For the sake of immediate necessity, focus is entirely dedicated to security measures. Soon development is forgotten, every time, only for debate to be revived once again when the next terrorist attack occurs. It is not a matter of lack of studies on developing Sinai, but rather the lack of political will and confusion and indecision about resolving issues pertaining to land ownership and projects in this governorate for which we have often sung but never enriched or allowed it to make Egypt richer, despite its vast natural resources.
Although I personally have written a lot about this issue, I feel compelled to write about this issue again with some new and old ideas since it is vital to insist on developing Sinai at this critical moment in Egypt’s history.
Ironically, national security considerations and the military nature of Sinai were always used to disrupt development in this governorate that borders occupied Palestine. But to the contrary, comprehensive development and multiplying the size of Sinai’s population are a key line of defence and most effective, whether to confront any Zionist assault, or radical, violent and terrorist forces.
Naturally, increasing the size of the population would primarily rely on relocating a sizeable portion of the population from the Nile Valley, Delta and Suez Canal governorates to Sinai. The size of the population in North and South Sinai (including those originally from other governorates who are working in Sinai) is less than 600,000 people, or less than 0.7 per cent of Egypt’s population, and it has a population density of less than 10 people per square kilometre.
First, one must realise that developing Sinai does not mean it has the lowest development rates in the country; it is bad just about everywhere else too. The need to focus on Sinai is not because it was handled unjustly, but because of the importance of guarding it through development in the face of influences from occupied Palestine and the Zionist entity. The importance of continuously increasing its population is a complementary means of strategic defence.
Sinai, like other border governorates, has the least — or at worst moderate — poverty compared to other parts of the country. Before the January 25 Revolution, South Sinai governorate was free of poverty in 2008/2009, according to figures from the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS). In 2010/2011, however, seven per cent of its population was poor after a severe drop in tourism revenues — the main source of income there — after the revolution.
Meanwhile, the rate of poverty in North Sinai dropped from 28 per cent in 2008/2009 to 21 per cent in 2010/2011. But this is not linked to progress in economic and development, but rather the large revenue from illegal activities such as growing and smuggling drugs, arms smuggling and trafficking in subsidised goods. Poverty has made a comeback in North Sinai after the destruction of a large number of smuggling tunnels, drying up this illegal income.
In the absence of firm military and security control resulting from the bad terms that violate national independence and sovereignty in the Camp David Accords (1978) and Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty (1979), Sinai became a hotbed for drug smuggling from the Zionist entity and Gaza to Egypt. In the opposite direction was weapons trafficking and smuggling subsidised or stolen goods from Egypt to Gaza. This situation requires Egypt to renegotiate the unfair terms of the peace treaty with the Zionist entity that Sadat signed and Mubarak did not alter when he had an opportunity to do so a quarter of a century after it was signed.
The closing of border crossings between Egypt and Gaza for long periods under Mubarak’s regime, which choked the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip, triggered the growth of a large volume of illegal trade through “secret” tunnels between Sinai and the Gaza Strip. This produced a class of siege profiteers in Sinai and Gaza who smuggled various goods, including some subsidised by Egyptian public funds, to Gaza where the Palestinian people do not benefit from this subsidy that is stolen from the Egyptian people. Instead, they are grabbed by Egyptian smugglers and their counterparts in Gaza, who trade in the livelihood of the people in the Gaza Strip, and are also partners in drug and weapons trade. The border crossings between Egypt and Gaza must always remain open to legal trading and the passage of people in compliance with Egypt’s visa regulations.
The rise or decline in poverty is linked to several factors, most important is combating unemployment and raising the standard of labour. Whenever there are employment opportunities for those within the labour age, they have a chance to earn their living with dignity and remove themselves and their families from the cycle of poverty.
