Egypt's Sinai on the edge: An Interview with Mosaad Abu Fagr

Ahmed Eleiba , Tuesday 5 Nov 2013

In an interview with Ahram Online, prominent activist Mosaad Abu Fagr says the Sinai Peninsula has borne the brunt of Egypt's economic and social instability since the 2011 uprising

 Abu Fagr
Prominent activist Mosaad Abu Fagr (Photo: Al-Ahram)

Since the 2011 uprising, unrest in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, and the ensuing lawlessness and economic volatility, has hit the tribal community especially hard.

Fault lines intensified during the rule of former Islamist president Mohamed Morsi amid a spike in militant activity by armed Jihadist groups in the Sinai. Following the 3 July removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power amid mass popular protests against their rule, the Peninsula has entered a new phase, dubbed the "war against terrorism" by Egyptian authorities.

Ahram Online met Mosaad Abu Fagr – a local activist and a member of Egypt's constitutional draft committee – to discuss the current situation in the Sinai Peninsula, which borders Israel and the Palestinian Gaza Strip. Abu Fagr was jailed during the latter days of former autocrat Hosni Mubarak and set free days before the 2011 uprising that toppled the president. He now sees himself as both a revolutionary and a politician.

Abu Fagr was deeply bitter about the downward spiral in Sinai since 2011 uprising. He believes that Sinai's Bedouin population has borne the brunt of Egypt's post-revolution economic and social upheavals, which he blames on the failure of the successive governments that have come into power since 2011.

Ahram Online (AO): You seem to have transitioned from being a revolutionary to seeking out more official political roles. What inspired this transformation?

Mosaad Abu Fagr (MAF): It's common sense. We have watched Islamists warily over the past year jumping on the bandwagon and sabotaging the revolution. We are now trying to restore the damage they have caused.

AO: Do you think we should turn over a new leaf and try to restart with the fall of the Brotherhood?

MAF: No, the Brotherhood's leaf has not been turned over. They have brought the revolution to its knees. We need a new force to make a fresh start, but we are still being held back by those barbarians who instigate other barbarians.

AO: So you are trying to say a restoration process is necessary. Where does the development of Sinai fall on your agenda?

MAF: Egypt cannot develop without Sinai Peninsula. The situation in Sinai mirrors the situation in the rest of the country: the state's failures and successes. When Egypt was on its way to becoming a theocracy under deposed president Morsi, Sinai was morphed into a bastion of outsiders. Under former president Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian rule, the region was a police stronghold. Today, a major force seeks to turn it once again into a police base. The goal should be to make Sinai a civilian rather than a security stronghold.

AO: So a civilian region in the Sinai is your objective?

MAF: Yes, but the project is mainly based in the capital and centered on the establishment of equal citizenship, pluralism and human rights in Cairo… Mubarak's state ruled with an iron fist that bred terrorism in the Peninsual. Curing ills in the capital will provide a foundation for improvements in the Sinai, which mirrors developments in Cairo in many ways.

AO: Why has there been so little national attention toward development projects in the Sinai, and how important are such projects?

MAF: The government has not dedicated enough attention to this issue, given the magnitude of the problem. Instead, the state focused on patriotic songs and slogans. The current reality [in Sinai] is unsuitable for living, not even for a bird. How would a bird live while Apache helicopters hover overhead and tanks cover the ground?

AO: Does the Bedouin population in Sinai pose a security threat, given Islamist insurgents there and the smuggling taking place in tunnels between Sinai and the Gaza Strip?

MAF: Such accusations are baseless and only made by theorists who are out of touch with reality. They belong to the Nazi and fascist circles.

AO: You are linked to Bedouin tribal community that are known to be connected to a hotbed of militant and jihadist groups. How has this influenced you?

MAF: That's a narrow, incomplete vision. The tribal community is part and parcel of this region, and it should be incorporated as such. Otherwise you will be faced with increasing radicalization and terrorism. The situation in Sinai cannot be seen in isolation from the situation in the capital. The Muslim Brotherhood's international organisation has sown and financed terrorism in Sinai and made the region a fertile ground for militancy. Tribal communities have inhabited Sinai for 5,000 years. It has only degenerated over the last three decades at the hands of Egyptian leadership that brought an external, not internal, virus that we should detect and combat.

AO: What do you think of the "southern model"?

MAF: The "southern model" is a riviera where Bedouins were driven into the mountains and are now suffering marginalisation and neglect. Some parts of south Sinai  were meant to be a mere façade for tourist resorts, but the vast majority of areas are now suffering from water and electricity shortages. Even fishing areas were seized from them and have become places for tourists. Coral reefs are in peril because of this model.

AO: So how do you diagnose the problem?

MAF: International terrorism has turned Sinai into a battlefield. The region has long suffered at the hands of the police state and the failure of successive governments in Cairo. Before then, Sinai was a peaceful, secure place.   

AO: What's the solution then?

MAF: The only way out is to have a democratic, pluralistic government that acknowledges the distinct culture of the Bedouin population and ensures them safety. Authorities must recognize that their operations in Sinai are not a panacea for all problems. Other counter-terrorism policies and development projects must be pursued in the region. Today some are attempting to lure people out of the region and vacate it.

AO: Talking about the distinctness of the Sinai Bedouins, do you think that the people of Sinai should put forward their own development plans?

MAF: Sinai residents have been proposing projects for 30 years and approaching governments with numerous development plans. The Egyptian state has contributed to making the region one with the world's highest number of prisoners. Central Sinai is one of the world's poorest regions according to the UN. Only a handful of young people are able to attend universities. The region needs a cultural plan, one that traces back to how people lived there peacefully five centuries ago. Sinai needs its own culture that has taken shape through time. We do not need it to be a total metamorphosis, which might engender terrorism or violence. One question that remains unanswered for me is how Sinai residents were turned into terrorists in the popular imagination.

AO: You're a member of the constitutional draft committee? Do you hope to incorporate Sinai-related articles in the new constitution?

MAF: Certainly, we need that.  Sinai will always remain a mirror of the Egyptian state's success or failure. If you keep trying to stamp its people out, they will seek sanctuary in the mountains, where they can easily be co-opted by passing insurgents. We need to entrench development of the region and its culture in the constitution. Using terrorism as a tool of intimidation to prioritize certain policies over others is a well-known political practice. I am not saying terrorism does not exist. It does, but you have to address it in a way that is effective. Combating terrorism is never successfully done by attacking homes and planting mines to demolish them, even if it is [Osama] Bin Laden's house. Those people and their children have the right to live. We have to reformulate relations with the whole society in Sinai.

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