MANSHIYET RUGOLA, Egypt — Hassan can’t forget the huge dust storm.
Not the one Tuesday that grounded a massive container ship in front of this tiny hamlet on the edge of the Suez Canal. But the storm in 2004 that was so dark that “we thought it was the end of our days,” recalled the 49-year-old truck driver, dressed in a gray-colored djellaba, a loosefitting traditional garment.
Yet not a single ship got stuck in the canal that day.
“Back then we didn’t see many ships as big as this one,” said Hassan, who spoke on the condition that only his first name be used out of fear of the government security agents that have descended upon this village.
For the past six days, the ripple effects of the Ever Given, which is wedged in the canal’s eastern bank, have been felt far and wide. But right in the shadow of the grounded ship’s bow, there are effects that mirror the global ones, making the villagers, too, casualties of a booming global economy that demands monstrously large ships to feed the world’s appetites.
As the giant eyesore hovers above their houses and fields, some residents of Manshiyet Rugola and neighboring villages are angry at the disruption to their lives. Others worry the continued blockage of the canal will harm their nation and bring more economic distress. Most are just stunned that strong winds and a dust storm, the type of weather to which they are accustomed, could ground a ship and throw the world, including their small corner, into turmoil.
“This is the first time something like this has ever happened,” said Essam Mohammed Ahmed, 48, a goateed coffee shop owner in the neighboring village of Abu Aref, who has spent his whole life along the canal. “This is stopping the entire maritime activity and earnings of the canal. It’s going to affect our livelihoods. I never ever imagined this.”
On Sunday, large tugs and dredgers again attempted to dislodge the Ever Given from the sand and mud before the canal’s service provider said another effort would be made Monday evening when the tide is high. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi ordered preparations to be made for the unloading of the cargo, if necessary, to lighten the vessel and allow it to float.
Manshiyet Rugola, which means “small village of manhood” in Arabic, is a small community of farmers, drivers, laborers and blacksmiths about four miles from the canal’s southern entrance, near the city of Suez. Unpaved paths lead inside the village, past red-brick houses, some half-built. On the dust-covered main road, peppered with military checkpoints, three-wheeled motorcycle taxis cart goods past stores and coffee shops.
For decades, the Suez Canal and its blue waters have been the area’s centerpiece and a source of national pride. Before a security wall was built after the 2011 revolution that toppled Egypt’s longtime autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak, the villagers would relax along the waterway.
“I used to sit by the side of the canal before the wall was built,” recalled Mohammed Kamil, 55, a tall and heavyset businessman. “We all love the canal.”
First opened in 1869, the Suez Canal has had brief interruptions due to politics and war: between 1957 and 1958, when Egypt’s Pan-Arab President Gamel Abdel Nasser nationalized the vital global portal; and during the two Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973. But most villagers interviewed say they can’t remember any major blockages of the canal in their lifetimes.
“For two days or so, at the most,” Hassan said.
Today, there is an uncomfortable tension in the village. Security agents on Sunday instructed residents not to speak with foreigners and warned them not to get close to the grounded vessel.
“You can’t go to the ship,” said Hamdi, 22, Hassan’s relative, who also gave only his first name.
“You can’t even go to the roof of a house and look at it,” Hassan said.
The conversations in the villages along the canal revolve around the Ever Given, which is visible even from portions of the main road. In coffee shops and shisha cafes, youths exchange jokes about the beached ship or laugh at memes posted on social media, like anywhere else in the world.
Most conversations about the ship are serious.
The Suez Canal Authority and the government have invested some of the canal’s revenue, a major source of Egypt’s foreign currency reserves, in hospitals and schools in the area, residents said. The longer the crisis, the greater chance there will be less money for roads and other infrastructure, said a worried Ahmed, the coffee shop owner. “For six days now, not a single dollar has entered Egypt’s coffers from the canal.”
Kamil, who transports fish in his boats, said some of his friends’ livelihoods already have been affected by the logjam. “They supply food and laundry services to the ships, but right now no ships are coming or going,” he said.
Ahmed hopes the government will learn from the crisis. Sissi, he noted, spent $8 billion to widen parts of the canal in 2015, but not the part where the Ever Given got stuck. “This is an indication to the authorities that they should expand the canal on this side,” Ahmed said.
The two villagers, like many other residents, are divided on whether a strong wind during a dust storm caused the Ever Given’s mishap.
Ahmed believes the wind could not have swung a 200,000-ton cargo carrier into the canal’s banks. “We’ve had strong winds before, but nothing like this has ever happened,” he said. “Perhaps it had technical difficulties.”
Kamil believes the erratic weather was the culprit largely for reasons of patriotism and pride. “We trust our canal pilots,” he said.
Most residents can’t wait to see the Ever Given disappear. It has become a constant reminder of the possible economic calamity for their country, already reeling from lost income because of the coronavirus pandemic and dwindling numbers of tourists.
“When I see the ship, I see missing income for the country,” said Osman Sayed Mustafa, 59, a paramedic. “I want the problem to be solved for the sake of the country’s economy.
“Every day I pray to God to fix the ship quickly so that the waterway is clear again.”