The inhabitants of Sinai have paid a high price for the decades of neglect that followed the peninsula’s return to Egypt in the early 1980s.
The ensuing poverty, combined with the tense security situation along the border, shaped an environment conducive to the growth of illicit trade, drug trafficking and smuggling through the Sinai-Gaza tunnels, and to the rise of terrorism.
The anarchy that prevailed in Sinai following the 25 January 2011 Revolution, and which grew after the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in 2012, combined with the spread of terrorism across the region to threaten the foundations of the Egyptian state.
Development in Sinai has been a priority of the government since the 30 June Revolution and on 25 February this year President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi announced that the government had earmarked LE275 billion to tackle problems in Sinai and lay the foundations for a secure future.
Developing Sinai necessarily relies on the involvement of both the army and civil society. The two are integrated in a comprehensive framework the backbone of which is Egypt’s military establishment.
In a recent seminar on Sinai development Ibrahim Mehleb, assistant to the president for national projects, used the term “development brigades” to characterise the concept of civilian-military integration in this process. These brigades, he said, will rebuild Sinai in tandem with military operations to rid the peninsula of terrorism.
According to Mohamed Farahat, of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, the role of the army follows that of the government which formulates the vision for comprehensive development, does the planning and then entrusts the army with the task of supervising and carrying out the plans.
However, he stressed, the army does not do this alone. It relies for the most part on civil society. Nor is the development of Sinai profit-based.
The majority of projects concern infrastructure and do not yield direct economic returns for the state.
General Mohamed Qashqoush, professor of military strategy and national security at the Higher Nasser Military Academy, says five points must be borne in mind with regard to the developmental role of the Armed Forces in Sinai.
First, General Qashqoush said, the Egyptian experience of military involvement in development efforts is not unique. Many other countries have stories of their own to relate in this regard.
The website of the US Army Corps of Engineers points out that in 1802 the US army established the corps “as a separate, permanent branch and gave the engineers responsibility for founding and operating the US Military Academy at West Point.
Since then the US Army Corps of Engineers has responded to changing defence requirements and played an integral part in the development of the country.”
The corps is currently staffed by 37,000 soldiers and civilians and offers engineering services to clients in more than 130 countries. In the last century it built coastal fortifications, laid out roads and canals, cleared waterways and constructed buildings and monuments in Washington.
It currently owns and operates more than 600 dams and safeguards 12,000 miles of domestic commercial and navigation canals.
It is also responsible for maintaining 926 ports on the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards, the Great Lakes and major river systems, and owns and operates 24 per cent of US hydroelectric plants, or about three per cent of the electricity consumed in the US.
It is also one of the foremost recreational service providers in the country, with more than 400 projects spread across 43 states.
Second, pointed out General Qashqoush, the Armed Forces’ participation in the development process does nothing to detract from its core defence functions and combat efficiency.
Instead, it contributes added value at the logistical level while putting to work surplus recruitment and the army’s diverse specialised expertise.
Testimony to the quality of this expertise, said General Qashqoush, is to be found in the annual assessments by international military rating organisation such as IISS, Global Firepower and Sipri, all of which give high ratings to the army’s capabilities in the fight against terrorism (as exhibited in the Eagle, Martyr’s Right and COS 2018 operations).
In the meantime General Qashqoush pointed out, the army’s contribution to development efforts eases pressure on the national budget since such economic activity produces a surplus that supports the military.
Nor does this lessen opportunities for civil society. The Engineering Authority essentially supervises the process and relies on civil society organisations and local companies to carry out the required projects, said Qashqoush.
Of course, the companies and organisations engaged need to meet certain requirements and they are carefully screened. This works to stimulate the private sector, rather than the reverse.
To illustrate, Qashqoush cites the Serapeum and Muhassama culverts project, the largest ever hydraulic project to transport water into Sinai through a system of ducts that pass below the Suez Canal.
This mega-irrigation project aims to put 100,000 of acres of land in Sinai under cultivation, requiring the construction of an infrastructure capable of daily pumping 1.4 million cubic metres of water to the peninsula.
According to Ahmed Saad Zaghloul of the Concord Company for Engineering and Contracting, one of three Egyptian firms engaged in the project under the supervision of the Engineering Authority, a permanent staff of 600 specialists and technicians is directly engaged on the project while hundreds of other Egyptian civilian specialists are brought on board for varying periods of time.
He says the Armed Forces have greatly facilitated the contactors’ transportation and security needs so as to accelerate the implementation of the project.
According to Qashqoush, a third point that needs to be considered in relation to development and national security priorities is the way such projects link Sinai to the Nile Valley.
In the past, he said, the Al-Salam Bridge and Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel provided linkage but now the aim is to make Sinai a natural extension of the Egyptian mainland instead of a more or less remote peninsula.
In the seminar Mahlab stressed the same principle. In planning the development of Sinai, he said, account must always be taken of security considerations which is why it is important for the army to be closely involved.
Fayez Farahat, a specialist in Asian affairs, recalls the crucial role armies played in the development of Asian countries.
