The Sinai Peninsula, once restored, now faces the greatest challenges since the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal in 1973 to triumph over the occupying Israeli forces.
The already marginalised populace endures the consequences of a militant insurgency and heavy army operations. Daily News Egypt spoke to a politicians, residents, and experts to assess Sinai, 42 years after Egypt’s war to restore its rule.
We represented the Egyptian identity when state abandoned peninsula: Al-Karama Party member in North Sinai
The first thing that came to Sheikh Khaled Arafat’s mind on the commemoration of the 6th of October War was the following comment: “Sinai has not been liberated yet.”
Arafat, a member of the Nasserist Al-Karama Party in North Sinai, lamented the time when peace was established between Israel and Egypt after the heavy war, telling Daily News Egypt: “We were supposed to be the first people feeling freedom and change coming.”
However, with the ongoing military war on terrorism in the peninsula, Arafat’s speculations on the future of North Sinai were rather pessimistic, as he is convinced that the state is failing to integrate it as part of Egypt.
“With the restrictions imposed by the Camp David accords, our cities are ruined and will not be able to develop ever,” Arafat stated.
He further shared some of the hardships faced by the residents amid the war on terrorism, which vary from displacement to curfew hours to road blocks. On top of all this comes the killing of civilians, whether in military raids or by terrorist groups.
“We have accepted all that, but still, a North Sinai resident is automatically a terrorist suspect, until proven otherwise,” he said. “We do not know what the definition of terrorism is anymore; it is just awful.”
Moreover, Arafat criticised the government’s strategy for development in the area, saying it had started only in the western part of Sinai, and would not reach Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid and Al-Arish, which according to him “perfectly suits the Israeli dream of clearing the border area.”
In his opinion, the higher the population density near the borders, the more successful the resistance to terrorism becomes. “Instead of having less than half a million residents scattered over 61,000 sqm, let’s become 10 million. This is the real protection for national security,” Arafat believes.
Arafat further expressed frustration at the media and Egyptian politicians, who are “calling us terrorists and demanding we are all deported from our homeland. Don’t they know that North Sinai residents were the only and true representation of the Egyptian identity for years, after the state abandoned the peninsula?” he said.
Despite all, Arafat is positive that Sinai will return safely to Egypt. “Our history in resisting enemies and overcoming conspiracies since the English and the French colonies says we will not be defeated,” he said.
“But it is time for fake and empty slogans to end. Egypt is not in celebration, we are in dire conditions and nobody even speaks to or about us,” Arafat concluded.
Our sons cannot feel the October war victory when they are being called terrorists and traitors: Sanaa Gelbana
“There will never be any development in North Sinai without security stability first,” said Sanaa Gelbana, a resident of Al-Arish city, whose career includes membership in the former National Democratic Party (NDP) and the presidency of the North Sinai Association for sustainable development.
In a telephone interview Monday with Daily News Egypt, Gelbana recalled the days of the October war in 1973, when she was still a child. “Those were the glory days for Sinai and all the Suez Canal cities. These people are the ones who bore the burden of the war,” she said.
Like many North Sinai residents, Gelbana takes pride in defeating the “Zionist enemy”, and the role played by her people in backing up the Egyptian army during the war. “I will never forget the day my mother finally carried the flag around town, after we have been hiding it in the Israelis’ raid on our apartment,” she said.
However, Gelbana said that the new generation only gets a taste of “defeat and bitterness” amid the ongoing war on terrorism. “Today, the former heroes of Sinai are being called traitors and terrorists, while in reality terrorism was imposed on them, without them having the necessary means to fight back.”
Gelbana said that she and other Sinai families support the military efforts, but she believes the military interference came too late. “Since 25 January 2011 and the gradual takeover of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces should have had a strategy to secure its international borders,” she said.
She added that Sinai residents were shocked and scared by the large amount of weaponry infiltrated Egyptian lands. “I do not know how much longer this war will go on, but I listen to all those ‘experts’ who speak in the media. Let me tell you, they do not know anything.”
Gelbana criticised the local media in general, saying their portrayal of Sinai residents is far from the reality. “On the other hand, we do not use any propaganda to improve our image, but history proves we are the children of the front line defenders of this country, and all of this is included in the military intelligence services’ files of the war.”
“We don’t have weapons to protect our children from getting killed every day, but we are armed with our faith in God and love of our country and pride in our Egyptian nationality.”
Mushir Al-Masri – Senior member of Hamas and media spokesperson
“Hamas wishes Egypt security, stability, and unity, not least because this will be good for Egypt and the whole region. We also reiterate that Hamas has no role politically or militarily in Sinai,” Al-Masri told Daily News Egypt.
We hope that Egypt will cooperate with the Palestinian people because its strategy is intensifying the siege on Gaza, we see it increasing on both sides. Egypt’s security procedures have closed off any outlet or passage to the trapped Palestinian people.
