Sinai population still striving for basic rights as unrest continues: Report

Ahmed Eleiba , Thursday 12 Mar 2015

Ahram Online obtains the National Council for Human Rights’ report on their first mission to the restive Sinai Peninsula

Smoke rises after Egyptian army demolished houses on the Egyptian side on border town of Rafah, Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2014 (Photo: AP)

Sinai residents have continued to voice disillusionment amid gross negligence by authorities and a worsening security and economic situation in the border region, a rights report has revealed.

The draft report, obtained by Ahram Online, and compiled by a delegation from the state-funded National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) upon a five-day visit to the peninsula late in January, showed that the evacuation of homes along the border with Gaza seemed to have further alienated a population with long-standing grievances.

Hundreds of homes have been demolished and thousands of residents in the border peninsula evicted in recent months as Egyptian troops pressed on to build a buffer zone meant to halt the smuggling of weapons and militants from and to the Palestinian enclave.

Several locals beyond the buffer zones had to flee their homes in the North Sinai towns of Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid to find a safe haven somewhere else. Some now are living in tin shacks and others having no access to drinking water or living staples, acknowledges the report.

Egypt began the evictions in the volatile area in October 2014 following a militant ambush that killed 31 Egyptian troops in an assault on a checkpoint near the border town of Rafah. The northern part of the region has since been under a dusk-to-dawn curfew that is expected to end in April.

Most of the displaced families share same grievances of "palpable government negligence, unavailability of nearby schools for their sons, lack of heath services and the threat of being evicted from their new residences by property-owners," the report shows.

Middle-aged Abou Khater is one of those. Now living in a tin wooden shack with no electricity or a door or roof to shield off winter rains, he said he had to leave behind his home and job in Sheikh Zuweid to protect his family.

Ramadan Soliman, another Rafah local interviewed by the mission, is now unemployed after numerous calls to the government to be relocated near to his new residence--where there is no water or electricity supply--fell on deaf ears.

Many others have voiced a deep desire to return to their homes, calling on the government to offer them "proper financial aid to help them bear the burdens of life, provide makeshift shelters and facilitate the transfer of their kids to nearby schools."

The government had said compensation for evacuees would amount to LE1 billion.

"Others who spoke on condition of anonymity say they are apprehensive of dealing with authorities or complaining for fear they would be viewed as dissidents," the report added

The report said that civil society and rights campaigners have helped, albeit slightly, displaced families in the face government's failure to offer proper assistance.

It added that most of those displaced are impoverished families who have never benefited from the weapons trade and smuggling that has flourished in the largely lawless peninsula.

On its way to areas along the border with Gaza, the NCHR mission came across militant-run checkpoints stopping passing cars, and was at one point chased by militant fighters.

In Central and South Sinai, largely spared the violence experienced in the northern part, locals in the resort cities of Sharm El-Sheikh, Dahab, Ras Sedr among others complain of poor water and sewage infrastructure as well as inadequate school and health services.

In North Sinai, tourism has been hammered by the security situation, sending unemployment rates soaring and hampering proposed state projects in the region, the report revealed.

"The city of Sharm El-Sheikh has plunged into an unusual downturn at a tourist and economic level, with shops either closed, or deserted."

Traders complain meanwhile of soaring shop rentals and the risk of be kicked out and losing their livelihood as they are incapable of paying.

Some shop owners claim tourism has slumped by an estimate of 60-70 percent, forcing some shops and hotels to lay off workers, the report adds.

In Dahab and Nuweiba, tribal leaders did not appear satisfied either, with many complaining of government negligence and marginalisation after they had "played a key role in maintaining security in the Peninsula's south and revealing terrorist hideouts during a security vacuum unleashed by the 2011 revolt.” Many chieftains bemoaned a perceived lack of transparency in the process of choosing tribal sheikhs.

Among recommendations the report listed to tackle local residents' grievances are: compensating owners of farms that have been razed, offering quick aid to the displaced and providing them with proper shelters, appointing Sinai population to state jobs, easing the currently imposed night-time curfew, establishing a state university in the peninsula, improving health services and more importantly devising a multi-phase development plan for the region.

The report does not directly address the security situation in Sinai or burgeoning militancy in the region, but rather the fallout suffered by locals as result. It is not clear yet when a final version will be made public.

The National Council for Human Rights is an independent body that was founded in 2003 by law to monitor and reinforce human rights in Egypt and advise the government thereof.

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