The Egyptian military has significantly beefed up security along the Suez Canal in recent months, both to show it’s serious about combating terrorism along the 120-mile long waterway and to protect one of the country’s most import sources of revenues.
Still, given the rise in terrorism since the military’s violent overthrow of the Morsi regime in early July of this year, the military is stretched thin and could face renewed security challenges at the Canal from a spillover of violence from Syria or Gaza, according to speakers on today’s JOC webcast focused on the security situation at the Suez Canal. Many in the industry — especially in the container sector — were shocked by the Aug. 31 rocket-propelled grenade attack on the COSCO Asia as it passed through the canal, which damaged the ship and was captured in a widely viewed video. But at the same time, the speakers said, traffic volumes through the canal remain normal and while the risk of attacks may be higher, ship owners are not diverting vessels to other routes.
“Any disruption to the canal revenue would have a major impact on the Egyptian economy,” with revenues worth $5 billion annually to the government, said Michael Weidokal, executive director of International Strategic Analysis, a political risk consultancy. “A further deterioration of political situation in Egypt could lead to a wider destabilization of the country and this could hinder the Egyptian military’s ability to protect the canal.”
He said a big event next year will be elections, with it being “very unlikely the armed forces will accept any election results not to their liking,” which could lead to further domestic unrest. Among the challenges facing the military in protecting the canal is the Sinai peninsula, Weidokal said, which is “vital to the security of the Suez” and a “very lawless region” that is one of the poorest in Egypt and has not historically had a strong presence of Egyptian armed forces. It thus has been a breeding ground for terrorism and seen several attacks against the military and the armed forces in recent years, he said.
Weidokal said there is further concern from regional issues, given that the Sinai borders Gaza, whose Hamas-led government was close to the Morsi regime; there is a potential for further deterioration of the situation in Syria; and a regional war remains a possible scenario. He also said the spread of violence across the region since the Arab Spring has led to a proliferation of weapons that could empower terrorist groups that may seek to attack ships transiting the canal. “There are a number of conflicts, all of which could have an indirect impact on the Suez Canal,” Weidokal said.
That said, the Egyptian military is taking threats to the canal seriously, said Andrew Varney, managing director of Port2Port Maritime Security, which assists shipowners and operators in protecting vessels from piracy and other security threats. He said the head of the Suez Canal announced emergency security measures in mid-August, saying the canal would to be policed by the army, navy and air force.
With the canal being only about 300 meters or two tenths of a mile wide, there is no two-directional traffic, and ships travel by convoy. “The scheduled convoy system does make it easy to find a target and select an attack at a specific time. Specific ships can be tracked along the voyage, making them easy targets,” Varney said.
He said the military has set up security checkpoints every 20 kilometers and monitors small boat traffic. “There is great deal more use of technology, helicopters and fixed wing aircraft. This has reduced the likelihood of what you would describe as a meaningful attack,” Varney said. He added that unlike out on the open ocean, where it can be difficult for authorities to protect ships from pirates, the close-quarters environment of the Suez Canal combined with the heavy government security presence makes it easy for authorities to respond in the event of an attack or other security incident.
Varney seemed to discount the likelihood of an attack that could result in a shutdown because of the difficulty of sinking a large cargo ship using light arms. In the RPG attack on the COSCO Asia, one rocket bounced off the superstructure while another one penetrated the skin of the hull above the waterline, damaging the ship but not putting it at risk of sinking.
“It would be difficult to conduct an attack that would effectively sink a ship or block the canal,” Varney said.