Bringing the Sinai peninsula closer

Ahmed Eleiba , Thursday 25 Mar 2021

Al Ahram Weekly looks back at how in three years the war on terrorism has meant a world of difference for Sinai


Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018 (COS 2018), launched on 9 February that year, marked a turning point in the war against terrorism. Two weeks later, on 25 February, the government launched another comprehensive project — Edict 107/2018 — establishing a national committee for the development of Sinai. According to the decree, LE600 billion was earmarked for the implementation of 994 development projects, most of which have already been completed or are nearing completion. As many them are infrastructural and economic projects with a national dimension, they have not only altered the face of Sinai but also linked the peninsula closer to the Nile Valley. Other projects targeted education, healthcare, social services, as well as job creation and fostering small to mid-size income generating enterprises. These projects struck a balance between the character of Sinai society and culture and the general composition of Egyptian society.

In many ways, the linkage between these two comprehensive operations defines the government’s approach to addressing the threats that plagued Sinai for decades. President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has summed up this outlook: “Sinai development equals national security.” With its two-pronged approach to the domestic situation, Egypt vastly developed its security capacities and resources and, simultaneously, it has generated a new socioeconomic environment in Sinai, one that has become a powerful bulwark in the state’s successful siege against terrorism. This was due to the unprecedented level of support the government has given Sinai and its people, which had long been marginalised in national development efforts in the years since Egypt regained full control over the peninsula.

While in other regional conflict zones afflicted by terrorism, “reconstruction” projects are discussed after the fighting stopped, in Egypt, Sinai development drive has proceeded in tandem with counterterrorist operations. No sooner was an area cleared of terrorist elements than it became the focus of a development project, starting with laying the roads, electricity grids, water and sanitation, and other such infrastructural groundwork, then proceeding to the establishment of essential public services, and to income-generating and other economic projects.

The government has had to contend with a huge challenge in Sinai, with Rafah a case in point.

For nearly a quarter of a century, from the beginning of the 1980s to the turn of the millennium, a narrow strip (about 14km wide) along the border between Egypt and Gaza was constantly vulnerable to diverse threats. Like many of the long-standing problems that the country has grappled with since the 30 June 2013 Revolution, the government broached this one head-on because of the direct threat it presented to national security.

Several chief factors informed this approach. First, the government began to implement a strategic vision for the post-30 June 2013 phase focused on rehabilitating the state which was just recovering from a violent shock to its foundations. Second, the threat had grown too large and entrenched, in large measure because previous governments had tolerated its existence for reasons having to do with relations with Palestine and an unwillingness to augment the pressures on the Palestinians in Gaza despite Hamas’ attitudes toward Egypt and its approach to the border situation. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the threat from that direction had become too acute against the backdrop of the unprecedented escalation in the terrorist phenomenon in the region as epitomised by the Islamic State’s (IS) invasion and occupation of tracts of land spanning the Syrian-Iraqi border. Fourth, the chronic problem along Egypt’s eastern border had begun to evolve into a larger terrorist ecosystem following the collapse of the Libyan state, the security breakdown there, the unprecedented spread of arms and terrorist smuggling operations and the proliferation of organised crime. All of this reached a peak with the arrival of ISIS in Libya where it established a foothold in Derna and the arrival of the Al-Qaeda affiliate, Al-Murabitoun. These soon set their sights on Egypt and began to provide weapons, personnel and other support to their organisational and ideological extensions in Sinai.

In the period following the return of the rest of Sinai to Egypt, as part of the Egypt–Israel peace treaty, the Camp David security protocols with Israel called for the creation and deployment of a border patrol force. But that was a monitoring force of limited size, so it did not have the ability or the equipment and knowhow to handle certain type of threats, such as the border tunnels between Gaza and Sinai. Eventually, Israel, which still occupied Gaza directly at the time, targeted the military infrastructure of the Palestinian factions, razing entire areas from Tel Al-Sultan and Hayy Al-Brazil to Hayy Al-Salam in Rafah.

After Hamas seized control of Gaza in the summer of 2007, it became obvious that Israel was trying to push the border crisis onto Egypt’s shoulders. Cairo, for its part, faced a double dilemma. On the one hand, it wanted to help Palestinians resolve the Fatah-Hamas rift which jeopardised the Palestinian case. On the other, it wanted to handle the tunnel situation in a manner that did not hamper relations with the Palestinians. Perhaps, at the time it did not fully appreciate the magnitude or the ramifications of the threat the tunnels posed to national security. However, it did have a wakeup call in mid-2008 when tens of thousands of Palestinians stormed the border and crossed into Egypt. Egypt did not attempt to intercept these people, but it focused on how to tighten border security, a task that acquired even greater importance in light of the sudden flare-up in Gaza, in August 2009, between Hamas and more the radical organisations opposed to it. At that point, Cairo began to suspect that Hamas planned to drive the jihadist groups from Gaza into Sinai, pushing that threat onto Egypt as well.

