Presidential contenders remain tight-lipped on Sinai

Zeinab El Gundy, Sunday 29 Apr 2012

Thirty years after liberation of Sinai, Egypt's military rulers – and those vying for presidency – have largely failed to address strategic peninsula's rapidly deteriorating security situation

File photo: Egyptian police stand guard during the Arab League Second Economic Forum, in the Red sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, January 18, 2011. (Photo: Reuters)

Wednesday marked the 30th anniversary of the 1982 Israeli withdrawal from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, an anniversary that comes only one month before Egypt's first post-Mubarak presidential elections. Sinai, meanwhile, remains subject to a steadily deteriorating security situation.

Nevertheless, the 13 men contesting the presidency have remained surprisingly tight-lipped about the strategic peninsula. Few of them, in fact, have even visited Sinai or met with representatives of the Bedouin tribesmen that inhabit it.

On Wednesday, presidential candidate Amr Moussa stated on Twitter that Egyptians should "celebrate" the return of Sinai not with tired slogans but by encouraging the "building and development” of the restive peninsula.

Moussa, former Arab League chief and Mubarak-era foreign minister, has visited Sinai several times since last year, where he met with tribal representatives. He also received Bedouin leaders at his campaign headquarters in Cairo earlier this month.

Moussa has promised, if elected president, to restore Sinai's security and stability; allow the peninsula's local inhabitants to own their own land; and end the historical marginalisation of Sinai's Bedouin tribes. Since the return of Sinai to Egypt three decades ago, the Bedouin locals in Sinai, whether in North or South, have been prohibited from owning land there for alleged national security reasons

Moussa's promises have been repeated by other presidential contenders.

Islamist presidential candidate Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, for one, has also promised to grant Sinai locals the right to own their land and to end the longstanding marginalisation of Sinai's Bedouin.

Abul-Fotouh, who visited North Sinai in January 2012, has also called for encouraging urban development in the peninsula – a promise echoed by Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohamed Morsi and Nasserist candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi.

On Wednesday, both men visited North Sinai, where they vied for local tribes' endorsement. Sabbahi promised to turn Sinai "into a paradise" while he stressed the need for a new police force that respected the rights and unique traditions of local Sinai who should not be treated like second class citizens.

Hamdeen Sabbahi had to discontinue his visit to the El-Sheikh Zowaid area in North Sinai after receiving threats from unknown people. According to a statement issued by his campaign on Thursday Sabbahi did not cancel his trip but only cancelled his visit to Sheikh Zowaid after advice from local tribes and security forces.

And on Thursday, Morsi planned to visit the South Sinai resort city of Sharm El-Sheikh, where he was slated to meet with local tourism developers and investors before holding meetings with tribal representatives.

"There are only promises so far," Muhammed Sabri, a journalist and activist based in North Sinai told Ahram Online. "Mohamed Morsi promised a big development project that includes the resettlement of millions of Egyptians in the peninsula, while Hamdeen Sabbahi promised that the first decision he would take as soon as he becomes president would be to release all the detainees from Sinai with no condition and to reconcile with the people of Sinai after years of neglect and isolation," Sabri added. 

Regarding the threats that forced Hamdeen to cut short his visit, Sabri told Ahram Online that an ultra-conservative Salafist group in Sheikh Zowaid in North Sinai was responsible, adding that this group is against the presidential elections in general and is demanding the release of the detainees accused of the Taba bombing in 2004. 

According to Sabri, after the exclusion of Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail, Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, Hamdeen Sabbahi and Mohamed Morsi have a good chance of winning in North Sinai.

Muhammed El-Ahmar, a tribal Bedouin activist based in Nuweiba, South Sinai, said the presidential candidates made too many promises. "All presidential candidates made many promises, mostly about enabling the locals in Sinai to own land, to release detainees, to develop Sinai and to gain citizenship rights," El-Ahmar told Ahram Online. "Amr Moussa gave too many promises regarding Sinai's development yet Abul-Fotouh's promises have been more realistic and logical," he added.  

"Hamdeen Sabbahi and Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh are popular in North Sinai while in South Sinai the Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq are popular," El-Ahmar said. 

Ashraf Ayoub, a writer from North Sinai said he was fed up with the presidential candidates' promises: "At the end of the day these are presidential promises in the election season. Sinai doesn't need promises – what it really needs is reconciliation between the locals of Sinai and the rest of Egypt which looks at them like foreigners who plot against the country. We are more than a group of people who live in a strategic location." 

Regarding the Presidential elections and candidates in North Sinai, Ayoub told Ahram Online that Salafists play a more critical role than the Muslim Brotherhood. "Whoever the Salafist powers in North Sinai back will have a strong chance, followed by Amr Moussa, Hamdeen Sabbahi because of his nationalist views, and Khaled Ali as the people remember how he defended the detainees after Taba bombing in 2004."  

The Egyptian government and ruling military council have both already made similar promises to Sinai's tribal inhabitants over the course of the last year. These include granting them the right to own their own land and to allow Bedouin youth to serve in Egypt's armed forces and police.

Addressing parliament in February 2012, Prime Minister Kamal El-Ganzouri blamed the US for "sabotaging" his urban development plans for land reclamation in Sinai when he was prime minister during the Mubarak era. But he has recently been attacked by MPs in Egypt's newly-elected parliament for neglecting the peninsula.

Egypt's next president will also face other Sinai-related problems, including a recent increase in the number of kidnappings and mounting fears of militant Islamist activity in the peninsula.

Yet despite the seriousness of these issues, none of Egypt's presidential contenders have addressed them or proposed plans for resolving Sinai's deteriorating security situation.

Their conspicuous silence comes at a time when Israeli officials have repeatedly stressed their own security concerns about Sinai.

Last week, Tel Aviv issued an official warning to its citizens to vacate the peninsula immediately. On Sunday, Egypt unilaterally cancelled a longstanding gas-export deal with Israel that had relied on a gas pipeline running across North Sinai, which itself had been bombed on 14 different occasions since last year's revolution.

The following day, the Egyptian army staged military exercises in Sinai, which many observers saw as an indirect escalation between Egypt and Israel.

The latest polls taken on presidential candidates' prospects have not included inhabitants of Sinai – where tribal affiliations remain a chief factor – so it is difficult to determine which candidates are popular there.

According to the latest figures, there are some 216,000 eligible voters in North Sinai and 121,000 in South Sinai, out of a combined total population of almost half a million. The first stage of Egyptian presidential elections is slated for 23 and 24 May.


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