Plan to bring back Suez Canal statue prompts debate in Egypt

A proposal to bring back the statue of a French diplomat behind the idea to build the Suez Canal has caused controversy in Egypt.

Many have said the move would be a salute to colonial times and a “humiliation” to the memory of tens of thousands of Egyptian labourers who died building the waterway in the 1860s.

The debate started when the el-Shorouk newspaper reported last month that local authorities in the Mediterranean province of Port Said were thinking of returning the statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps to where it once stood, at the northern entrance of the canal.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>Ferdinand de Lesseps who was behind the construction of Egypt’s Suez Canal (AP/Jim Pringle, File)</figcaption>
Ferdinand de Lesseps who was behind the construction of Egypt’s Suez Canal (AP/Jim Pringle, File)

De Lesseps, who came to Cairo in 1833 as a consul and was later posted to Alexandria, had been inspired by the idea of joining the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. He persuaded the Ottoman governor of Egypt to build the canal and in 1859, he symbolically swung a pick-axe to launch the construction, which took 10 years. The canal was officially opened on November 17, 1869.

A 33-foot bronze statue of de Lesseps by French sculptor Emmanuel Fremiet, was erected in November 1899 at Port Said, showing the diplomat with his right hand extended to welcome visitors entering the Suez Canal and his left hand holding a map of the canal.

The statue was destroyed by Egyptian fighters amid the 1956 Mideast War, when Israeli forces pushed into Egypt toward the Suez Canal after Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the canal. It was later restored by the Paris-based Association des Amis du Canal de Suez, and is now housed in a shipyard in Port Fouad. The Egyptian government registered the statue as an artefact in 2019.

The el-Shorouk report said that along with the return of the de Lesseps statue, another statue would be erected next to it, showing an Egyptian farmer, symbolising the workers who had dug the canal.

A local official in Port Said told The Associated Press that no decision has yet been made and that more “public debate” is needed before the statue can be returned.

MP Mustafa Bakry condemned the proposal. Abdallah el-Senawy, a columnist for el-Shorouk, said the deaths of forced labourers during the canal’s construction was a “racist crime that requires accountability, condemnation, and an apology”.

Hundreds of thousands of Egyptian peasants were drafted into low-wage digging work with hand tools and tens of thousands died before the practice was banned and steam-powered excavators took their place.