“I’m convinced that now is the right time to forge the concept of the development state in Egypt, as it was done in many Asiatic states, particularly South Korea. The idea, in essence, is based on the existence of strong state institutions which cooperate in the production of ideas, planning, utilisation and development of technologies, and funding the development process within a comprehensive framework.”
As for the role of the army in the development state, Farahat says “it supervises the systematic implementation of ideas and plans to avoid the mistakes of an ad hoc approach.”
“We thus have a triangular relationship: the developmental state that thinks and designs, the army that supervises and manages the task of translating these plans into action, and the civilian sector that does the implementing under the oversight of the state and the supervision of the army which enjoys the benefits of cumulative expertise and essential qualities such as discipline and commitment to high performance.”
The fourth factor is the involvement of other institutions in the process, including the Administrative Control Authority (ACA). Citing figures from an ACA report on projects being carried out by the government, ACA Director Mohamed Irfan said the ACA reviewed a total of 1,637 projects being carried out across the country, including 120 being readied for the president to inaugurate them.
He said of these 120 projects the ACA had authorised the inauguration of 96 and deferred the opening of 24 until they meet with the recommendations of the approval committee.
The last factor to consider is the holistic nature of the development process.
Comprehensive development is about more than urban planning and expansion. In addition to conventional urban development and the economic and security dimensions of projects, education, health and culture must also be factored in.
As far as education is concerned, the government has constructed 47 new schools, an Al-Azhar affiliated academy, 400 classrooms and established vocational training centres.
The East Suez Command has opened 187 literacy classes, accommodating 1,650 students in the East Qantara Zone, a project that is being carried out in collaboration with the General Authority for Literacy and Adult Education.
With regard to health, the army has overseen the construction of four new central hospitals and the upgrading of eight health centres and a central hospital in Arish and Sheikh Zuweid.
It has renovated 10 emergency care centres and constructed four new ones, and built pharmaceutical repositories in Arish.
The army is also closely involved in agricultural development and land reclamation. A total of 13,680 acres have been reclaimed and made ready for cultivation in Bir Al-Abd and 350 greenhouses have been made available to Bedouin farmers in North Sinai.
In Bir Al-Abd, Al-Ahram Weekly met with Mohamed Hamad, a young farmer who received one of the greenhouses from the army.
He said that the greenhouse had helped him expand his cultivation of vegetables, most of which serve the Bir Al-Abd area although he also exports some to the market in Arish.
The army has dug 27 new wells in Rafah and built a desalinisation plant in Tor. A seawater filtration plant is under construction in New Ismailia and work is in progress to expand the Arish water station.
As far as industry is concerned, the infrastructure — water, sewerage, electricity, lighting and roads — is now complete for new industrial zones in Bir Al-Abd and Central Sinai.
Still in the planning stage are 10 factories to process marble in Sidr Al-Hitan and Abu Zeneima which are being developed alongside private sector investors.
Major and subsidiary projects
A training centre has been constructed to supply manpower equipped with fish farming skills and know-how. Other integrated subsidiary projects are a fish feed centre and the fish sorting and packaging centre.
In addition, there are administrative and residential zones to serve the project, eight small electricity generating station, and 18 irrigation pumping stations for the branch canals.
These include the Nasr floating bridge linking the banks of the Suez Canal between Port Said and Port Fouad.
The purpose of this project, the first floating bridge of its kind, is to facilitate the transportation needs of the residents of these twin cities.
It was constructed by the Armed Forces Engineering Authority in collaboration with civil firms operated by the Suez Canal Authority.
The Port Said Arsenal is responsible for operating and maintaining the bridge as well as the maintenance of auxiliary roads and anchorage points.
The cultural dimension
In addition to the construction of three public libraries and three cultural palaces, a cultural entertainment centre in Port Said is being developed the purpose of which is to promote cultural awareness among the residents of Port Said.
The complex features assembly rooms, theatres and other entertainment facilities. The Bedouin Home is a project which focuses on the culture of indigenous Sinai tribes.
The Salam Misr City model
New Ismailia, New Rafah and other new cities under construction in Sinai will form the hub of a major societal re-engineering in Sinai.
They are examples of the determination to end ad hoc development and the random sprawl that has characterised urban expansion.
The Salam Misr City project, the foundation stone of which was laid in March 2018, offers a model that adds an important economic horizon.
Salam Misr is destined to become the new economic capital east of Port Said and will play a pivotal role in weaving Sinai into the larger Egyptian national fabric and making it more attractive to investors at home and abroad. In the process, it will strengthen the security of Egypt’s eastern boundaries.
During the inauguration of the Salam Misr City project Port Said’s governor said the city would be a pioneering smart village that relies on state-of-the-art technologies.
He said the government, when planning the model city, focused on developing incentives for living there and making life attractive for prospective inhabitants: attractive housing, economic and social incentives and the presence of schools and universities all meeting the latest global standards in concept and design.
In addition, he said, the governorate capital will be transformed into a free zone with economic laws and regulations tailored to furnish an environment conducive to business and to promoting the advancement of the local community.
An international airport, a commercial seaport, hospitals and other essential facilities are slated for construction.
In addition, LE17 billion have been earmarked for investment in mineral resource development and another LE5 billion for investment in tourism. The target is to create 37,000 new job opportunities.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Multi-pronged development