Twelve major development projects, in central Sinai and Ismailia governorate, were inaugurated earlier this week by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi via video conference.
The projects include four tunnels in Ismailia and Port Said connecting Sinai with mainland Egypt; the first two phases of the three-phase New Ismailia City, a 2,828-feddan urban centre which — when complete — will accommodate up to 250,000 people; a water purification plant; fish farming and processing infrastructure; traffic axes; the floating Sarabium Bridge in Ismailia and the Ahmed Omar Shabrawi Bridge in Suez.
A picture taken on May 5, 2019, shows the road leading to the newly opened tunnel, which runs under the Suez Canal, in Ismailia city east of Cairo. (Photo: AFP)
The projects, which were begun in July 2016, are part of the overall development plan for Sinai. More than 3,000 engineers, technicians and labourers took part in their construction, at a cost of LE12 billion.
The government has earmarked LE275 billion to develop Sinai and lay the foundations for a secure future.
The inauguration of the projects coincided with the 37th anniversary of the liberation of Sinai.
“The role of the army in such projects, if any, is a supervisory and management one,” President Al-Sisi said, responding to criticism that the army is crowding out the private sector from development contracts. “We wanted a single supervisory authority to guarantee projects are finished on time,” and help solve any problems civil companies might face in their work.
“The Armed Forces supervise the systematic implementation of ideas and plans to avoid the mistakes of an ad hoc approach,” he said.
Presidential Spokesman Bassam Radi told the press the “tunnels under the Suez Canal — South Port Said, North Ismailia and North Suez — are wide enough to allow the transit of 2,000 cars per hour and transit the canal at a depth of 70 and 53 metres”.
The tunnels are a key component of plans to develop and urbanise Sinai and will link the peninsula to the rest of the country.
Currently Sinai is connected to mainland Egypt via the Al-Salam Bridge in Al-Qantara and the Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel north of Suez.
The additional links will facilitate movement in and out of Sinai and significantly shorten transit times, essential for the success of the Suez Canal Economic Zone.
Cars drive through the newly opened "Long Live Egypt” tunnel project executed under the Suez Canal in Ismailia, Egypt May 5, 2019 (Photo: Reuters)
The 60,000 sq km Sinai Peninsula has attracted little interest from local and international investors despite the huge potential it offers, says Magdi Sobhi, an economist at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. These projects will help reverse that trend.
“Development plans seek to alter the geography and demography of Sinai. The goal is to engineer an increase in the population of Sinai from 400,000 to three million within four years,” he says.
The government hopes to transform the central and northern sections of Sinai into a hub of agricultural, industrial and mining production. “The plan is easy to implement given the rich resources present in Sinai,” said Sobhi.
“Most of Sinai’s land is suitable for agriculture and the peninsula contains a wealth of mineral resources.”
Currently development is restricted to the edges of the peninsula, in the south where there are the tourist resorts of Sharm El-Sheikh, Taba, Nuweiba, Dahab, Ras Sedr on the western coast and Arish city in the north.
Tourism is one of the main sources of hard currency in the Egyptian economy, along with Suez Canal revenues, workers’ remittances, and is an important source of employment.
In 2018 the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) reported that the tourism sector contributed 11.9 per cent of Egypt’s GDP, a figure expected to grow by 5.4 per cent in 2019, and that the sector accounted for 9.5 per cent — 2.5 million — of jobs in Egypt.
Developing Sinai is essential for the security and stability of Egypt, says Nagui Shohoud of the Higher Nasser Military Academy. In the past there have been several attempts to alter the character of the peninsula, beginning with the Tripartite Aggression in 1956 and including the 1967 War between Egypt and Israel and subsequent attempts by the then Israel defence minister Moshe Dayan to secure the allegiance of Sinai’s Bedouins, and machinations by the Muslim Brotherhood to turn Sinai into an Islamic State.
While Egypt had intended to develop the peninsula since its full liberation in April 1982 somehow the plans were never implemented.
Now, almost four decades on, and following the attempt to create an Islamic state in Sinai, development is finally being accorded the priority it deserves. “Gradually,” says Shohoud, “Sinai’s isolation will end and it will be merged with the rest of Egypt’s governorates.”
According to Shohoud, it is essential the peninsula builds a comprehensive, functioning economy. “Egypt is in dire need of Sinai’s wealth of mineral deposits and crops,” he says, and the tunnels are essential to developing these resources.
The development process has been lent additional urgency by the ongoing Comprehensive Operation Sinai, the counter-terrorism campaign launched in 2018 targeting Islamist insurgents and criminal activity that undermine national security and stability.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Building Sinai