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NEW YORK — The 120-mile- (193km-) long artificial waterway known as the Suez Canal has been a potential flashpoint for geopolitical conflict since it opened in 1869.rr
Now the canal, a vital international shipping passage, is in the news for a different reason: A quarter-mile- (0.4km-) long, Japanese-owned container ship en route from China to Europe has been grounded in the canal for days, blocking more than 100 vessels and sending tremors through the world of maritime commerce.rr
Here are some basics on the history of the canal, how it operates, how the vessel got stuck and what it means.rr
Q: Where is the Suez Canal?rr
A: The canal is in Egypt, connecting Port Said on the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean via the southern Egyptian city of Suez on the Red Sea. The passage enables more direct shipping between Europe and Asia, eliminating the need to circumnavigate Africa and cutting voyage times by days or weeks.rr
The canal is the world’s longest without locks, which connect bodies of water at differing altitudes. With no locks to interrupt traffic, the transit time from end to end averages about 13 to 15 hours, according to a description of the canal by GlobalSecurity.org.rr
Q: Who built the Suez Canal and when?rr
A: The canal, originally owned by French investors, was conceived when Egypt was under the control of the Ottoman Empire in the mid-19th century. Construction began at the Port Said end in early 1859, the excavation took 10 years, and the project required an estimated 1.5 million workers.rr
According to the Suez Canal Authority, the Egyptian government agency that operates the waterway, 20,000 peasants were drafted every 10 months to help construct the project with “excruciating and poorly compensated labour.” Many workers died of cholera and other diseases.rr
Political tumult in Egypt against the colonial powers of Britain and France slowed progress on the canal, and the final cost was roughly double the initial US$50 million (S$67.4 million) projected.rr
Q: Which country controls the canal now?rr
A: The British powers that controlled the canal through the first two world wars withdrew forces there in 1956 after years of negotiations with Egypt, effectively relinquishing authority to the Egyptian government led by President Gamal Abdel Nasser.rr
Q: What was the ‘Suez Crisis’ that nearly led to war?rr
A: The crisis began in 1956 when Egypt’s president nationalised the canal after the British had departed. He took other steps that were deemed security threats by Israel and its Western allies, leading to a military intervention by Israeli, British and French forces.rr
The crisis briefly closed the canal and raised the risk of entangling the Soviet Union and the United States. It ended in early 1957 under an agreement supervised by the United Nations, which sent its first peacekeeping force to the area. The outcome was seen as a triumph for Egyptian nationalism, but its legacy was an undercurrent in the Cold War.