Egypt's sparsely populated Sinai region is expected to breathe new life after decades of neglect as four new tunnels being constructed under the Suez Canal to connect the Sinai Peninsula to the Egyptian mainland are near completion and set to open soon.
The four new vehicle tunnels — two of them are north of Ismailia and the others are south of Port Said — are set to open in March or April, Ahmed El Abd, board chairman of Egypt's Concord for Engineering and Contracting, which is in charge of constructing the north Ismailia tunnels, told local media on Nov. 24, 2018.
Building the four tunnels is part of the Suez Canal Area Development Project, which was launched in August 2014 by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The project aims at transforming the Suez Canal from being a mere waterway to an integrated development zone that includes commercial, industrial, logistic and residential areas, which contribute to supporting the Egyptian economy.
Before digging of the tunnels started less than three years ago, the Armed Forces Engineering Authority (AFEA), which is supervising their construction, had signed a contract with German firm Herrenknecht to manufacture and supply four giant tunnel boring machines. In November 2015, parts of the machines arrived in Egypt and the assembling process was completed in March 2016.
Then, the AFEA contracted with four Egyptian companies to implement the four tunnels project. The tunnels of north Ismailia were assigned to Petrojet and Concord. Meanwhile, Arab Contractors and Orascom were assigned to implement the tunnels of south Port Said. The companies started the actual excavation work of the tunnels in June 2016.
The two vehicle tunnels — each tunnel serves a one-way route — north of Ismailia have a total length of 5,820 meters (3.6 miles) each., while the two other vehicle tunnels south of Port Said have a total length of 3,920 meters (2.4 miles) each.
Economic experts expect that the four new tunnels, which will facilitate the movement of people and merchandise to Sinai, will boost economic development in Sinai.
Ahmed el-Shami, an expert of maritime economics, told Al-Monitor, “The construction of the Suez Canal 149 years ago created a divide between the land of Egypt in Sinai and the land of Egypt to the west of the canal and in the Delta. So building these tunnels — which connects Sinai to the Egyptian mainland — contributes to building new life in the region.”
He added, “The tunnels are set to take travel times from hours or even days to just a few minutes, as vehicles will no longer need to cross the water on ferries or across Al-Salam Bridge, about 2.5 miles north of Ismailia."
Shami stressed that the tunnels are considered a more secure transportation alternative for Al-Salam Bridge — the main gateway crossing over the Suez Canal to Port Said's east terminal. The bridge is often closed by the state authorities to protect it from any expected militant attacks.
Al-Salam Bridge, which was inaugurated in 2001 by then-President Hosni Mubarak, connects north Sinai with the rest of the country. In June 2013, the state had to close Al-Salam Bridge due to security concerns following an upsurge in militant attacks after the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohammed Morsi in June 2013. But the bridge was reopened in January 2016.
“The closure of Al-Salam Bridge has badly influenced the movement of goods traveling to Sinai from the Nile Delta across the Suez Canal. Vehicles heading to Sinai had to cross the Suez Canal water using ferries instead of Al-Salam Bridge, and so they had to wait for hours, and even days, on the west bank of the Suez Canal to be ferried across the canal, as the low number of ferries could not absorb the congestion of vehicles,” Shami noted.
“Consequently, agricultural crops traveling to Sinai used to rot before they could reach their destination in Sinai,” he added.
Shami said the new tunnels are expected to facilitate Egypt's domestic trade movement, and at the same time increase the volume of its trade with Gulf countries through easing the movement of products manufactured in the Suez Canal region into Sinai, and then onward to Jordan and Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia.
Sinai, which suffered neglect by the successive Egyptian governments since its liberation from the Israeli occupation in 1973, has been a fertile ground for extremism. The surge of militant attacks in Sinai after Morsi’s ouster has pushed the state to launch massive military operations in the peninsula to cut off militants operating there. But at the same time, the state, under the leadership of Sisi, has prioritized development plans there to counter terrorism.
In August 2018, Egypt unveiled a $15 billion development project for Sinai. The project, which is expected to be completed by 2022, includes plans for a comprehensive network of roads, residential and industrial developments, hospitals and sewage networks.
“Development of Sinai is considered the best counterterrorism strategy,” Rashad Abdo, an economic expert and head of the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies, told Al-Monitor. “But this development cannot be fulfilled without a strong infrastructure — created by the building of new roads, tunnels and bridges — which attracts investment opportunities to the area."
He added, “Hence, the Suez Canal tunnels, which are considered fast means of transportation from the west of the Suez Canal to Sinai, can encourage local and foreign investors to execute development projects there and thus entice millions of Egyptians to move from the densely populated Nile Delta and Valley to the Sinai Peninsula."