Monday,18 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1122, 15 - 21 November 2012
Monday,18 February, 2019
Issue 1122, 15 - 21 November 2012

Ahram Weekly

Who benefits from the war zone?

With the state of insecurity continuing in Sinai, to whose advantage are the ongoing conflicts in the peninsula, asks Ibrahim Farouk in part seven of an Al-Ahram Weekly series

Al-Ahram Weekly

What is the truth behind what is happening now in Sinai? This is the question on everyone’s minds, and it is being debated in the Egyptian media without giving rise to any satisfactory answers.
In truth, there is a tangle of issues, these having to do with the long years when there was little real development of the Sinai Peninsula and with the attacks that have recently started to target the security forces and terrorise all Egyptians and not only those in Sinai. However, these attacks have been contained in an area that is no larger than 2,500 square kilometres of Sinai’s overall 61,000 square kilometres, or three per cent of the entire area of the peninsula.

These bloody attacks have been occurring in the tip of the North Sinai governorate, specifically around Arish and some pockets on the border nearby. Usually, they have been attacks on security positions and permanent and mobile police road checks, except for the Ramadan attack, which was on an army outpost.-

Despite these sporadic attacks, many observers have not stopped to ask the key questions that would help unravel the reality in the peninsula. First, who is behind these attacks on the security forces in Arish and in the surrounding areas? Second, why are the attackers labelled as “unidentified”, although these areas are well known to the tribes of North Sinai, which have for a long time collaborated with the army and intelligence agencies? And third, why have there been proclamations that Sinai is in danger, when the attacks have been occurring on no more than three per cent of the peninsula, while the south and some regions in the centre, such as St Catherine’s, are currently experiencing a surge in tourism?

There are also other questions. What are the real reasons behind the instigation of anxiety and panic in these areas that are close to the border with Israel? What is the truth of the rumours that Hamas is sending jihadist groups to expand the area for the use of Palestinians in Gaza? Are groups affiliated to political Islam supported by the Shia group Hizbullah inciting unrest in Egypt with Sinai as its epicentre? Who benefits from the incidents in Arish, Rafah and the nearby border? Is there a plan to make Sinai an alternative homeland for the Palestinians? Who is behind the claim that Sinai is in danger?
An even more perplexing question that combines all of the above is: who wants Sinai to remain a war zone?

As flights once again are landing at Sharm El-Sheikh airport during peak season, many small-business owners, such as restaurants and hotels in South Sinai, are admitting that the daily clashes in Arish in the north are keeping them awake at night and are preventing many of them from settling down in the peninsula for good.

Despite its clean air and open spaces, such people view Sinai as unsafe, just as it is being portrayed to Egyptian and international audiences. And all this is being done on purpose in order to keep it, as The Washington Post stated in one of its reports, one of the world’s regions of turmoil. Who is responsible for promoting this negative image even as large numbers of tourists from the European capitals arrive in this spot of unique beauty on the Red Sea coast in South Sinai?

The case of Sinai is perplexing. In the north, residents of Arish are living through sleepless nights, according to the Sinai poet Ashraf Al-Anani, who has chosen to remain in his hometown of Arish despite his fame in Cairo. Al-Anani knows the city inside out, and he moves easily between Sheikh Zuweid, Al-Masseed in Rafah and Beir Al-Abd.

PARADISE CAN BE TREACHEROUS: Al-Anani, founder of the website “Sinai, where I am,” told Al-Ahram Weekly that “over the years, I’ve heard what visitors say about Sinai. They marvel over its natural beauty that takes your breath away, and they are amazed by the desert, the sea and the sky.”

“I have never been surprised at their wonder, which is only natural for anyone escaping from the urban rat race to snatch a moment of serenity. Yet, I sometimes ask myself, what if they could sense the trouble brewing underground? Would they still see things through the same lens?”

“The relationship between the place and those who live here goes beyond wonder. It is destiny — their destiny and their existence. They are like fish who cannot leave the water they live in, and they know the terrain and where danger lies. To live in Sinai and become part of it does not mean having to put on traditional dress and head dresses like some people do, and then pose for the cameras or shake hands with officials. There are other criteria, the most important of which is to know any unsafe roads and routes.”

“One moves cautiously in Sinai. There are countless obstacles that can either block your path, or be a bridge to cross as long as you are aware of them and understand them. The reality here is complicated. Some will say this is because of tribalism, tradition or custom, while others will blame religious fanaticism. Others still will point to other factors. They are all correct, but is this everything? Of course not.”

“Sinai is not an exception in Egypt, a place where Arab desert culture survives on customs and traditions that in the eyes of outsiders seem strict and unwelcoming. In Marsa Matrouh, the oases, along the Red Sea and on the border with Sudan, and even in rural areas in Fayoum, Beheira and other regions, the same culture is flourishing. So what is different about Sinai?”