In 2013, some 21,200 were unemployed in North Sinai, compared to 10,900 in 2011. The unemployment rate was 15.7 per cent in 2013 compared to 9.2 per cent in 2011. The number of unemployed in South Sinai was 6,500 in 2013 compared to 5,900 in 2011, or 9.9 per cent unemployment rate in 2013 compared to 8.7 per cent in 2011. While the unemployment rate in South Sinai is higher than the general rate in Egypt, the rate in North Sinai — which for a long time was the lowest in the country — has become one of the highest. This drop in employment is due to loss of jobs in the black economy of smuggling and illegal tunnel trade after the state took better control of the border and destroyed smuggling tunnels. But this was not accompanied by effective development in legitimate economics to create alternative employment. If this is the general picture, how can Sinai be developed to safeguard it against both terrorists and Zionists?
Developing Sinai: A mechanism for strategic defence
The state was distracted from development in Sinai because it was preoccupied with combating terrorism that had grown and expanded during the one year tenure of deposed president Mohamed Morsi, who had released many terrorists and murderers from jail. He also cancelled the visa requirement between Egypt and the Gaza Strip for a short period, which allowed many terrorists to enter Egypt across the border and through the tunnels.
The Egyptian army has a critical and vital role in developing Sinai, since any development operations in the Sinai Peninsula must be mindful of military considerations because it is a possible zone of operations. Thus, development there should only be carried out by Egyptian hands, minds and funds, and the Egyptian Armed Forces must have veto power over any civilian economic operations there. Meanwhile, a key portion of development projects in Sinai must be done through state companies in more military sensitive areas in Sinai.
Since we are talking about a border governorate between Egypt and its main enemy, the Zionist state, which it battled in five wars (1948, 1956, 1967, the War of Attrition, and 1973), economic development and population resettlement in Sinai are a key mechanism to defend the peninsula. These then become a national requirement and duty. It is also a developmental necessity and the right of Sinai natives from their state and country to benefit from Sinai’s immense natural resources, such as ore minerals, quarries, agricultural land, fisheries, water distilleries, and manufacturing in all fields, especially quarry products and agro-industry, by tapping into Sinai’s agricultural potential.
Terrorist operations in Sinai worsened after Morsi’s ouster, which confirms his links, and the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood, to these operations. This was revealed in the declaration by leading Brotherhood figure Mohamed El-Beltagy, who said that these attacks would stop as soon as Morsi is restored to power. This clearly means that they are under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood and deposed president, and terrorism would stop or go on as per their orders.
Developing Sinai should not be viewed through the prism of dealing with terrorism and smuggling, but rather building the state and national integrity. This means the right of every citizen to participate in development, and the right of the nation to redistribute the population by extending development to new regions that may require large segments of the population in over-populated areas to relocate to sparsely populated areas where there are many development opportunities. This logic in developing Sinai and all corners of Egypt would make Sinai a strong and mighty line of defence in confronting the Zionist entity.
The pattern of investment in Sinai since its return as a quasi-demilitarised region — making it impossible as a line of defence — created investments that are prize targets for the Zionist army to easily destroy in any battle and inflict serious economic loss for Egypt. This does not mean the superiority of the Zionist army, but rather bad and random patterns of investment in Sinai that mainly rely on tourist resorts that are easy targets for any attack to destroy huge projects and the mountains of money spent on them. In fact, mere military and security tension in Sinai would wipe out tourism there, since tourism is one of the most sensitive economic activities to security and stability and can be seriously negatively affected if there is any tension or conflict.
The pattern of investing in Sinai also relied on large enterprises in the quarry industry, such as cement production, which give any hostile force valuable and open targets if conflict arises. The peninsula is also connected to the mainland via a bridge in the open that is also an easy target for any enemies targeting Egypt, such as the Zionist entity. There is also the Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel that Egypt can defend better than an above-ground bridge. The state also did well in planning the new channel of the Suez Canal by constructing six new tunnels to connect the East and West banks of the Suez Canal.
