ISMAILIA, Egypt — Egypt unveiled on Thursday a major extension of the Suez Canal that President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has billed as an historic achievement needed to boost the country’s ailing economy after years of unrest.
El-Sissi, wearing his ceremonious military uniform and trademark dark sunglasses, flew to the site aboard a military helicopter and immediately boarded a monarchy-era yacht that sailed to the venue of the ceremony.
The yacht was flanked by navy warships as helicopters and fixed wing aircraft flew over. El-Sissi, standing on the vessel’s upper deck, waved to well-wishers and folklore dance troupes performing on shore.
Later in the day, the president is to host an elaborate ceremony in the canal city of Ismailia attended by foreign dignitaries amid tight security measures following a series of attacks by Islamic militants in the Sinai Peninsula and the capital.
The unveiling of the $8.5 billion extension has been trumpeted as a historic achievement by pro-government media and has revived the nationalistic personality cult built around the 60-year-old el-Sissi, who as army chief led the overthrow of an Islamist president in 2013 and was elected to office last year.
Egypt’s black, white and red flags now adorn streets across much of the nation, along with banners declaring support for el-Sissi and hailing his latest achievement. The government declared Thursday a national holiday, and banks and most businesses were closed.
The new Suez Canal extension involved digging and dredging along 72 kilometers (45 miles) of the 193-kilometer canal, making a parallel waterway at its middle that will facilitate two-way traffic. With a depth of 24 meters (79 feet), the canal now allows the simultaneous passage of ships with up to 66 ft. draught.
The project was initially estimated to take three years, but el-Sissi ordered it completed in one.
The government says the project, funded entirely by Egyptian investors, will more than double the canal’s annual revenue to $13.2 billion by 2023, injecting much-needed foreign currency into an economy that has struggled to recover from the 2011 uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak and the years of turmoil that followed.
Economists and shippers have questioned the value of the project, saying the increased traffic and revenues the government is hoping for would require major growth in global trade, which at this point seems unlikely.
But the man-made waterway linking the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, which was inaugurated in 1869, has long been seen as a symbol of Egyptian national pride. And pro-government media have compared el-Sissi to former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose nationalization of the canal in 1956 is seen as a defiant break with the country’s colonial past.
“Egypt makes history,” read the banner headline of Thursday’s pro-government daily Al-Watan. The front page of another daily, Al-Maqal, said “Rejoice, it is worth it!”
But Thursday’s ceremony was partially overshadowed by an Islamic State affiliate’s threat to kill a Croatian hostage kidnapped in Cairo last month — a grim reminder of the threat posed by Islamic militants to Egypt’s stability.
The affiliate, calling itself the Sinai Province of the Islamic State, released a video Wednesday threatening to kill the Croatian in 48 hours if Egyptian authorities do not release “Muslim women” held in prison, a reference to female Islamists detained in the government’s broad crackdown on former President Mohammed Morsi’s supporters.
Egypt has seen a surge in attacks by Islamic militants since Morsi’s ouster, in both the restive north of the Sinai Peninsula and the mainland, focusing primarily on security forces.
The violence continued on Thursday, with militants shelling two homes near security checkpoints in northern Sinai, killing two people and wounding nine, according to Egyptian security officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Also Thursday, a soldier standing guard at a military checkpoint in northern Sinai was killed by sniper fire, the officials said.
Militants have also targeted foreign interests, including the Italian Consulate in Cairo, which was hit with a car bomb last month. That came just days after another bomb killed Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat in an upscale Cairo neighborhood.
However, Wednesday’s video was the first to be released by Islamic militants showing a kidnapped foreigner in Egypt, an ominous escalation as the country tries to rebuild its vital tourism industry. The professionally-made video resembled clips released by the IS group in Syria and Iraq, indicating closer ties with its Egyptian branch.
The government says it has taken major steps to prevent anyone from disrupting Thursday’s ceremony, and pro-government media have portrayed the canal extension itself as a victory over extremism.
“Rejoice, for it is a victory over terror,” wrote Al-Maqal’s editor Ibrahim Issa. “Rejoice, for it is a tremendous win for a country suffering from the blows of terror.”