Egypt’s first major operation for stepping up border security involved the construction of a 10km long and 30cm wide steel border wall extending 20 to 30 metres underground. The facility was fitted out with surveillance equipment and other security devices. However, it turned out that Hamas had both the expertise and the machinery to construct tunnels that were both deeper and longer than their predecessors.

Before long, the problem would worsen against the backdrop of the security breakdown that spread to Sinai following the 25 January 2011 revolution. That was when the Salafi jihadist organisations began to surface and proliferate in Sinai and to make contact with their Palestinian counterparts in Gaza. At that point, what the Palestinians had called Gaza’s “lung in Sinai” — the potential repercussions of which Egypt had long overlooked because of the Israeli blockade of Gaza — had suddenly become a “lung” for terrorist networks on both sides of the border. It would also become a conduit of support for Hamas, especially once the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in 2012. There is considerable evidence that the Muslim Brotherhood regime gave Hamas the cover to use the tunnels after the Armed Forces accelerated operations to secure the borders above ground. This helps account for the sniper assaults, abductions and other attacks against Egyptian military personnel in the vicinity. Still fresh in Egyptians’ memory is the odd remark by then President Mohamed Morsi about the “safety of the abductees and abductors” in response to the kidnapping of a group of soldiers in June 2013.

The Egyptian-Gaza border strip was literally a gold mine with tunnel entrances housed in the basements of more than 3,000 homes. Despite the operations to shut them down, it is still possible to discover some tunnels. It has been estimated that $17 billion had been spent on securing the tunnels which reaped an average of $4 billion and profits from the tunnel commerce; by up to $2 billion according to some calculations. That is the income of the Suez Canal, one of Egypt’s most important sources of foreign currency revenues. As to where all that money went, one can only speculate, though it was clear that the Egyptian economy sustained inestimable damage as a result. Suffice it to say that it was suspected at the time that most of the gas, diesel, butane and other fuels and other goods subsided by the Egyptian government were being smuggled through the tunnels.

After the Libyan revolution, the arms smuggling through the tunnels from 2011 to mid-2013 skyrocketed. The security breakdown in Libya cracked open the largest weapons arsenal in the world, and at a time of the biggest ever boom in regional and local markets for smuggled weapons. Once the weapons made their way through their smuggling routes into Sinai, advertisements for them could be found on social networking platforms. The thirst for them was almost insatiable at that time of security flux and unrest.

Another very visible sign of the lawless situation was the array of informal money exchange brokers ready to greet Palestinians at the border. It was probably one of the most public black markets for hard currency history has ever seen.

A quick glance at the terrorist map of the region at the time shows that, for the most part, terrorist organisations moved to seize control of oil fields and installations in Syria, Iraq and Libya and plunder antiquities where they could find them, which they used to generate income through black market activities. Unlike in those countries, ISIS and its sister organisations never managed to hold territory in Sinai to serve as a base for their expansion. Most of the operatives in the terrorist organisations in Sinai came from abroad. While they did not find such ready-to-hand resources as oilfields and antiquities, they quickly realised they could make a profit by collaborating and splitting the proceeds with the tunnel merchants and arms smugglers.

Security authorities in Egypt tried to pressure Hamas into taking definitive action to stop the cross-border smuggling operations. At the same time, they launched major counterterrorist drives, such as Martyr’s Right, which also sought to stem the flow of terrorist operatives from Gaza into Sinai from the Egyptian end. The authorities adopted an early form of the two-pronged approach, albeit on a smaller scale, to the threat emanating from Gaza. It entailed reopening the border crossings with Gaza to allow the passage of civilians and goods. Apart from the humanitarian purpose, the step was meant to convey the message that Egypt would not tolerate the continuation of the underground transit. Egypt also began to deliver large supplies of consumer goods and construction materials that used to be smuggled into Sinai through the tunnels. The effort appeared to pay off, because at one stage Hamas begun to organise security patrols along the Palestinian side of the border in Rafah. Hamas may not have been committed to fully halting the tunnel activity, but its actions earned it the enmity of the jihadist groups in the Gaza. A gruesome video posted by terrorist groups in Sinai shows an Islamic State mufti in Gaza beheading a Palestinian fighter who had been charged with communicating with Hamas. It is likely that Hamas relaxed its vigilance at the border afterwards.

Egyptian authorities understood that there were limits to how much they could depend on security coordination with Hamas. Above ground level, it was possible to monitor Hamas’s commitment. Below the ground was another matter. The Islamist movement’s militia structures were too bound up in militia networks and the tunnel work. There was a whole army of workers and traders with vested interests in the tunnel activities. In Gaza, an estimated 70,000 strong workforce was in the employ of Hamas’ official agency responsible for tunnel operations. Some estimate that an equal number of people were involved in the activities on the Egyptian side. Egyptian-Hamas cooperation would have jeopardised all that.

Indeed, there is reason to presume that Cairo was keen not to entirely close the “lung” that Palestinians needed in order to breathe. Rather, it wanted to control the movement to make breathing normal. Cairo had to contend with the challenge presented by a jungle of random urban growth along the borders, together with all the social and economic problems that come with informal urban developments. All this made for too volatile a tinderbox against the backdrop of domestic economic straits and the precarious regional situation at the time.

