Egypt has opened an expanded section of the Suez Canal, the shortest shipping route between Europe and Asia, with the aim of spurring economic growth in the country.
The $8bn project saw the width of the canal’s Ballah Bypass expanded from 61 metres to 312 metres over the length of 35km and will allow ships to pass on the canal in both directions, something that has previously been impossible.
The project, ordered by Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in August 2014, was accomplished in only one year, instead of the three originally planned.
"Work did not take place in normal circumstances and these circumstances still exist and we are fighting them and we will defeat them," said Sisi after signing an order allowing ships to cross the New Suez Canal.
"We promised a gift to the world and we accomplished it in record time - an additional artery for prosperity and for connecting civilization to enhance the movement of international trade."
Sisi, a former military chief who led a coup two years ago, has made the canal expansion the centrepiece of a grand plan to bring stability and prosperity to Egypt, a country tormented by years of political turmoil.
However, shipping analysts have questioned whether there would be sufficient demand for the expanded route between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean for the project to meet its ambitious economic targets.
Terrorism is also one of the major concerns regarding the safety of the ships passing through the canal.
The Suez Canal Authority expects the new canal will be making an additional $13.23bn in revenue every year by 2023. In 2014, before the expansion, the route made around $5bn, with the number of daily vessels rising from 49 to 97 over the same period.
Sluggish world trade, competition from an expanded Panama Canal and a slower Chinese economy make it unlikely the project can achieve its revenue targets any time soon or bring about a significant fall in Egypt's unemployment rate, currently 13 per cent.
The expansion of the Ballah Bypass involved extending a waterway parallel to part of the 19th-century canal, as well as deepening and widening the old channel. A new industrial zone will also be developed around the canal.
Thursday, the day of the inauguration, was declared a national holiday in Egypt. International figures including French President Francois Hollande, Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev, King Abdullah of Jordan, the emir of Kuwait and the king of Bahrain, attended the festivities.
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