Toll revenues for Egypt's Suez Canal have fallen so far this year compared to last, dampening hopes that a newly built parallel waterway will boost the economy in the immediate future.
While the canal's much-hyped extension was one of the mega-projects President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi said will help spur an economic turnaround, even the two months since its August 6 opening have brought in weaker revenues than the same months last year.
Authorities have claimed the extension would more than double canal income in the next seven years.
Data released on Monday by canal authorities show that revenue fell some US$13 million on the month to $448.8 million in September, putting the year-to-date toll income at $3.9 billion. That compares to $469.8 million in September of last year, when year-to-date toll income stood at $4.1 billion. August 2015 revenues stood at $462.1 million, compared to $510 million in August 2014.
The government says the $8.5 billion project, funded entirely by Egyptians, will boost the canal's currency in an economy that has been making a gradual recovery from the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Economists and shippers, however, have questioned its value, saying the increased traffic and revenues the government is hoping for would require a major acceleration in global trade that seems unlikely.
Last month, the World Trade Organization cut its forecast for global trade in 2015 by half a percentage point, saying world exports and imports should now rise by only 2.8 percent this year, down from a previous forecast of 3.3 percent.
It cited slumping imports in China, currency market swings, falling commodities prices, volatile financial markets and US monetary policy as clouding the outlook. Trade between Asia and Europe and the United States is the key driver of traffic through the Suez Canal.
"I think that with the expansion we should in time see a pick up through the canal and revenues derived from that," said emerging markets economist William Jackson, with Capital Economics in London. "But I think that the targets put forward by the authorities look overly optimistic " they were based on much more upbeat trade forecasts."
"The trade numbers so far this year have been abysmal," he said, adding: "Unless the canal secures a much larger share of world trade, we don't see revenues increasing by as much as the government hopes."
At the canal's opening, Sisi appeared to acknowledge that the project would not yield an immediate windfall, saying it was also meant to reassure his countrymen and the world that Egyptians "are still capable" of great accomplishments.
The man-made waterway linking the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, which was inaugurated in 1869, has long been a symbol of Egyptian national pride, and both state and private media have used it to boost the prestige of Sisi, who has staked his legitimacy on stabilizing the country and reviving the economy.
Canal revenues have become all the more important in recent months because they are a main source of foreign currency. Egypt's foreign currency reserves are steadily dropping and in September fell 9.7 percent to $16.3 billion, at a time when billions of dollars in aid and loans from Gulf Arab nations have started to dry up. Authorities recently devalued the currency twice.
While Egypt's government is trying to send the message that the country is open for business, authorities admit foreign direct investment is not growing as fast as hoped and investors still complain of bureaucratic hurdles, opaque institutions and red tape.