Nonetheless, the real line of defence in Sinai is the people. This means that a large population in this vast Egyptian peninsula should be a strategic goal for any national government to boost Sinai’s ability to defend itself. No doubt, the population that supports, participates and even joins Hizbullah in South Lebanon was a key component in the great victory against the Zionist entity in 2006. It was a milestone in the battle of this entity and Arab armies and states.
Accordingly, planting a large population in Sinai would mainly rely on relocating populations from other regions, but this will not happen just because we want it to. There must be infrastructure connecting all regions in Sinai, especially the ones needing development, to serve this defence strategy. Also, creating economic projects that absorb this population and provide them with livelihood without being an easy prize target that can be destroyed easily. These projects should be sustainable under any circumstances and be protected by international law like any such civilian projects during war.
These civilian projects should also primarily focus on agriculture, fisheries and small projects in livestock, poultry, rabbit and fish breeding farms, agro-industry, as well as handicrafts and artisan workshops. These should be spread, separate and completely integrated with the population to make it a difficult target. This distribution would make it untouchable because of the ban on targeting civilian areas, and would raise the cost of attacking them compared to the value of these widespread small projects amidst a civilian population.
Ore and quarry wealth, such as sand glass in Southwest Sinai, can be transported for manufacturing in the West Delta, while manufacturing gypsum and concrete would be on site in Sinai because of the nature of this industry.
More than half a million feddans are estimated as suitable for agriculture in central and north Sinai, which must be the focus and priority for any agricultural expansion. Al-Salam Canal can be developed and repurposed with new small branches that would serve as an irrigation network for land cultivation where there is no subterranean water for irrigation, while improving subterranean sources.
It is critical to emphasise that only Egyptians would be allowed to invest in Sinai to maintain national security. There is also a need to enforce only selling land in Sinai to Egyptians whose both parents are Egyptian, not allow sale to any non-Egyptians who have Egyptian parents, and the army should oversee any land sales and trade. This is critical because Egyptians will not relocate with their families to Sinai to land they are only leasing; they would only do so if they can buy the land and are bound to it forever. One must also restore the old law that prohibits foreigners from owning or leasing agricultural land in Egypt, since there are millions of landless farmers, school and agricultural college graduates who are unemployed and should be given priority in owning and cultivating their homeland. Land earmarked for industry can be leased long-term with easy conditions to Arab and foreign investors, while keeping in mind military considerations.
Public offerings can fund industrial, agricultural and services companies in Sinai as private companies owned by Egyptian-only stockholders, and no one should own more than one per cent of company stocks. These companies would be run by a CEO on behalf of shareholders, while auditing firms and state agencies monitor them on behalf of shareholders to prevent corruption or foul play by CEOs.
The state can also regulate funding reclamation and cultivation projects in Sinai on state-owned land through investment certificates, similar to the process used to fund digging the new Suez Canal branch.
Naturally, Sinai natives would be given priority in land distribution to be reclaimed if they will actually cultivate this land themselves, with plot sizes of 5,000 feddans for each farmer or graduate of agriculture school or college. Such a project must employ the latest technologies in agriculture, livestock and fisheries. For example, using German Holstein cows and Italian buffalo since their milk yield is 10 times that of Egyptian cows and buffalo. This modernisation would mean multiplied revenues from this agriculture and related industries, such as dairy agro-industry, compared to traditional Egyptian farming methods.
The possibilities are immense. Projects such as fisheries off the northern coast of Sinai, hunting, livestock, poultry and related small projects, as well as olive production that yields oil, pickles, fodder and charcoal products. Also, widespread handicrafts and artisan industry, small quarries producing marble, stone and gypsum, would be a broad base for developing Sinai’s economy and absorbing a new population.
This endeavour does not only require strong and clear political will, but also a national incubator for small projects to assist in finding easy-term funding and marketing products locally and overseas. This comprehensive development process would add nearly half a million to the population of Sinai in three years as a first step, increasing the population in Sinai as a key defence mechanism there against the hostile plotting by the Zionist entity or religious radicalism and terrorism.