Sinai: Atrophied development

Ahmed Eleiba , Thursday 2 May 2013

Thirty-one years after Sinai’s liberation, the peninsula’s inhabitants are in no mood for celebration

Sinai
Egyptian border guard stands at Taba border crossing in Sinai Peninsula, August 2012 (Photo: Reuters)

General Talaat Muslim, a military expert now in his 80s, recalls the Sinai from the days when he was still a young lieutenant. Rail travel in those days was slow and arduous. From Cairo, the train would pass through Zagazig, wind its way towards the Suez Canal, cross at Ismailia and then chug hundreds of kilometres through the Sinai until it reached Gaza where his unit was based. That was still the time of the British occupation. From Ismailia onwards the soldiers would keep the windows of their carriages closed to avoid any friction with British forces stationed in the Canal Zone and the Sinai. On his way back from the Sinai, if he was carrying any goods or products from Gaza, the British inspector on the train would exact customs tax.

The then Lieutenant Muslim would peer at the passing scenery of the Sinai with mixed feelings. On the one hand, he was dismayed by the presence of British occupation forces which, in June 1953, compelled the Egyptian army to reduce its forces in the Sinai. On the other, he was optimistic about the future of the Land of Turquoise, as Egyptians refer to the peninsula. Although much of it was desert and wilderness there were indications that it could prosper through construction and development. The Rawafie Dam in Abu Agaila, which had been built before the 1952 Revolution, and an experimental farm in Al-Ari, hinted at the potential of Sinai.

The relationship between the Egyptian army and the Sinai Bedouins, says Muslim, was very close.

"Resistance operations there against the occupation were a source of pride to all Egyptians. Then came the Tripartite Aggression of 1956 in which invading forces occupied the Sinai, but not all the way to the Suez Canal. Suddenly, British occupation was replaced by Israeli occupation which altered the features of the area... Although that occupation was eventually forced to retreat we knew it would return. The signs in the train stations were not only written in English and Arabic, but also in Hebrew."

In the early 1960s Talaat Muslim was sent to a military academy in the Soviet Union. By the time he returned Sinai was again under Israeli occupation following the 1967 War. "Everything had changed. The Israelis had taken control of the entire peninsula up to the canal. They had dismantled the railroad and used the rails to construct the Bar Lev Line. The Fardan Bridge, ferries, homes and mosques in the area had disappeared without a trace. My fellow officers and I would go to the western side of the canal, where we constructed some lookout posts in order to be able to monitor what was happening on the opposite bank. We looked forward to the day when we would be able to confront that enemy and to the day when not just passenger and freight trains, but the train of development would return to the Sinai."

Dreams of confronting the enemy were realised in 1973. Although it would take another nine years to liberate the Sinai in full, studies for development projects had begun in 1974. "For years, even after I retired, I kept wondering what happened to the projects. Why had the plans we drew up before the liberation of Sinai never been put into effect? Among those I asked was General Mounir Shash, who served as a governor in Sinai for many years. Shash was unable to answer, but he did say that there had never been any pressure of any sort not to implement development plans. The implication was that the peace treaty with Israel had not been an obstacle."

While General Muslim and most of his colleagues in the military had opposed the Camp David accord, which they felt did not restore full Egyptian sovereignty to Sinai, they remained curious as to why development plans had stalled. Was there some sort of conspiracy? He put the question to Mahmoud Al-Sherif, minister of development at the time when the Atef Sidki government unveiled an ambitious Sinai development project that would not be put into effect. The minister told Muslim he had no idea what the real motives were behind the shelving of the development plan.

General Chief of Staff Adel Suleiman, who served as a Military Intelligence officer in Sinai, is just as mystified though he has a general theory about why development initiatives were stymied.
 
"Egypt was reeling beneath corruption. The decay was everywhere, and there is no reason why Sinai should have been an exception. People who maintain that Camp David had an impact on this situation are fooling themselves. Israel does what it wants. It is an enemy. But we can also do what we want. We had produced studies and drawn up plans for the development of the Sinai decades ago. I contributed to many of them. I imagine that if all those files were spread on the ground they would cover an area larger than Sinai, an area that abounds in natural wealth."
 
Suleiman stresses that the Armed Forces had great esteem for the struggle of the people of Sinai against Israeli occupation. That esteem continues to the present. However, the army could only do so much.

"The army’s mission is to protect the borders and enhance its combat efficacy. The army is not the Ministry of Agriculture which should go to the Sinai in order to reclaim land and cultivate it. Nor is it the Ministry of Housing, which should go there to build houses for the people. And it is not the Ministry of Interior, which grossly abused the people of Sinai. Cruel before the revolution, the Ministry of Interior abandoned the people of Sinai in the aftermath of the revolution. It is familiar with their customs and traditions yet forced them to endure degradation and hardship. It treated them as though they were aliens on their own land and alienated them from the state in spite of the fact that we have a great need for them in an area that is an anomaly in our national security framework."

