Lauro gleamed blue at its anchor as some 600 tourists disembarked. Tugs hooted in the roadstead, cranes rattled on the wharfs, horses neighed and coins tinkled. The air crisp, crowds gathered to watch and the vendors, in full cry moved in.

"Hey Mister, come and see my camels, small camel only 20 dollars!... Hey, ragazza, look, look! This real scarab... Mister! Mister! This way visit Bor Saeed. Fast horse, go quickly, quickly! Hey lady! Buon giorno! You want cheap Frigidaire? Very good Frigidaire only 900 dollars! Hey Mister! Hey Mister!"

The world, the peddlers evidently thought was as it should be. Port Said was alive again. And so are Suez, Ismailia and a dozen villages along the Suez Canal that for eight years were war front wastelands - scarred, deserted and silent.

Today, these communities have been reborn. Under a massive and continuing reconstruction program that got underway almost immediately after the 1973 conflict with Israel, they have been rebuilt to an astonishing degree. And if funds are available and plans for the future work out, the Suez Canal region by the end of the century may well develop into a prosperous 100-mile urbanized strip of some 2.5 million people living on industry, agriculture, tourism and, of course, the canal.

The plans, admittedly, are ambitious, and even the most optimistic officials could not say just where Egypt will get the $12 billion needed to finance them. But in light of what was achieved in the first 30 months of reconstruction, it is not unreasonable to expect that a good portion of the plans will eventually come true, despite Egypt's present economic straits.

In the autumn of 1973 such imaginative planning would probably have been laughed off as a pipe dream by anyone visiting the canal region. Few people looked ahead with hope then. Instead they harked back nostalgically to the early part of 1967 - when the canal was open for traffic and its cities were bustling with commerce - or looked with dismay at the aftermath of the Six-Day War: the canal blocked, the cities deserted and in ruins and the Israeli army encamped less than 400 yards away.

The war, of course, was only part of it. After the war, and until 1970, Suez was pounded mercilessly by artillery and in 1968, Ismaila was hit too. According to official Egyptian accounts, Suez was hit daily by artillery or air raids - and sometimes both - from the spring of 1969 until a ceasefire in the summer of 1970. In Ismailia the artillery exchanges were at point blank range. As a result, Egypt evacuated nearly all the civilians - about a million people - and by 1971 the cities were depressing museums of death and destruction. In Suez some 5,000 people remained - out of a 1967 population of 250,000. These few kept essential services going forthe soldiers patrolling the canal, but rats, they said, far outnumbered the people. The scars were everywhere. In Port Tewfik waterfront restaurants were unrecognizable piles of rusty metal and torn concrete, and in Suez entire streets were devastated. Shells had turned apartment buildings into huge, grotesque skulls with gaping eye sockets. At the Convent of the Good Shepherd, the roof of the church had been blasted off and the fortunes of war had torn one statue off the wall, but left another unscathed. All told, the Egyptians say, Suez suffered losses of about $650 million in destroyed housing, utilities and industries.

In Ismailia the picture was the same. Railway cars lay derailed and rusting. Several floors of the Suez Canal Authority hospital at the edge of the waterway had been destroyed and later taken over as a lookout's redoubt. In the town, the graceful balconied villas built by the French in another era lay shattered, and entire sides of apartment blocks lay exposed, the floors inside crushed together like a pack of playing cards.

The 1973 war brought still more damage. Port Said, until then almost intact, was hit by air raids and artillery fire, villages on the western shore of the Great Bitter Lakes were battered during the Israeli thrust across the canal and Suez itself was half-occupied. By the end of the October war, 85 percent of Suez and a fifth of both Ismailia and Port Said were destroyed or damaged beyond repair. And the town of Qantara, site of a ferry across the canal, was obliterated.

Little wonder then that the prospect of rebuilding the cities appeared farfetched in the autumn of 1973. But with the war over less than a week - and the Israelis still in their cease-fire positions along the canal and around Suez - President Anwar Sadat appointed a Minister of Housing and Reconstruction and told him to start bringing the canal towns back to life.

The Minister's reply was typical. "I said okay I'll try," recalls Osman Ahmed Osman, archetypical "can-do" man and the Arab world's leading contractor. (See Aramco World, May-June 1974). Head of "The Arab Contractors Company, Osman Ahmed Osman," he had built airports, bridges, factories, housing and roads all overthe Middle East and - his crowning achievement - the Aswan High Dam, built in cooperation with the Soviet Union. Now, in the wake of war, he was faced with a challenge that in financial terms, was even bigger.

Osman, who has subsequently resigned from his ministerial post moved rapidly. By the spring of 1974, he unveiled a program that in fact, was a vision of the canal region during the next 25 years. Industry and agriculture would multiply the populations of the three cities. Free trade zones in Port Said and Suez would attract foreign investment. Tunnels under the canal would bring people and fresh water to Sinai and allow shipments of minerals in the other direction for the canal industries. Tourist resorts would be built, along with, eventually, international airports in each city.

