Nadine Marroushi
Al-Masry Al-Youm
August 29, 2011 - 12:00am

In the wake of renewed unrest in Sinai, talk about the dire need to develop the eastern peninsula is resurfacing. Political parties have been quick to make proposals.

The killing of six Egyptian officers on 18 August at the hands of Israeli soldiers, who entered the peninsula in a hunt for militants who killed eight Israelis in Eilat, has brought the issue of lawlessness to the forefront again. A military campaign has been launched to rid the area of increasing militants after a group of masked gunmen burned a police station in Arish, North Sinai, on 29 July and marched through the city with black flags.

Its strategic location between Egypt, Israel and Gaza has for a long time meant that the development of Sinai has been tied to security considerations. Under Mubarak, security issues trumped real efforts to integrate Sinai politically, economically and socially into the fabric of Egyptian national life. It is hoped that under a new government, which is due to be elected in November, this will change.

Populating the peninsula is one proposition put forth by politicians in Cairo. The leftist Popular Socialist Alliance Party (PSAP), formed shortly after Hosni Mubarak stepped down, would like to see an additional 3 to 5 million Egyptians living in Sinai as a way of countering the peninsula’s low population density versus its large land mass.

“We would like to build Sinai up to become a protection zone for Egypt. … If we create job opportunities, this will attract the population needed to live in Sinai instead of Egyptians going to the Gulf and elsewhere in search of work,” Ibrahim al-Issawy, an economist and PSAP representative, told Al-Masry Al-Youm.

One of Issawy’s proposals is to combine education with job creation in Sinai through universities.

“Like Cambridge and Oxford, many towns are built around universities. We have many universities in Cairo with college departments related to the desert and Sinai’s environment, like mining engineering and desert farming, that can be transferred to Sinai,” Issawy, said. The idea is that university courses would be completed over a longer period of time, and combine studying with working in Sinai. From this, he said, communities would be born.

Sinai is also featured in the political planning of Islamists, although its thriving tourism industry in the south may cause controversy.

Mohsen Rady, a leader in the Islamist Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) said that his party would develop tourism and agriculture in the peninsula, as well as institutions in the fields of healthcare, education and other services.

As an Islamist party, formed in late April, and the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, the FJP’s policies fall in line with Sharia law. In this context, the party would ban the manufacturing of alcohol in Egypt, he said, though it would not prevent individual rights to drinking imported alcohol - a fact with potential implications for South Sinai’s tourism industry.

Last week, the statements of FJP Secretary General Saad al-Katatny raised tempers when he told representatives of the tourism industry that beach tourism should be regulated in order for it to respect the values and norms of society.

Mohamed Nour, the Nour Party spokesperson in Cairo, said the party’s policy is to treat Sinai as a part of Egypt, and not distance it. This would involve listening to Sinai’s residents and working to create projects that would be beneficial to them. Improving the peninsula’s infrastructure would also be a priority, especially the upgrading of communication and transport networks, Nour said. Industries the party would like to develop include internal tourism, as well as tourism related to desert and Bedouin life, and mining.

The Nour Party was formed in May and stems from the Islamist Salafi Dawaa in Alexandria, one of the most organized Salafi movements in the country. It claims to have 100,000 members and through membership fees raises LE1 million per month.

A site of political propositions by Islamists, Sinai is also an important constituency for the liberal Free Egyptians Party (FEP), which would like to see the development of the peninsula’s mineral and agricultural resources as a means for further job creation. According to Basel Adel, a member of the FEP’s presidential council, the party is researching the development of phosphates in the area.

Adel told Al-Masry Al-Youm that the party is setting aside a large portion, around 15 percent, of its soon-to-be raised campaigning budget on South Sinai alone. It is a tourist governorate, which it sees as falling in line with its own interests in the industry.

“We have a big opportunity in the Red Sea area, South Sinai and the touristic governorates, because they are concerned about religious movements that could affect their tourism trade,” Adel said.

The FEP was founded by Coptic business tycoon Naguib Sawiris, who has major investments in South Sinai. It is communicating with Bedouins in the area, including those from the extensive and influential Tarabeen tribe, to field them as party candidates. But the party may have some convincing to do.

When canvassing opinion in the Red Sea town of Nuweiba, Sheikh Esheish of the Tarabeen tribe told Al-Masry Al-Youm that the FEP “doesn’t have the support of the Bedouins, because its program is not clear.” He added, “we’re not in Switzerland, we’re in an area that has problems and we need people that are aware of these issues.”

There is an agreement that for those political players to be able to achieve their political planning in Sinai, security must prevail - a task considered difficult given the strong animosity between the people of the area and the police apparatus that dates back to mass arrests following the terrorist attacks that hit the area in 2004, 2005 and 2006.

Esheish said that after the revolution broke out, “the role of the police in Nuweiba ended; Bedouins had their own weapons and took over.” Esheish, who has been in prison, said the police targeted anyone with a little bit of money and put them in prison so that they could pay a bail fine.

Many are still waiting for justice to be served to those that were allegedly arrested unlawfully under the former regime.

This hostility does not apply to the army, an institution to which the Bedouins are generally loyal. There is a sense of comfort among Bedouins with a military presence that respects tribal autonomy.

The idea of tribal autonomy is, however, slightly contentious among political parties. The PSAP’s Issawy said that “personal autonomy in Sinai wouldn’t be acceptable to any Egyptian. In our party, we call for democratic participation for all of Egypt through a parliamentary system and real local governance with the election of governors and council members. There should be accountability and transparency.”

Security, Issawy added, is a national responsibility, and the legal customs of tribes, such as the urf laws which they use for conflict resolution, should be complimentary to the legal system but not take over it in Sinai.

“The legal system should be independent on a national level with components on a local level,” he said.

Rady, of the FJP, agrees and says “the tribes are Egyptian nationals and there is no such thing as individual autonomous rule; they are a part of Egyptian society.”

Rady, though, thinks that the police should be responsible for providing security in Sinai and that the army’s role should be limited to protecting against external threats.

Bedouins’ historic difficulties with registering property ownership, due to state suspicions about where their patriotic loyalty lay, would be taken up by the parties. Issawy said the issue can be resolved legally by allowing Bedouins to own property and preventing any land sales to foreigners - a means of ensuring the Egyptian identity of Sinai, a position equally espoused by other parties.


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