Egypt plans to build a new Suez Canal alongside the existing 145-year-old historic waterway in a multi-billion dollar project aimed at expanding trade along the fastest shipping route between Europe and Asia.
The Suez Canal earns Egypt about US$5 billion a year in revenues, a vital source of hard currency for a country that has suffered a slump in tourism and foreign investment since the 2011 uprising.
The new channel, part of a larger project to expand the Suez port and shipping facilities, aims to raise Egypt's international profile and establish it as a major trade hub. "This giant project will be the creation of a new Suez Canal parallel to the current channel of a total length of 72 kilometres," Mohab Mamish, chairman of the Suez Canal Authority, said during a conference in Ismailia, which is a port town on the canal. He said the total estimated cost of drilling the new channel would be about US$4 billion and be completed in five years, though Egypt would strive to finish it within a more ambitious three-year deadline.
The original canal, which links the Mediterranean and Red Seas, took 10 years of intense and generally poorly paid work by Egyptians, who according to the Canal Authority, were drafted at the rate of 20,000 every 10 months from "the peasantry".
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, a former army chief, said the armed forces would be in charge of the new project for security reasons.
Up to 20 Egyptian firms could be involved in the project but would work under military supervision, he said.
Last year, Sisi orchestrated the ousting of elected Islamist President Mohammed Mursi and oversaw a massive crackdown on Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood.
This was followed by a rise in violence from Islamist militants based in the Sinai peninsula, which has stoked some concern about the security of the nearby Suez Canal.
The government has since been fighting militants in an ongoing military campaign in which hundreds have died on both sides.
Any disruption to shipping along the canal tends to have a serious impact on trade and oil prices.