Sinai Doldrums

Had we paid more attention to Sinai in the past 30 years, we wouldn’t be at our wits’ end now, trying to make head or tail of the current situation.

How many years ago did Israel withdraw from Sinai? The answer is: more than we needed to develop the entire peninsula instead of just focussing on Sharm El-Sheikh. But we’ve done nothing to change the underlying problems of Sinai. We’ve done nothing to halt the drug trade, stop the arms smuggling, or ensure that law and order is maintained all over Sinai.

The New York Times now says that Sinai is controlled by Bedouin tribesmen who follow their own law and engage in all forms of illicit activities. Whose fault is this, I wonder.

For years, the security services have focussed solely on the roads leading to Sharm El-Sheikh, the semi-royal capital of Egypt. Ordinary citizens couldn’t travel on the roads leading to Sharm El-Sheikh without getting their IDs checked repeatedly. While the Israelis were given licence to roam Sinai to their heart’s content, Egyptian citizens were often turned back just because they couldn’t give a good reason for being in Sinai or because they came under police suspicion for any number of reasons.

At times when conferences or high-level meetings were held, Sharm El-Sheikh would turn into a forbidden city, a formidable fortress in the middle of the desert.

The sole concern of the government was to monitor the borders with Gaza and Israel and secure the major roads in Sinai. And once the troubles began in Gaza, extra efforts were made to stop the smuggling business across the tunnels. In a final attempt to block access to Sinai by Hamas and its allies, Egypt arranged at one point to build a steel barrier. The project, which was to be completed with the help of American contractors, would have created a steel barrier running so deep along the borders that all tunnelling would end.

Recently, gunmen said to be associated with the Army of Islam were blamed for blowing up stations pumping gas to both Israel and Jordan. And early this month, the Arish police station was attacked with machineguns. This prompted the government to send army units equipped with heavy weapons to reinforce the security forces in Sinai and search for the outlaws.

Press reports so far speak of operations against so- called jihadist cells leading to arrests and the seizure of arms depots. If anything, this indicates that the situation in North Sinai is worse than anyone had expected or known about. Security forces are said to have fought gunfire battles with those jihadist gunmen.

The tensions in Sinai run deeper than smuggling, politics and religious extremism. The question of allowing Sinai locals to own their land must be revisited, along with other matters concerning the development and welfare of the peninsula.

There is also the question of Israel, which, having allowed Egypt to bring in 1,000 army soldiers into Sinai, once again incensed the public with plans to build more settlements on occupied Palestinian land.

So far the media hasn’t published any photos or footage of defendants said to have committed so many crimes in Sinai. Egyptian public knows very little about Sinai, its topography, and the tribal laws that govern its indigenous population. There is a gap between the Sinai locals and the rest of the country. This gap is one that we need to bridge with more information, more development projects and more concern for the welfare of all those involved. Otherwise, the troubles in Sinai may not end soon.

Salama A. Salama writes for Al Ahram Weekly.