The main border with Egypt has been closed for months, open only for a few days at a time. Recently they let some pilgrims through, but tens of thousands of people are awaiting travel for reasons such as medical care and education.
We call on Egypt to lift the siege and change its policy. We should enjoy better strategic relations. We are geographically close, we have an Arab identity, we share a religion – the enemy should always be the same common enemy that is the Zionist entity.
Zack Gold – Visiting Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel
To what extent are the counter-insurgency strategies in North Sinai succeeding or failing?
Egyptian operations in Sinai are failing to achieve key objectives necessary in countering the ongoing insurgency in the Peninsula’s northeast. The local population is less safe today than it was a year ago, despite an ongoing state of emergency, a curfew, and efforts to limit movements in North Sinai.
The military’s unprecedented levels of troops and weaponry have not had an enduring impact on clearing IS-Sinai strongholds. And by the Egyptian government’s own admission there is a flow of foreign fighters to North Sinai despite a clampdown on the peninsula’s entryways.
A recent positive development is the public recognition by the Egyptian government and military that previous efforts have been unsuccessful. The recently announced government policies toward Sinai and the stated goals of “Phase 2” of Operation [“Retribution for the Martyr”] if fully implemented, could succeed in countering the North Sinai insurgency.
Is the talk of “developing Sinai” just talk? What is needed?
It is important that Cairo recognises the importance of developing Sinai. What is needed are concrete plans detailing efforts to be completed, as well as how those efforts will positively impact the local population.
What is the general feeling in Israel towards the conflict in North Sinai? What are Israeli citizens calling for?
The Israeli government’s biggest concern is that militancy will burst out of Sinai. Israel supports all of the Egyptian military’s efforts in containing and countering IS-Sinai because both governments want to avoid situations in which Israel violates Egyptian sovereignty.
[Editor’s note: the Israeli government spokesperson told Daily News Egypt they would not comment on Sinai]
Saeed Ateeq, Sinai tribe member
“For anyone who lived in Sinai in the 1970s, the 6th of October War represents a great national struggle that led to the liberation of the land, and the liberation of a people from the slavery of occupation,” said Saeed Ateeq, a member of a Sinai tribes.
Ateeq expressed his point of view regarding the Egyptian military’s latest operation, “Retribution for the Martyr”, saying that the army displayed much perseverance and strength while confronting the terrorist elements in Sinai.
“However, an advantage present for the terrorist groups is the challenging geography of the peninsula,” said Ateeq. “These groups are counting on a prolonged fight.”
“As Sinai residents, we have a sense of belonging to Egypt, and we are siding completely with the military in its endeavours to fight terrorism; however, we can disagree on certain policies affecting the region.”
“There are people who left their homes and relocated to other places, not having any water or electricity or shelter, because they cannot stay in their former residences due to the ongoing operation,” explained Ateeq. “The cabinet should be held accountable for this.”
Regarding Sinai’s development, Ateeq believes that there can be no development without having security, stability and regaining total control over the Sinai Peninsula. When that condition is satisfied, Ateeq predicts the region will witness the development of major projects; a fact which the army has come to realise needs to happen.
“Sinai has suffered the negligence of 30 years. That, coupled with a misconception of the Sinai culture and its residents, has led to the deteriorating conditions we are witnessing now.”
Ahmed Abu Deraa, journalist
The journalist views the Egyptian military’s latest operation “Retribution for the Martyr” in a positive light, saying that the army has managed to spread effectively in the region, thus restricting terrorist activity considerably.
“Following the operation, attacks against the police and the army have decreased significantly in Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid, which signals the termination of many terrorist elements amid an ongoing military operation,” said Abu Deraa.
“The ongoing events in Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah have led most residents to flee their homes and relocate to Al-Arish and other areas that are considered safer, until military operations come to an end,” explained Abu Deraa.
“The greatest damage is suffered by the average citizen, because he/she can be harmed by the military activity as well as the terrorist activity. The damage sustained by the citizens surpasses that of the army and the terrorists” he said.
“More than 200 citizens have been targeted by terrorist groups due to their cooperation with the army. On the other hand, the army kills many citizens through random airstrikes.”
The journalist stated that almost all families that have evacuated their homes in the aforementioned areas, to move to the outskirts of Al-Arish, have no residence and are subject to very harsh conditions, such as lack of food and water.
Regarding compensations, Abu Deraa says that the government only compensated 16 families out of more than 400 families with residence in “youth establishments”. The compensated families were those injured during the military operation.
“Development in Sinai is directly related to its security and stability,” said Abu Deraa. “There is no way we can develop while there are constant threats affecting the region. It might take two more years in order to achieve this kind of stability.”
When stability and security are realised, the journalist believes this would lead the way to the launching of major projects in the region.
Reporting by Amira El-Fekki, Nourhan Fahmy and Emir Nader