To aggravate the situation, some social networking sites and other platforms, mostly affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, were circulating rumours indicating that Egypt, Israel and the US had conspired to strike a secret agreement to shift the Egyptian borders in Sinai inward, thereby ceding territory to Gaza as part of a solution to the Palestinian-Israel conflict. Cairo naturally protested the slur campaign which coincided with the start of another drive to close the tunnels spearheaded by the Armed Forces’ engineering corps and requiring the evacuation of that slum-filled border strip in which some buildings were practically within arm’s reach of the Palestinian side of Rafah. Initially, it was thought that only a very narrow strip next to the border would be affected. However, authorities then unearthed a tunnel extending three kilometres into Egyptian territories. This was no rudimentary earthwork. It had three outlets into three different homes, one for smuggling people, a second for black market goods, and the third for arms trafficking. Other tunnels also came to light, some entirely sheathed in concrete.

All this motivated a project to redesign Rafah. The old, random quarters were evacuated in the framework of a carefully conceived plan based around humanitarian considerations. Well before beginning the evacuation process, the government initiated an awareness campaign, explaining the reasons why this step was necessary. After conducting a survey of the households that would be affected, the government used several media to explain the steps involved in the evacuation process, and the support roles that local authorities would play in this regard. Despite such efforts, certain groups initiated a smear campaign, accusing the government of carrying out a scheme of “forced migration” and “population transfer”. Such allegations were entirely without foundation, even in theory. The operation was in line with Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention which states that an operation to move a population should serve to benefit that population, above all by removing them from the dangers of armed conflict. Although there was no armed conflict, in the strictest sense, there was a fight in progress: against terrorism, organised crime and systematic border breaches. Effectively, the people were at risk.

Even before the planning phase for New Rafah, the government announced the compensation scheme which entailed an LE1 billion allocation to the construction of new residential housing. In practice, the process covered much more, including compensation for farmland in the borders strip that had to be evacuated. More than LE3.5 billion has already been disbursed as compensation according to a report by the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR). Other payouts have yet to be made. Some of these cover damages that some households endured during the evacuation process. Others are dedicated to the families of victims of terrorist attacks who lost a loved one or where a family member was injured. Terrorists had often commandeered people’s homes and expelled them, then mined the area surrounding the buildings to prevent security forces from approaching.

Destroying the tunnel infrastructure necessitated destroying around 4,000 homes. Because of the unplanned nature in which the buildings and neighbourhoods had emerged and then sprawled, the government could not simply rebuild them and recreate the same anarchy. What was needed was to start from scratch with an entirely new concept for a community inspired by the need to offer its inhabitants a dignified life and all the means to meet the multidimensional facets of comprehensive human development. The result was New Rafah, located within the administrative boundaries of the city of Rafah, but some kilometres away from the old quarter.

The resettlement process had to be as carefully planned and systematically implemented as the compensations. Representatives of Sinai civil society and local community leaders were brought in to help with the process. As is the case elsewhere in Egypt, many of the inhabitants did not originally own their properties, but rented them on various terms. They, too, would be given new accommodation with rents set at affordable levels in accordance with a plan devised by the municipality. Each case was handled individually, using the surveys and information gathering processes that were carried out before the inhabitants were evacuated from the border strip. According to the local authorities, the compensation system for the evacuees uses the same framework. The work is still in progress, but soon many will be able to return to New Rafah.

According to the governor of North Sinai, 628 apartment blocks are being constructed in New Rafah, offering a total of around 10,000 flats. The project also includes 409 Bedouin style houses. Like other model development projects in Egypt, plots of land will be available to young adults within the framework of the urban expansion plan for the city. In old Rafah some 50,000 m3 of drinking water had to be brought into the city using rudimentary transport that may have rendered the water unsafe for human consumption. New Rafah has been equipped with two water purification plants each with a capacity of 11,000 m3.

Construction is proceeding rapidly. The first phase of the city has been completed and construction began on the second phase. There is no comparison between the new Rafah and the old. The modern architecture, the green spaces, the large sporting clubs, the new schools — in short, everything is light years away from the cramped and unsustainable anarchy of old Rafah. According to official figures, the project extends over 535 acres and costs LE1,380 billion. As one observes the sparkling new city, one is struck by its resemblance to the latest urban development project in the capital. This is significant, as it manifests a national development approach that pays as much attention to the peripheries as to the centre.

The new city also stands for something else. Rafah was once an area that had presented a compound threat to Egyptian national security for decades. The government has observed all legal and humanitarian standards at all stages, from the necessary evacuation and temporary relocation processes through the administration of compensation and the resettlement processes. This is not to suggest that these efforts have been trouble free. But when problems arose they were dealt with in inclusive and innovative ways that brought on board local authorities, members of parliament and representatives of civil society.

New Rafah stands as a monument to the post- 30 June 2013 government’s success in turning around a situation that had once favoured groups and networks whose interests were vested in an ecosystem operating outside of the law and set on moving a chunk of territory beyond the control of the state. The situation there today now favours conditions for growth, modern development, and a dignified life.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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