On 25 April every year Egypt commemorates the liberation of Sinai. The first stage of Egypt’s recovery of the peninsula was the October 1973 War. The second occurred after six years of Camp David negotiations and the third and final stage came when the International Court of Justice ruled on Taba in 1988. President Anwar Al-Sadat, who spearheaded the liberation of the Sinai, would not live to see the last phase. He was assassinated by Islamist extremists in 1981 and succeeded by president Hosni Mubarak.
Sinai received scant attention in the Mubarak regime’s development plans, though many believe Mubarak can be credited with safeguarding the peninsula from foreign schemes, particularly those connected with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The lack of attention to Sinai’s development needs helped make it possible for Islamist fundamentalist extremists, including some involved in the assassination of Sadat, to build extensive jihadist terrorist networks there.
April 2020 marks eight years since the launch of the major counter-terrorist offensive that gave rise, in turn, to Operation Eagle, Operation Martyr’s Right and the Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018. This extensive campaign, fought by the army, police and people of Sinai, seemed to drag on longer than the battle against the Israeli occupation, and while the operations have achieved great progress in dismantling terrorist networks, the fight to uproot them completely continues. Today’s context, however, could not be more different. It is shaped by the belief that the concept of national security, which was gravely threatened in Sinai, has long needed to be reassessed.
When President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi addressed the nation from Sinai on Saturday, he delineated the perameters of a different strategic equation for the peninsula. Even as Comprehensive Operation Sinai continued, major development projects sprouted and began to bear fruit.
When he spoke of the costs, which have exceeded LE600 billion so far, the president said, “Egypt’s national security is worth more money.” The amount — LE 600 billion, or approximately $38 billion — is the largest development allocation in the history of Egypt and, according to some estimates, is 20 times the amount previously spent on developing post-liberation Sinai. The figure speaks of hope as well as a new horizon, a spirit that Al-Sisi alluded to in his remarks about progress in the fight against terrorism, his praise for the people of Sinai and call for Egyptians to leave the crowded confines of the Nile Valley for the peninsula.
The Egyptian Armed Forces are playing a crucial role in this development drive, in collaboration with civil companies and international expertise. It was an inspiring sight as the huge tunnel boring machine emerged after drilling the Ahmed Hamdi 2 Tunnel, the latest in the series of infrastructural projects to more tightly integrate Sinai with the Delta and Nile Valley. Chairman of the Suez Canal Authority Admiral Osama Rabie, in his speech during the Sinai Liberation Day celebrations, underscored the importance of the new tunnel in the framework of the many achievements made since August 2015 and which include the New Suez Canal and new urban communities and industrial zones. With regard to the transport links between the two banks of the Suez Canal, he said there were now a total of 20 crossing points: eight ferry servicing 36 ferry lines, six major tunnels, two for each of the three Suez Canal cities, and five floating bridges.
Development of Sinai is moving in the right direction thanks to the creation of a comprehensive industrial base, the construction of new communities and supporting infrastructure, and major projects being carried out in the Suez Canal economic zone, said Rabie.
Much has been accomplished. There are new water treatment plants, such as the Al-Mahsama agricultural drainage treatment, water recycling and reuse plant that President Al-Sisi inaugurated and which is considered the largest plant of its kind in the world. Eight of Egypt’s 27 water treatment plants are in Sinai. They will supply 2.5 billion m3 of water per year, according to Major General Ehab Al-Far, head of the Armed Forces’ Engineering Authority. Sinai has also been earmarked for 20 out of the 73 water desalination plants to be built nationwide, and hundreds of wells have been dug as part of initiatives such as the 250-well Bedouin Family Project.
According to Al-Sayed Al-Qusseir, the Minister of Agriculture and Land Reclamation, 400,000 acres have been slated for reclamation of which 56,000 have already been brought under cultivation.
The greatest challenge to agriculture across the peninsula is the availability of water, but it is a problem that is now being handled effectively, he said. In fact, there will soon be a surplus of water which will be channelled through the Sheikh Gaber Al-Sabah Canal in North Sinai. Earlier this year a research team was assembled from various institutes, including the Desert Research Centre, the Agricultural Research Centre, the General Authority for Reconstruction and Agricultural Development Projects, Cairo University, Zagazig University and Suez Canal University, to prepare a survey of additional reclaimable land to be placed under cultivation in north and central Sinai.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under headline: Sinai on the rise