Egypt’s military-led government said Sunday that it would put 19 Americans and two dozen others on trial in a politically charged criminal investigation into the foreign financing of nonprofit groups that has shaken the 30-year alliance between the United States and Egypt.
All of the hub-bub about Iran closing the Straits of Hormuz and the effect on oil prices is a day at the park compared to the possibility of the Suez Canal shutting down. Unlike the Straits of Hormuz, forcing a passage is quite literally impossible – it would take substantial ground forces to secure it before ships could go through again. A potential Canal showdown is still a ways in the future and the unrest there hasn’t directly effected the military ties between the US and Egypt so far. The decades-long alliance is showing signs of cracks though.
Because of the widespread political and economic implications of a Canal shutdown, it’s unlikely that Egypt would outright close the Canal – 3% of the nation’s GDP comes just from the traffic through it. That said, any major political conflict between the US and Egypt could make transit of the Canal by US warships unfeasible from the standpoint of force protection – we rely extensively on Egyptian military support for safe passage through the canal. If there was significant anti-US sentiment in Egypt coupled with a distrust of the Egyptian military, US commanders might not be willing to risk the passage.
If US warships can’t transit the canal, we can still get ships to the Persian Gulf – but ships from the East Coast have to go the long way around the Cape of Good Hope or go the even longer route through the Pacific. More significantly, it means that ships in 6th Fleet (the Mediterranean) and ships in 5th Fleet (the Middle East) can’t double as a strategic reserve for the other fleet. When the conflict in Libya broke out, ships that were tasked for missions in the Middle East were (relatively) easily moved from one theater to the other. Vice versa, if a conflict with Iran broke out, ships in the Med would be flexed to support operations there. Any interruption in our ability to safely transit the canal makes that sort of move impossible.
Syria is much more LIKELY to boil over into a crisis (if you don’t think it already has). But the political unrest in Egypt should be far more worrying from a US standpoint.