Egypt Must Gamble in the Sinai

Egypt Must Gamble in the Sinai

Egypt has lots of big ideas for the troubled region. It just hasn't been trying any of the big ones.


Last month, the Egyptian military launched its third operation in the Sinai Peninsula since 2011. In coordination with the police, the military deployed tank battalions, infantry units, and helicopters to end the daily attacks that have killed and injured tens of people over the past few weeks.

The goal of “Operation Desert Storm” is to root out “terror hotbeds” and quell the emerging—if not all-out—insurgency that broke out following Mohamed Morsi’s removal from power on July 3. To this end, Sinai has been placed under security lockdown. But a counterterrorism strategy will only go so far to curb the violence. If the transitional government intends to wrest back control of the peninsula, then it must develop a clear and multidimensional policy toward Sinai.


Ironically, in the two years since Egypt’s uprising, many ideas have been floated to stabilize Sinai, but none of them have been implemented.

Most recently, on July 19, Morsi’s cabinet passed a plan that allocated more than $600 million over the next two years to develop the Sinai and pledged to prioritize development work there. According to Amr Darrag, the former minister of planning and international cooperation, the government planned on constructing new housing units and schools, reallocating land to local residents, and modernizing water and sanitation centers, among other things. At the same time, it would counter criminal elements in the peninsula and engage in cultural dialogue with various local parties.

Whether the government could have marshalled the resources necessary to actually carry it out remains unclear: Morsi was ousted several weeks later. But the plan was innovative, nonetheless, and Egypt’s new rulers should salvage it—or, at the very least, adopt other steps to end Sinai’s marginalization.

For example, a new governorate in central Sinai, which had been suggested by the old ruling National Democratic Party, is one way to integrate Sinai residents. The cabinet discussed such a plan in late 2011. One year later, in October, the head of the Egyptian Urban Planning Authority told Al Ahram that a new governorate in central Sinai would be created by 2017. Around the same time, there were reports that Morsi would issue a decision calling for the creation of a third governorate. But this never happened, and the government’s inaction has
prompted a lawyer to request that a court compel interim president Adly Mansour and the ministers of defense and interior to create it. He argues that a new governorate would generate tourism and would provide opportunities to exploit central Sinai’s rich mineral resources, thereby boosting economic output.="#.ufbmyy3vb8e">

Residents of northern and central Sinai complain of the absence of basic services and infrastructure, a casualty of Egypt’s overly centralized government. According to one official, some villages “seem as if they are in the Stone Age” because they do not have access to drinking water, electricity or telephones, nor is there a functioning sewage system. A new local authority would be able to address these complaints and pay close attention to the needs of its constituency.

Amending or replacing the controversial Sinai land ownership law, which was passed by Morsi's government in late 2012, would also be constructive. Although the law reversed official policy by allowing Sinai residents to own land, it effectively discriminates against Bedouin by requiring them to prove their and their parents' citizenship. Tribal leaders, including Sheikh Ali Freij, who heads the Sinai Tribes Union, have criticized the law, calling the latter condition in specific "an unnecessary complication." But the law is a symptom of a larger issue: Bedouin are not granted equal rights and protection under Egyptian law. Granting Bedouin full citizenship would go a long way to placate their complaints of disenfranchisement and reintegrate them into Egyptian society.

Similarly, the ban on land ownership in eastern Sinai, which was announced in December 2012, could be reassessed in consultation with tribal leaders once Desert Storm comes to an end. Opponents claim that it will displace ten thousand families, many of whom claim historical ties to the land. And Sinai tribes have threatened protests, civil disobedience, and a “revolt” if the government fails to overturn the decision. Assuming the ban—which bars land ownership within three miles of the border with the Gaza Strip and Israel—is truly necessary to ensure security, then those affected by it should be justly compensated.

Additionally, a fair and transparent judicial review of the cases of imprisoned Sinai residents may bring an end to attacks on security outposts and personnel. Several hundred Bedouin, especially from North Sinai, have been arrested over the years, especially following the string of terrorist attacks in the 2000s, and more continue to be tried in absentia. The perception that state security is targeting Bedouin has radicalized elements of the population, which, coupled with the influx of Salafist Jihadists over the past two years, has contributed to the uptick in violence. According to Abdel Moneim al Rifai, the spokesman of the Arab tribes in Sinai, Morsi's government had agreed to review the cases of these prisoners. The new government should do the same in an effort to empower tribal leaders-many of whom have a history of working with the government and armed forces-and counter the spread of militant groups.

With high public support for the military in Sinai and the backing of activists, advocacy groups, and numerous tribes, the time is right for the Egyptian government to act. If it can present a clear Sinai strategy moving forward, one that adequately addresses the needs of Sinai's diverse population, then it can hope to avert more violence in the future. But if the government fails to do so, then Sinai will simply continue to wither away.

Gilad Wenig is a research assistant in the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.