On 29 March, the Egyptian authorities officially announced that the colossal Ever Given cargo ship that ran aground in the Suez Canal six days earlier had been refloated. However, although the ship was freed several days ago, and the backlogged ships that were on the two sides of the canal have started to move, discussions about the incident continue.
The Suez Canal is the main gateway for the movement of goods between Europe and Asia. It was responsible for the transit of over 19,000 ships in 2019. This is thought to represent around 13 per cent of world trade. The blockage, which lasted for a week, triggered discussions about potential alternatives, or at least emergency alternatives, as well as launching deliberations about whether the grounding happened accidentally or intentionally.
Following the announcement about the release of the giant cargo ship, the Suez Canal Authority (SNA) announced that it would launch a full investigation into the ship's grounding. According to the Washington Post, the SNA said the investigation would not only focus on the weather, as it was highly believed that the ship was affected by a sandstorm, but it would investigate human and technical errors too. This highlights potential questions that the ship could have been intentionally grounded.
These doubts were not only in the minds of the SNA's staff, but also came to the minds of many journalists, analysts and experts who followed up the situation during the crisis. The location of the grounding bears immense significance, as it may have been deliberately chosen to be the most disruptive. It perhaps aimed to cause complete paralysis to maritime movement in the canal.
While the Suez Canal has two waterways at the Mediterranean end, the Ever Given grounded in the single waterway area and completely stopped movement along the 193-kilometre passage, shaking the world markets and causing price-hikes for goods and commodities.
Then, while there are long uneven banks along the canal, Ever Given ran aground on an even and sandy bank that did not cause much damage to the vessel. If it ran aground in a rocky bank, it would have suffered severe damage and could have been destroyed, or at the very least, would have recruited too many maintenance teams in order to repair it or take it to a safe area. It seems that the incident was intended to send a particular message – that cargo ships are getting larger and more complicated, so there should be reliable shipping routes for them to transit in order not to stop international trade movement, mainly between Asia and Europe.
It is too early to point the finger at anyone, but several sides presented their alternative scenarios, which could easily be hailed by trade transportation firms who look for fast and straightforward shipping routes to avoid delays. Exporters and importers affected by the rising costs of raw materials and goods will be content with such alternatives.
However, we cannot accuse any party of intentionally causing the crisis of the Suez Canal. We, however, can look at the alternatives that were spotlighted at the time. Business Insider, for example, did not highlight the issue of the former US proposal, which dates back to the 1960s, as an alternative to the Suez Canal. "The plan never came to fruition," Marianne Guenot wrote: "But having an alternative waterway to the Suez Canal could have been useful today, with a cargo ship stuck in the narrow path and blocking one of the world's most vital shipping routes."
Meanwhile, while the Ever Given was blocking the Suez Canal, The Arab Weekly reported: "The Israelis are promoting their projected Ben Gurion waterway as a rival to the Suez Canal," referring to the old US proposal detailed in Business Insider.
According to The Arab Weekly, Israel: "Plans to turn this canal into a multi-faceted project, in addition to having it play a commercial role challenging the Suez Canal," pointing out that it is planning to "build small towns, hotels, restaurants and nightclubs around the waterway."
The Arab Weekly reported analysts claiming that Egyptians recognise the threats that the potential Israeli project poses to the Suez Canal. The analysts also predict that Jordan would be happy with it because it would benefit from it. Saudi Arabia would also be satisfied because it is expected to help its Neom city's prosperity, which the kingdom is working to turn into a tourist attraction.
At the same time, Reuters reported Russia's Energy Ministry stating that a stranded container ship blocking Egypt's Suez Canal has shed light on the safety and sustainability of its Northern Sea Route (NSR) and Russian energy pipelines. The ministry indicated that they are: "Highly secure and hold competitive positions in terms of transportation costs as well as by reliability in comparison to alternative routes." NDTV reported AFP indicating that Russian President Vladimir Putin has long promoted the passage along the country's Siberian coast as a rival to the Suez Canal, noting that Russia: "Seized on the Egyptian route's traffic jam to play it up again."
It also explained that Russia has heavily invested in developing the Northern Sea Route that allows ships to cut the journey to Asian ports by 15 days, compared with the conventional route through the Suez Canal. Reports also conveyed that Russia is planning to send ice breakers to escort cargo ships to be ready if any crisis emerges.
The Arab Weekly reported Iranian Ambassador to Moscow Kazem Jalali calling for the activation of the Russian sea route, tweeting: "Accelerating the completion of infrastructure and activating the north-south corridor is more important than ever, and is a better option as a transit alternative to the Suez Canal."
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi is aware of the dangers and threats facing Egypt's dilapidated economy through diverting the revenues collected from cargo ships transit through the Suez Canal to other countries. Therefore, he exaggerated the success of refloating Ever Given and attempted to send assurances to the world.
"The Egyptians have succeeded in ending the crisis of the ship that ran aground in the Suez Canal and brought things back to their normal course. This reassures the whole world about the transportation of its goods and its needs through this pivotal shipping artery," El-Sisi expressed.
David Hearst believes that the Egyptian regime led by El-Sisi "is a practised liar," noting that: "It lies to its own people every day, but in times of crisis, it also lies to the international community."
The investigation into the incident will never expose the truth – neither to the Egyptians, nor to the world – and the issue of whether the incident was accidental or intentional will remain unresolved. The only reality is that several projects are being discussed as alternatives to the Suez Canal. If any of them come to fruition, they would have disastrous effects on Egypt's economy.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.