First however, the cities would have to be rebuilt their populations brought back and roads, electric power lines and other necessities repaired. Immediately, therefore, Osman marshaled a huge workforce. "We sent in nearly 30,000 workers, as many as built the High Dam," said Hasaballah Kafrawy, head of the Executive Authority for the Reconstruction of the Canal Cities, a department of the Ministry of Reconstruction. Using picks and shovels - and often their bare hands - until equipment was available, the men began clearing away the ruins of war. Their orders were crisp and pragmatic: repair what can be repaired, tear down what must be rebuilt, and do it all as quickly as possible.

Which they did. A year after reconstruction began, some 55,000 apartments, 210 schools and 46 hospitals in the Suez Canal zone had been repaired, replastered or repainted. In Suez itself, some 60 apartments were repaired per day. Some of those repairs, it is true, consisted only of filling in bullet holes; but new housing was provided too. "In Suez we have built 7000 housing units from scratch," said Kafrawy and "some 200,000 people have returned."

There is still a tremendous job to be done. "We are still below the 1967 level," Kafrawy went on, "and we need 20,000 more housing units. Economic activity also is still sluggish because services are lacking. Suez will need much work." Nevertheless, what has been done is impressive. At the western entrance of Suez, for example, stands King Faisal City a housing district named after the late Saudi Arabian monarch who helped finance its construction and who laid its cornerstone in July 1974.

It consists of three-story buildings with one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments renting from $10.24 to $23 dollars a month. To save concrete and steel needed elsewhere in Egypt, the buildings are of limestone blocks quarried nearby. "The Egyptians did a very good job of constructing good quality housing in record time," said a Western expert involved in the reconstruction plans. At one point, apartments were being completed at the rate of one and a quarter per hour.

At the Convent of the Good Shepherd opposite the rebuilt railway tracks, things are looking up these days. Along with several mosques erected in the city the government made it a point to rebuild the convent and the church, and insisted that the sisters of the religious order which runs it return to Suez. The roof of the church has been repaired and the entire complex refurbished, all at state expense. Even though there were only 50 parishioners in early 1977 - one tenth the 1967 figure - the sisters returned. "We have started up our kindergarten and our first primary school class", said Sister Stanislas, who runs the dispensary and works in a nearby government hospital. "We hope to build up gradually until we have a full primary school going again".

One building in Suez was left the way it was at the end of the fighting: with half of it crushed and the shell-holes untouched ... as a memorial.

At Ismailia, the picture is even brighter. In 1977 the pre-war population of 143,000 had swelled to 220,000, light industries had started up again and the city was bustling. "We have built 6,000 housing units, but because the city is already too crowded, we now need 15,000," said Kafrawy. As in Suez, friendly Arab states pitched in to help. A 4,500-apartment housing development spread over 250 acres on the northern edge of Ismailia is named after Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, ruler of Abu Dhabi and President of the United Arab Emirates. As in Faisal City, the buildings are of limestone and, standing over long arcades bordered by arched stone columns, have a faintly Arabian air.

And in Port Said, according to Kafrawy, the imaginative program had a still greater impact. Although only 4,000 out of 10,000 housing units badly damaged or destroyed have been rebuilt, the population jumped from 280,000 in 1967 to 360,000 in 1977 - primarily because President Sadat declared the entire city a "Free Zone" in January 1976. That meant that goods could be sold in shops for hard currency without customs duties being imposed, and the results have been impressive. Stores, for example, are overflowing with consumer items, including refrigerators - but not at the outrageous $900 claimed by the dockside vendors. In addition, acreage has been set aside for outside firms to set up trans-shipment facilities and light industries, all tax-free.

There are, certainly, problems with overcrowding and a lack of services. But, says Kafrawy, "The Suez Canal cities are attractive anyway. People who can't get apartments in Cairo come here and find them. Priority is given to the families of dead soldiers, then to the townspeople whose homes were destroyed, then to others. In all the canal region, about 850,000 to 900,000 persons out of the one million who left have returned. If the funds are available and we continue as we are doing, the entire region will be back to its 1967 population soon."

The effort so far has not come cheap. Reconstruction of housing alone has cost about $358.4 million, Kafrawy said, and when the cost of restoring rail lines, roads, services and the other necessities of community life is added, the total cost will be about one billion, of which Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have already made multimillion dollar contributions.

If the reconstruction effort so far has gone well, however, there is less optimism among foreign experts about the plans for the future. The chief criticism is that they are far too ambitious in light of the country's current economic conditions and the level of foreign investment. "In many areas Egypt has overreached and will have to reassess things," was the judgment of one analyst.

The plans for the future are certainly ambitious. Three master plans, one for each of the main cities on the canal, have been drawn up, mostly by foreign experts, plus a regional scheme. They project growth and development to the year 2000 and the three plans have been priced at $12 billion dollars, at 1975 values. This is for development only, and does not include what has already been spent on reconstruction, or the widening and deepening of the canal itself, which is a separate project.

