Egypt pays high price for neglect of Sinai

By Heba Saleh, Financial Times

Among the charges levelled at Hosni Mubarak, the ousted Egyptian president being tried by his people, there is nothing about his responsibility for the state’s reckless neglect of the Sinai, the strategic peninsula that borders Israel and Gaza.

Yet Egyptians are likely to remember as one of his gravest sins that, on his watch, state control over the country’s eastern gateway was dangerously eroded and its people’s relationship with central government became marked by deep mistrust and often hostility.

In the past week, Egypt has been stung by Israeli criticism that it has lost its grip on the Sinai. This came after suspected Palestinian militants, said by Israel to have slipped into the peninsula from Gaza, carried out deadly attacks against Israeli targets inside the Jewish state’s border with Egypt.

The Egyptian government hastened to assert that “it is able to protect its borders and comprehensively secure Sinai”, but officials admit there is a problem. In the days before the attacks against Israel, combined Egyptian army and police forces launched a crackdown in the territory – which is still continuing – to weed out armed groups and suspected Islamic militants.

Awash with weapons and a main route for drugs and smuggling to Israel, the sparsely populated peninsula, inhabited by Bedouin tribes, appears to have sunk deeper into lawlessness since the ousting of Mr Mubarak in February. The routing of his police forces by protesters in big cities led to a security vacuum across the country and loosened the state’s already shaky control of the Sinai. A pipeline in the peninsula carrying natural gas to Israel and Jordan has been blown up five times since February.

In recent weeks, armed groups have opened fire at security checkpoints and last month more than 100 suspected Islamic militants laid siege to a police station in al-Arish, the main town in the north of the territory, and fought a gun battle with police.

The region’s troubles, experts and residents say, are the result of a failure of government since Egypt regained the territory from Israel in 1982. They argue that neglect and the absence of development plans, in addition to restrictions on land ownership, have pushed an impoverished and unskilled population into illegal activities.

Although beach resorts drawing millions of western holidaymakers have expanded along the coastlines of the Sinai, local people say there have been few benefits for them. The tourism industry is owned and operated by outsiders.

“They have turned us into something folkloric for the tourists,” says Ashraf Ayoub, a political activist from al-Arish. “Local people dress in their costumes or cook special dishes, but that is all.”

The opportunity for generous, though illegal, profits presented itself with the closure of the crossings into Gaza, after Hamas took control there in 2007. Up to 1,400 tunnels were dug under the border, boosting a flourishing economy based on smuggling. The high revenues corrupted officials and encouraged local people to diversify into the riskier weapons and drugs markets.

Police brutality is also held responsible for the alienation of Sinai people from government and the rise in violent attacks against security services. When Islamic militants bombed tourist resorts a few years ago, the security services rounded up, detained without trial and tortured thousands of young men. Police often arrested the wives and mothers of men they could not find, further inflaming local feeling.

“It drove some young men to become even more religiously extreme,” says Mr Ayoub. “They arrested almost all of Sinai, and it created a vendetta against the authorities.”

Recent events appear to have alerted the authorities to the dangers in the Sinai. Officials now say they are working on serious plans to address the problems of its people. The rift is yet another of Mr Mubarak’s legacies that could take years to heal.

August 23, 2011 | Comments »

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