The strange case of the Emma Maersk

Rebel Economy yesterday noted a story that had recently popped up on my radar as well: the strange stranding of an enormous cargo ship at the northern mouth of the Suez Canal.

The Emma Maersk, which is currently sitting at the Suez Canal Container Terminal, took on water in its engine room after a stern thruster malfunctioned on February 1, four days after the army was called out to enforce emergency law along the canal following street battles in nearby Port Said.

According to the Maersk line, several propeller blades in the thruster broke off, and the mounting itself suffered damage, tearing a hole in the tunnel housing the thruster and allowing water to rush in.

There is an air of suspicion around the incident: The ship has only been in service since 2006, has never suffered any thruster issues, and Maersk's head of ship management ruled out human error. Yet even if the Emma's malfunction is determined to be an accident, its stranding highlights the canal's precarious position as one of Egypt's crucial remaining profit machines in the midst of a near economic collapse.

Stern thrusters are mounted inside tunnels alongside the sides of large ships to propel them side to side more easily, without using forward momentum. For obvious reasons, they are used extensively in docking operations. In my uninformed opinion, they seem difficult to sabotage and probably could not be damaged with some kind of easily deployed, stationary, underwater prop fouler. It's hard to see how the Emma's thruster could have been so severely damaged by someone outside the ship as it began its journey south through the canal, barring some kind of sophisticated attack by divers (which of course, isn't unknown).

Some have raised potential motives for sabotage. A friend of mine from Port Said suggested that the economic pressure on the state posed by a stranded ship blocking the canal would have been massive - perhaps fatal for Morsi's administration, or at the very least useful leverage for those who control and operate the canal, i.e. the military and its old regime co-conspirators. But the Emma's damage never came close to sinking or foundering the ship, and who's to say how that kind of incident might have backfired. If there was sabotage, it seems likely it was internal.

Regardless, the Emma Maersk incident comes at a crucial time for the canal. In the days after the Port Said battles, which left more than 50 people dead, Admiral Mohab Mameesh, the chairman of the Suez Canal Authority, conducted two brief, impromptu trips on vessels passing through the canal to reassure skittish shippers that the waterway was "100% safe", despite President Mohamed Morsi's declaration of a state of emergency along its entire length.

Egypt earns roughly $5 billion, or two percent of national income, from the canal every year, but with investment and production almost universally down since the revolution, the state wants more. The government raised tolls for ships passing through the canal by between 2 and 5 percent in 2012 and will do so again this May.

Those hikes have irked lobbying groups like the International Chamber of Shipping, which complained that the market for cargo is bad enough as it is. Secretary General Peter Hinchliffe has said that the toll rise might spur shippers who are already considering travel around the Cape of Good Hope, made less expensive by steaming more slowly, to ditch the canal.

"Hinchcliffe added that the ICS was particularly disappointed by the 'lack of consultation' that preceded these increases," TradeWinds reported.

The Emma Maersk incident cannot have done anything to improve sentiment among global shippers, coming as it did during a semi-insurrection at the mouth of the canal that revealed how little Morsi's administration exerted control outside of Cairo. The Emma will face months out of service, and its cargo - weeks behind schedule - is just now being transferred to another Maersk ship, setbacks well noted by insurers and shippers.

The threat to favor the Cape over the Suez could be hot air, but the canal zone has certainly suffered a hit to its business reputation. It need not be sabotage to damage the Egyptian economy.