Egypt's Sinai Peninsula: From liberation to neglect

Nada El-Kouny , Thursday 25 Apr 2013

Thirty-one years after Sinai's liberation from Israeli occupation, development remains elusive to its Bedouin population while insecurity is on the rise

Last Israeli flag removed from Sinai Peninsula on 25 April, 1982 marking the end of Israeli control following 1967 war (Photo courtesy

On 25 April 1982, Egypt regained the Sinai Peninsula, its flag raised in Rafah. It marked the final departure of the Israeli army from Sinai, which it had occupied since the Six-Day War in 1967, commonly referred to among Arabs as the Naksa (setback). Full independence however, was realised with the return of Taba on 19 January 1989.

The regaining of the Sinai symbolises for many the successful completion of Egypt’s long struggle to restore the sovereignty and honour it lost in the June 1967 defeat. 

Thirty-one years later and more than two years since the January 25 Revolution, Egypt’s Sinai is caught in ongoing militant conflict, wracked by a lack of security, generally underdeveloped and with a population that feels disenfranchised, amid an ailing economy and plummeting tourism.            

Development slide

Following the liberation of Sinai, now deposed president Hosni Mubarak reflected on the importance of the peninsula, its riches, and the numerous development projects to be actualised in the peninsula. He also revealed plans for attracting and relocating much of Egypt’s population in the Nile Valley to the peninsula.  

Many of the local Bedouin, making up approximately 200,000 in the peninsula, were denied the benefit of what development schemes were actually implemented.

Ashraf Ayoub, a Nasserist writer from North Sinai, begs to differ with official rhetoric: “Sinai is not free yet, it is dictated by the [1979] Camp David peace agreement. It has been conditioned by the agreement.”

Ayoub states that in actuality Egypt does not claim sovereignty over the peninsula — in addition to an international agenda dictated by the US-Israeli-Egyptian alliance enforced by the agreement. He clarifies that as a result, no real development projects could be actualised which would benefit the local population.

The security dimension

Said Abdel-Hadi of the Sawarka tribe in North Sinai, and who lives only three kilometres away from the Israeli border, claims that in regards to Sinai, “Egypt’s hands are tied as a result of the peace treaty, which prevents it from deploying a certain number of troops at any one time.”

According to the stipulations of the Camp David agreement, Zone C of the peninsula (the zone lying closest to Israel), hosts an international peacekeeping force, the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), and a lightly armed Egyptian police.  

Following the killing of 16 Egyptian border guards in August 2012, the first event of such gravity since the 1973 October War, many demanded that the agreement be revised to Egypt to deploy more troops in the area. By informal agreement with Israel, and not by a treaty revision, Egypt able to deploy an additional 1,500 troops in zones C and B last year.

An informed government source underlined that Sinai is the “main gateway to Egypt’s national security." Most of the violence and conflicts experienced in Sinai is an attempt by militant groups to pull Egypt and Israel into confrontation.

He further added that attacks in Sinai started to increase with Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005 and Hamas coming to power in the Strip the following year. The “collapse of the Egyptian police force” following the January 25 Revolution only made matters more unstable.  

Why Sinai

Due to its strategic location vis-a-vis Gaza and Israel, international terrorism networks an interest to invest attention in Sinai, added the diplomatic source. He further warned that any increase of such recent incidents as when rockets were allegedly fired from Sinai on 17 April into the Israeli resort town of Eilat could alter the status quo substantially.  

The repercussions of such incidents, if a pattern emerged, could threaten annual US economic and military aid to Egypt, of which the military portion amounts $1.3 billion.   

Meanwhile, local disgruntlement is increasing amid an ongoing security clampdown under “Operation Eagle” launched last August following the border guards incident. The local population bore the weight. Numerous cases were reported of arbitrary house arrests, security raids, torture and detention of men of all ages and without due process.    

However, Abdel-Hadi claims that the response on the part of the authorities came as no surprise and that similar conditions have been experienced for years. Following a number of attacks on Sinai resorts in 2004, 2005 and 2006 (in Taba, Sharm El-Sheikh and Dahab), hostilities between the local community and central government deepened.

Bedouin neglected

Marginalisation has long been thought of as the driving force between the increasing hostility, though the government always denied any substance to the claim. For the Bedouin community, however, discrimination is a fact.

“Our national belonging is always put into question,” asserts Abdel-Hadi.

The government source seemed to confirm the point. “Bedouins are very hard to control, since they have no sense of belonging as a result of their tribal, nomadic predispositions,” he asserted.

Ahmed El-Shennawy, a researcher focused on Sinai and head of the initiative, “Sinai Speaks”, points to a number of important cases that prove an opposite point, and which came at the height of Egypt’s regional struggles.

He points to the patriotic position taken by Sheikh Salem El-Hersh, a local leader who was asked to agree on an offer in October 1968 by the Israeli forces to internationalise the Sinai Peninsula and to revoke his allegiance to Egypt. A press conference was called by the Israelis where El-Hersh was to announce his position.

With the camera’s rolling, El-Hersh asserted: “Sinai is Egyptian, will remain Egyptian and we do not accept a substitute ... You are the occupation … We reject the internationalisation of the peninsula ... Those who want to talk about the Sinai are to talk with the great leader, President Gamal Abdel-Nasser.”

In addition to many more incidences of such honourable positions taken, El-Shennawy says, is that of Sheikha Farhana, a woman who carried out a number of attacks on Israeli forces after the Six-Day War. The most famous of these was when she laid explosives in Al-Arish train station where supplies were being transported to Israeli soldiers.

The underdevelopment problem

The region, however, continues to be underdeveloped. El-Shennawy asserts that for many children, especially in the least developed area of central Sinai, schools can be as much as five kilometres away.

Moreover, a lack of basic services, including clean water and electricity, is usual. For many in central Sinai, the closest hospitals are 400 kilometers away. Emergency cases can often be fatal.

Additionally, El-Shennawy asserts that the area has been used as a punishing ground for many Egyptians. He explains that in most professions, those who do not carry out their jobs proficiently are sent to Sinai as a form of punishment.                                                                               

While the peninsula has a lot of riches, including minerals, petrol, and businesses, including tourism ("the only real benefit from Sinai" the government source claims), they have not trickled down to the local population. Many businesses and tourist resorts do not hire local Bedouin workers. El-Shennawy asserts it is only about 15 percent of the local population ends up working in local businesses and factories. Moreover, Bedouins are barred from joining the army and from owning land in Sinai.     

“For any true development to take place, they (the Bedouin) will have to be taken into full consideration and not be constantly viewed as a criminals, spies, or allies to the police forces," asserts El-Shennawy, who describes these are the three most common stereotypes of the Bedouin in the popular media and in official rhetoric.

Abdel-Hadi adds: "Given the already sensitive position Sinai is in, due to its geopolitical standing and current political standing in the country, any minimum level of stability will not be reached unless real citizenship is granted."

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