Corruption, says Suleiman, turned Sinai into fertile ground for illegal activities. As a security expert one of his tasks was to conduct security studies. At the turn of the millennium he was part of a security team that prepared a comprehensive study for the development of the peninsula. The team proposed the creation of "defence villages" which would incorporate Sinai into the rest of Egyptian society while ensuring that the area retained its distinct tribal and ethnic properties. Under the plans, young men from Sinai would have been enrolled in national military academies, creating a corps of indigenous security personnel. Again, the plans were left to gather dust.

The bombings at Dahab and Sharm El-Sheikh during the 2000's focused attention on Sinai once again. General Hossam Khairallah, who was first deputy in the General Intelligence Service (GIS) at the time, said that GIS submitted detailed reports to the presidency emphasising the need to develop Sinai, safeguard and respect the cultural environment of the peninsula’s inhabitants and rescue them from the unwarranted repression of the Ministry of Interior.
 
The president’s office rejected the reports intelligence officials had spent two years preparing, preferring instead the line argued by the Ministry of Interior which insisted that managing the Bedouins required a tough hand, whatever human rights violations that it involved. In the opinion of the presidency, the GIS’s plan would require considerable time, whereas the Ministry of Interior’s approach would resolve the immediate problems — nascent terrorism, drug trafficking, people smuggling, morally dubious tour groups, and companies that were fronts for illicit activities. But rather than addressing these problems, Khairallah explained, the opposite occurred: some Ministry of Interior officials became engaged in the very activities they were supposed to police. The arms trade and smuggling of people through the Rafah crossing increased. In short, corruption in Sinai had become more entrenched than ever.

Sitting in front of their houses young men from the Sawarka tribe describe their experiences at the hands of the police. A young man in his early 30s relates that he had been arrested, taken blindfolded from Arish to Cairo and detained for 21 days. He never learned why he was arrested and tortured, but he did realise that his dream of moving to Cairo to work in a restaurant had evaporated. He was given to understand that he needed a visa to cross the Suez Canal into the rest of Egypt.

Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Manie, a representative on the council of tribal elders, has participated in all the meetings that have been held between tribal leaders and the army in recent months. We offered congratulations to the Sheikh on the occasion of the anniversary of the liberation of the Sinai and were taken aback by his response.

"The Sinai is liberated? If so, why haven’t its people been liberated, which is where liberation should begin? We have heard many promises, from politicians and the army, but nothing has ever come of them. We asked for better mobile coverage, better housing, infrastructural development. Nothing. We asked for reconsideration of the decree banning property ownership, expansion of the electricity grid, schools, government services and utilities. Nothing." He complained.
 
"In fact conditions have grown worse. In order to build homes, they insist on building permits and in order to link our homes to the electricity grid they want more permits. How are we supposed to get them? Why all these complications which keep increasing day by day? Does it make sense for the government to pass laws to make life tougher and more complicated for the people at a time when the country is so weak? Whose interests does it serve? Aren’t we part of this nation? A patriotic minded businessman had asked the people of Sinai to help him construct a granite plant. We couldn’t obtain the permit." Sheikh Al-Manie listed numerous examples of the ways in which the plans of the people of Sinai to develop fisheries and other sources of natural wealth had been frustrated by red tape and seemingly arbitrary decisions.

Poor economic and living standards are not the only problem. According to Sheikh Al-Manie, the one difference between the political and security situation before and after the revolution is that now the police are nowhere to be found. "They stay inside the police stations and will not emerge to come to the aid of a citizen in need. This applies as much to the Security Directorate in North Sinai as it does to its subsidiary departments because they imagine that there are plots to wreak revenge in retribution for their long history of maltreatment. Political leaders are fully aware of the current situation and they do nothing."

"We were invited to a celebration at the military research centre in Ismailia. Most of the tribal elders did not attend. What’s the point? We cannot continue to listen to yet more idle promises and participate in pointless dialogues with the various agencies of government about so-called development initiatives. The next revolution is going to start here."
 
"National security," he says, has become no more than an excuse to perpetuate mistreatment. The army insists on creating a 5km buffer zone in Rafah in spite of the fact that 75 per cent of the inhabitants of Rafah live in the buffer zone. "Did Israel ever do something like this? No power on earth is going to remove us from this area."

Al-Manie does not believe that the buffer zone has anything to do with closing down tunnels between Egypt and Gaza. "If they wanted to close the tunnels, they would have done it months ago without a buffer zone."

"Is there some kind of domestic or foreign conspiracy targeting the people of Sinai? Why have they begun to call the Sinai the Egyptian Afghanistan and the Sinai mountains Egypt’s Tora Bora? The US has begun to talk of fighting terrorism here and everyone warns of Al-Qaeda? But the idea of Al-Qaeda has captured the minds of many in the Middle East and in Egypt, not just in the Sinai. Outlaws in Sinai cannot number more than a few hundred. They could easily be handled by the security agencies if the agencies were not so lax. My hope is that the president takes a firm political position championing the people of Sinai and that rescues them from injustice."
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