“Everything is so much easier now,” Sheikh Abdallah A-Ruweishan told us as we passed through the streets of Sheikh Zuweid. “Life is not just returning to normal, it’s going to be better than it was. We passed through very hard times when security collapsed in 2011. Life came to a halt.”
Two years have passed since Al-Ahram Weekly’s first visit to the area following the launch of Comprehensive Operation Sinai (COS) 2018, the largest ever campaign to eradicate terrorism from the peninsula.
Sheikh Al-Ruweishan, a tribal elder from the area, spoke of the many changes since then. We paused in front of the Hamadiya School in the centre of the city. It has reopened for the current school year.
Sheikh Zuweid lies near the border with the Gaza Strip, between the cities of Arish and Rafah, and has been the scene of many terrorist attacks. The most notorious before COS 2018 dismantled terrorist infrastructures was against the Karm Al-Qawadis checkpoint. Now civilian traffic has returned to normal. The city’s public market is open for business and bustling, the stalls are filled with fruits and vegetables.
“The little terrorist activity that still exists occurs away from urban areas,” Sheikh Al-Ruweishan said. “The terrorists that remain are unable to enter here.”
According to Armed Forces communiqués, the last terrorist operation in the area occurred seven months ago. It targeted farms outside the city and was intercepted.
In tandem with COS 2018 the government has launched a massive development programme. There are new school buildings, public parks, healthcare centres, utilities, and other public services. According to local municipal officials, the plan is not just to rebuild and improve existing infrastructure, work on which started some time ago, but to introduce new facilities. An example is the new water plant that came online in October 2020 and supplies the city with up to 5,000 m3 of potable water daily.
As a source familiar with the security situation in Sinai put it: “The environment that bred terrorism has been eliminated. People see a new picture in Sinai thanks to the proliferation of development projects.”
The development process is not just about building infrastructure but also about human development and building minds, culturally and intellectually. The Bedouin tribes in Sheikh Zuwaid have been instrumental in this process as well as in the security operations.
“The tribes of Sheikh Zuweid shouldered a lot during the counter-terrorist operations phase,” Sheikh Abdallah Al-Maani, an elder of the Maani tribe, told the Weekly. “Our main concern was to restore security. Now that we have done that, we have revived hope and the development process is in full swing. This has become our new reality.”
Mohamed, a young man from the city, stresses an important aspect. “Dozens of civilians from Sheikh Zuweid sacrificed their lives in the fight against terrorism, as others did when our fathers fought against the occupation. It is inaccurate to say that this environment nurtured those who sought to disseminate their tyranny.”
On the situation today, he said: “Our children have returned to school, but local teachers continued to perform their educational role during the crisis out of concern for the welfare of the students under the previous security conditions and the need to raise new generations with a proper education.”
According to the governor of North Sinai, the government has launched a comprehensive awareness drive in North Sinai, engaging a team of Al-Azhar clergymen for the purpose.
Mohamed pointed out that local Sinai businessmen have also been crucial to the reconstruction and development process. “Some of them constructed wells and now Sheikh Zuwaid has water treatment and desalinisation plants,” he said.
Agricultural activity has not picked up as much as had been expected, however, in part because of the restrictions on sales of pesticides. According to a municipal source, the restrictions are temporary and have been imposed because terrorists use some pesticide components to make explosives. He added that alternatives exist and are available in the local markets.
From Sheikh Zuwaid we headed to Rafah. It was the first time in years that a press delegation entered the last stop on the border with Gaza. Images from the period when the fight against terrorism was at its height remained fresh in our minds: the proliferation of terrorist networks of all sorts, a hodgepodge of violent extremist groups, weapons smugglers and human trafficking gangs. It was an environment brimming with criminal activities that local inhabitants had to deal with at a time when the government was too weak to do so.
In the past it was hard to tell which building stood on this side or that side of the border, which were inhabited by Egyptians or Palestinians or, indeed, which were real homes. Many buildings were mere façades for unlawful trafficking and gateways for the infiltration of terrorists across the border. Those buildings no longer exist and the illegal activities they once housed have disappeared. More than 3,000 tunnels have been closed, according to official sources, halting the flow of smuggled weapons and personnel to Egypt.
The picture today could not be more different. Construction workers hired locally are employed by 13 contractors based in New Rafah. All are involved in the building projects of the second phase of the construction of the new city. The first, which is already complete, displays the kind of architecture and urban planning typical of recent urban development projects in the Nile Valley and Delta.
“Rafah has never had an infrastructure as advanced as it does now; the old Rafah was a model of chaos and random development,” one of the construction supervisors said.
The second phase is scheduled to be finished in two months. It consists of 84 residential blocs with a total of 1,344 units plus service buildings and facilities, among them a police station, fire station, telephone and communications building, post office, petrol station, bakery and sports and recreation area. The New Rafah project also includes 400 Bedouin-style homes which underline the Bedouin identity of a significant segment of the local population.
“The inhabitants of Rafah will return after having been forced to leave due to war and terrorism,” the governor of North Sinai said. “These homes will be waiting for them.”
The New Rafah project was scheduled to cost LE1.4 billion when it was first unveiled by the Ministry of Planning in 2015.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.