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Egypt's Sinai: Development versus security

The chronic problems dogging Sinai cannot be solved overnight via military operations. Egypt's current security approach to the restive peninsula must be accompanied by political and social action

Waheed Abdel-Meguid , Thursday 30 Aug 2012
Development versus security
File photo: Wahid Abdel-Maguid (Photo: Al-Ahram)
Views: 2334
Views: 2334

Every military or security action has a specific timeframe and deadline, whether long or short. Political and social action, on the other hand, is open-ended.

Therefore, it is unrealistic to rely on a military or security operation to solve a problem that accumulated and proliferated over long years, if it is not followed by political and social action based on a clear vision rooted in an appropriate approach aiming at achieving specific goals. This logic applies to 'Operation Eagle,' which followed the terrorist attack on Egypt’s border on 5 August, and is also true of any situation that requires this type of operation.

Those carrying out the military-security operation targeting an extremist group or outlaws must kill some of their targets and arrest others, destroy their hideouts and equipment, put them under siege for some time, and weaken their field capabilities. But in order to obliterate these groups altogether, systematic political and social action is needed to dry up their resources in the surrounding environment. In this manner, they would be deprived of the ability to function.

The relationship between any outlawed armed group and its surrounding environment is key in the sustainability of the group; it is their oxygen to survive. Therefore, it would be impossible to extinguish any target group as long as the components of their existence continue. The bigger the problems suffered by areas where these groups thrive, the harder it is to eliminate them and the more they are able to resist any attacks against them.

This explains why extremist groups continue to thrive in Sinai despite severe blows against them since they emerged there between 2004 and 2006 when they carried out a variety of terrorist operations, most prominently in Taba on 6 October, 2004; Sharm El-Sheikh on 23 July, 2005; and Dahab on 24 October, 2006.

These groups that combine jihadist-Salafist tendencies and sometimes label society as 'infidel' organise under many names – most prominently Al-Tawheed wal Jihad – were dealt strong blows by Egyptian security forces. But these blows were often blind and sometimes included organised collective punishment, which in turn created new fertile ground for extremism instead of drying up existing ones as a result of sweeping random arrests and the brutal torture of many detainees. There was also an ignorance of tribal and clan traditions, whether in dealing with elders or sages, and not taking into consideration traditional social status.

This increased latent anger among the people of Sinai because of corrupt policies towards them since their land was liberated and restored to the control of the homeland in 1982. They did not find comfort in the arms of their motherland and were treated like second-class citizens – even third-class citizens – because most Egyptians did not treat them as full-fledged compatriots under the previous regime. Until today, our brethren in Sinai are denied basic and indigenous rights, such as the right to register land and property they own and thus remain without any legal guarantees. They are also denied work at sensitive state institutions and are not allowed to attend military schools.

These are a few examples of many violations of the rights of our brethren in Sinai that are compounded by the severe neglect they continue to suffer in terms of development, despite the creation of several committees for the development of Sinai and several initiatives to this effect. This is why Egypt's new cabinet moved quickly recently to revive what is known as the Sinai Development Authority (SDA) – which we knew little about because of the same attitude that made resolving Sinai’s problems more of a banner raised during times of serious crisis but later swept under the rug.

Statements by the head of the SDA are not reassuring either, because he talks as if it were a military agency not a development one by focusing on cleansing Sinai of terrorists. He did not tell us when the SDA would begin its development role.

So far, there is no sign that Sinai policies have really changed or that 'Operation Eagle' will be the end of efforts to combat terrorism there. Or that perhaps it is only the beginning of serious and thorough political and social action that begins by addressing major structural problems, most prominently the issue of land ownership, and daily problems such as lack of potable water in many towns and villages which forces residents to buy drinking water from vendors.

Just as important is compensating them for arrests and torture by State Security for years before the revolution without any charges, and apologising to them and to the families of those who died in detention. It may also require the interior ministry to stop dealing with Sinai because its pre-revolution practices made the problem worse and created an environment conducive to extremism. Its role should at a minimum be curtailed, but this cannot be accomplished without keeping military forces that recently entered Zone B as part of 'Operation Eagle' in place and even increasing their numbers and sending an adequate military force there.

More important than all this is to immediately embark on serious work to overhaul the SDA and inject it with patriotic political figures and economy and human rights experts to begin urgent services that are decades late. This in addition to drawing up the necessary development plans to change the social environment that has become a breeding ground for extremism and terrorism.

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