CAIRO: Originally a Roman garrison town named Rhinocolorum ("Noses Cut Off") after the fate of dissidents exiled there, Al-Arish, the capital city of the North Sinai governorate, historically has experienced more than its fair share of invasions.
After being briefly occupied by Israel in 1956, and again after the Six Day War of 1967, Al-Arish was officially declared independent under the terms of the Camp David Accords on May 25, 1979.
Today, heated debate continues to loom over the city’s ability to stand on its own feet for the past 31 years.
Al-Arish, with its fertile lands, proximity to the Mediterranean Sea, abundance of breathtaking date-palm groves and bordering with the Palestinian Gaza Strip, has historically been considered a crucial strategic area which is partly to blame for the decades of strife between Israel and Egypt.
Mounir Shash, North Sinai’s governor from 1982 to 1996, believes Al-Arish experienced a boom of economic development after Israeli troops withdrew.
“Those who believe that development in Sinai was greater under Israeli occupation are making fallacious claims,” asserted Shash, “under Israel, Sinai was only a buffer zone and therefore there were very limited services.”
Shash stressed the necessity to contrast agricultural development before and after Israeli occupation. “Before 1982, agricultural development was limited and people were forced to purchase high-priced fruits and vegetables from Ismailia. However, today, as farming developed, up to 20 percent of fruits distributed in Egypt originate from North Sinai.”
“Under Israeli control, lack of technology and water and the presence of high-priced land made an almost nonexistent agricultural sector,” Shash claimed. “In the last 31 years, decreased land-purchasing prices, increased water, and new technology have caused plantations of dates and olives to fuel Al-Arish’s economy.”
Ashraf Al-Hefny, secretary general of Tagammu Party in North Sinai since 2002, also admits that many important developments have been implemented such as greater agricultural yields, where up to 300,000 acres of agricultural lands exist today.
However, Shash does admit one main flaw, in his opinion, in the city of Al-Arish, and the governorate of Sinai as a whole. “Ever since 1994, a national project of LE 75 million to integrate Sinai’s water routes with the rest of Egypt has been inactive and failed to be administered by the Egyptian government.”
This project, he said, would have allowed Sinai to develop even further economically and would have benefited Egypt as a whole. “The government needs to take a more active role and work in partnership with the governorate in order to have a more productive future.”
Al-Hefny echoed Shash’s criticism of the National Project and added, “Results have been fruitless, and there is a lack of irrigation water needed for farming since water routes still fail to reach Al-Arish. Many people from Mid-Sinai are forced to migrate north because of a lack of access to water.”
“This is problematic as these migrants become unemployed after moving to Al-Arish as they lose their previous jobs in the mid-Sinai region.
“Under the occupation almost all profits whether in the agricultural or petroleum sector went to Israel,” he explained, adding that since “Sinai was a buffer strategic zone for Israel, the governorate’s development was not in its interest, and thus employment was limited.”
“One of the critical issues residing in Al-Arish is water-shortage; most households have an absence of heating water or even drinking water,” Al-Hefny said.
Mustafa Singer, Sinai-based journalist and activist, agrees with Al-Hefny. “Many of the households depend on water tanks which are filled only three or four times a week. Eighty percent of drinking water is in the form of groundwater irrigated from wells; this is an unsustainable source of water.”
“Moreover, the water shortage makes the vast amount of lands available unprofitable,” he said.
“Additionally, any land that is owned usually seems to be controlled by powerful elite mafia groups yielding all the profits; this has worsened with the spread of private businesses in the region. Farmers need complete sovereignty over land,” he explained.
“Irrigation water is also lacking, and the government is failing to survey these shortages. This is problematic as a lack of irrigation water causes dramatic decreases in agricultural yields,” Singer added.
Electricity in Al-Arish
“Under the occupation there was only one electrical power plant generating 43 Megawatts (Mw) in the entire city. However, from 1982 to 1994 the figures escalated to 144 Mw,” Shash said.
Shash added that within the capital, during occupation, there was only one telephone central and no telephones in households. However, he emphasized that “after Israel withdrew, within the next decade 30,000 telephone lines were created.”
However, Al-Hefny criticized the electricity sector in Al-Arish. “The current power plants do not provide for more than 20 percent of electricity, which is unsatisfactory,” he said.
With the Al-Arish Power Project more electrical needs are met in several households, however supplies are limited and many have periodic shortages.
While most agree that Al-Arish has developed economically since the occupation, the extent of the economic growth is where they differ.
“Manufacturing and factories were nonexistent under Israel. Today there are several factories manufacturing several materials such as cement, silicon and so forth,” Shash said.
Shash explained that tourism also became an important component of Al-Arish’s economy. “The creation of several museums, such as the Sinai Heritage Museum, have played a very important role in Al-Arish’s economy,” he said.
“As a result of this economic development, housing infrastructure has improved, and unemployment has dramatically decreased; before the 1980s the idea of income was nonexistent in Sinai.”
Singer also admits that the region has definitely developed ever since Israeli occupation. “Back then the economy was not very established, was unsophisticated, weak and individualistic. Consequently, there was a lack in abundance of agriculture and thus the standard of living was poor.”
“Since the 80s the economy expanded through privatization and collective trade caused by an increase in funds and financial movement.” Singer asserted.
“Nevertheless, development in Al-Arish is insufficient, especially with a rising population,” he added.
“In the last two years, the city has become even more detached from the Egyptian economy due to clashes with the bordering Gaza Strip after several Palestinians have attempted illegal entrance into Egypt,” he said.
Singer believes that “this has caused an increase in prices, and therefore a loss of profits.”
Singer and many other activists like him hope for an expansion in factories and services in order for the Egyptian economy and the people of Sinai and Al-Arish to benefit.
Al-Hefny also commented on development in the education sector. “There are many more schools and universities since Israeli control, but they are not numerous enough to be considered flourishing development. More expansion is needed in this sector, and it especially needs to be government-based and free,” Al-Hefny said.
Many criticize the absence of government based-universities, where many such as the Sinai University were created by privately-owned businesses.