Even so, the Egyptians think that they are not unrealistic. "The master plans are broad guidelines for what is supposed to happen," said Ibrahim Zaki Kenawy Chairman of the Central Organization for Housing and, like Osman, a veteran of Aswan days. "There naturally will be changes, and probably not everything will be done. But as far as possible we intend to stick to them."

The general objectives, he went on, are to set up industries and tourist resorts, boost agriculture and the free trade zones, and develop the Sinai Peninsula so that the populations of Port Said, Ismailia and Suez will grow to 750,000, 600,000 and one million respectively. Tunnels under the canal will take road and rail traffic to Sinai and water from the Nile will be pumped across to irrigate vast tracts of land that hopefully will turn green.

The Port Said master plan envisages enlarging the existing town southwest-ward, expanding the industry and free zone area south of it and building new port facilities linked to the Suez Canal below the industrial zone. "The industries which appear to offer the best prospects of creating employment are textiles, leather goods (particularly footwear), plastics and furniture," the plan says. Planners believe that in the long term, between 500 and 1,000 jobs can be created per year in the free trade zone "if there is the necessary confidence in investing generally in the Egyptian economy." The expanded port, if all goes as planned, is expected to handle some three million metric tons of goods in 1980 and 10 million metric tons by the end of the century. The coastal area to the northwest of the city and along the shore of Lake Manzala will be developed for the luxury tourist trade with high class hotels, a casino, apartment buildings and restaurants. Agro-industries on 68,000 acres could prove profitable, the plan says.

Ismailia, it is hoped, will grow westward and continue its role as the headquarters of the Suez Canal Authority and as the commercial and financial center of the surrounding area. Some 500,000 acres of land are thought capable of being developed for agriculture, although - planners warn - the cost might be unacceptably high. The plan projects total employment in the city of 170,000 persons by the year 2000, with hundreds of thousands more in adjacent areas living, directly or indirectly on agriculture. In addition, a university is planned, with faculties of petroleum engineering, commerce, minerals technology and mechanical and electrical engineering. The university will also have merchant marine and shipbuilding colleges located elsewhere along the canal. Tourism will be developed on the eastern shore of the Great Bitter Lake south of the city.

Suez has plenty of desert land around it that will allow extensive construction for industry, planners say. Focusing mostly on light and medium industries such as fertilizers, cement and textiles, the plan projects total employment in the city of 125,000 people by the year 2000. The port will be expanded for general cargo, and for tourists there will be a sports stadium, museums, a zoo, marinas and a country club with a golf course.

Of all the future projects, the most visible start has been made in the Free Trade Zone in Port Said and on the tunnels. Because of the over-optimism and false starts inevitable in such huge undertakings, progress, admittedly has been slower than expected. By the end of 1976, for example, only one of three tunnels had been started. But it had been started.

This tunnel, some 11 miles north of Suez, will be one mile long and will be 58 feet under the present bed of the canal and some 30 feet below the bottom of the waterway when it is deepened to its maximum planned size. About 36 feet in diameter, the concrete-and-steel tunnel will be capable of handling 1,000 vehicles an hour in either direction at maximum service conditions. Drinking water for Sinai and fuel lines are also planned to go across inside the tunnel. The tunnel will cost $102 million dollars, Kenawy said. Construction of the project first began at a site further south which proved to be too sandy and another site had to be found. Kenawy said this saved about 40 percent of what it would have cost to build on the original site, but it delayed the project by seven months. Egyptian officials originally had set a target time of two years for construction of each tunnel, but analysts now say four years would be more realistic.

Some progress has been reported, too, on plans to reclaim up to one million acres from the desert or already populated zones. A pilot project of 100 acres on the Sinai bank of the canal has already proven successful and 2,000 more acres will be tackled in 1977. "We are preparing 35,000 acres in Sinai for reclamation," said Kenawy.

The foreign investment aspect of the Port Said free trade zone, like commercial sales in the city itself, has also been getting under way. Warehouses have been built and, Kafrawy said, about 40 firms have set up operations. But these are mostly trans-shipment and bonding activities, and local officials in the city say no foreign industry has yet committed itself to Port Said. In 1975 it was announced that Iran would contribute to the reconstruction of Port Said and would use its future facilities for shipping operations.

As Egypt at present is operating on a very tight budget and top officials are allocating money to projects with far more restraint than they would like to exercise, the rebirth of Suez is still far from complete. But the master plans are designed to attract foreign investment by showing the potential of the canal region in a studied, rational way, and given a better overall economic climate there is no reason to think that they will not be implemented, at least in considerable part. As Osman put it, when his men first arrived at the Aswan High Dam site, they found "rocks, mountains, the Nile and nothing else." In the canal region Egypt is starting with considerably more.

Elias Antar, a long-time correspondent in the Middle East, is a regular contributor to Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 26-32 of the September/October 1977 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1977 images.