“There is a state of anxiety that engulfs the place, and residents of the peninsula have got used to it. Some will say that the last war took place in 1973, or almost 40 years ago. However, while this is true, the war is not really over. There is daily tension here that is at the core of the unease.”

Although enamoured by the paradise he lives in, Al-Anani is nevertheless somewhat forlorn. “To live in Sinai means being the product of this unease and getting into the habit of taking cautious steps. If you were born here, you inherit these feelings, and it doesn’t take much to live with them, knowing that this anxiety is also part of the Sinai paradise. However, if you come here by chance or circumstance, you have to make a larger effort. You can succeed if you are patient and do not take overly confident steps. Gradually, feelings of anxiety sink into your bones.”

LEGACY OF THE FORMER REGIME: Al-Anani, a native of North Sinai, said that for the ousted former Mubarak regime Sinai was nothing more than a name, and little attention was paid to life in this vast region. The distinct character of its residents, especially in the north, makes it yet more complicated.

Al-Anani continued his description by saying that “there is no truce here. There is a danger underneath this calm, which could evolve into a storm.” Life has changed in Sinai, or more accurately has been manipulated, although its traditional simplicity could have continued. For example, the Bedouin no longer practise the tradition of choosing leaders such as sheikhs or magistrates. Both were once elected by tribe members, and as a result their rulings were unanimously accepted. However, the former regime started appointing sheikhs and magistrates, and this gave rise to problems.

While the laws of the desert once aided victims and upheld justice, today they are an arena for bartering: who will pay the most? The more a magistrate is paid for his work, the less time he will spend delivering justice. Al-Anani compares two eras: in the old days, a man could receive justice in Sinai at barely any cost, perhaps by offering his head dress or walking stick in payment to the magistrate. “However, under the justice system ruling our lives today,” he says, “thieves pretend to be honourable, and the honourable appear as thieves and beggars.”

Sad is the man who discovers too late the rules of the game. On the surface, the region appears calm, but below it few can predict what is happening. There seem to be few limits: gradually what is below rises to the surface, and individuals have to rely on their own judgements.

Today, there is ugly construction work in Sinai that is unsuited to the place. Al-Anani focuses on the demons of daily life here: he is part of it, and it has marked his face with sorrow.

SINAI IN ISRAELI EYES: More menacing still are the comments of Major-General Ali Hefzi, governor of North Sinai under prime minister Kamal Al-Ganzouri at the beginning of the 1990s. Hefzi served in reconnaissance during the 1973 War and as military attaché in Washington at the beginning of the 1980s. He was appointed as North Sinai governor at a sensitive time.

“It is no secret that there is an international plot to keep Sinai a war zone,” he says. “Unfortunately, despite the money spent and the promising projects, conditions worsened and the chances for development and growth retreated after the government of former prime minister Atef Ebeid. The peninsula was neglected on purpose, and everyone knows it became a trophy in the light of such regressions. It was kept as a war zone not as a place for life.”

Mohamed Youssef, a Gazan writer and founder of the Suez Canal and Sinai Intellectuals’ Movement, has closely followed developments in Sinai. “I recall that Sinai was at first a top choice for the Jews to settle in their attempts to take over new land,” he said.

In 1882, the first waves of Jewish emigration to Palestine took place, and this was when the Zionist leader Theodor Herzl went to London and proposed to the British government that it should find territory for what he called Europe’s “persecuted Jews”. This territory was to be the Egyptian Sinai.

Herzl communicated with the British government via a British journalist called Jacob Greenberg, who submitted to the then British colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, the idea that the European Jews be given Arish to live in or the whole of Sinai. After long discussions between Herzl and Chamberlain, the British government adopted the plan to give Sinai to the Jews.

During the sixth Zionist congress held in Zurich in August 1902, Herzl declared that the British government had proposed to send a mission to Egypt to explore the region east of the Suez Canal — Sinai — in order to find out whether it would be suitable for settlements. At the same time, London gave Herzl’s representative in Egypt the necessary mandate, and the British foreign minister wrote to Lord Cromer, then the British resident in Egypt, asking him to assist a Jewish delegation in Egypt by facilitating communications with the government of the Khedive Abbas Helmi II.

The Zionist delegation arrived in Cairo and then travelled in Sinai for 24 days, starting in the city of Qantara and concluding in Arish on 25 May 1903 after traversing 598 miles. At a rest house belonging to the Suez Canal Company in Ismailia, the Zionist delegation wrote a report proposing the division of Sinai into five sections: Farma Valley; South of Lake Bardaweel; Arish; Taya Desert; and East Suez. The report claimed that most of these regions were vacant because they lacked water. To provide water, the Zionists proposed to dig wells and to extend Nile water under the Suez Canal.

At the end of its report, the Zionist committee asked that the Jews should be located in the region between the Mediterranean coast to the border with Palestine and south to the Arish Valley and Taya Heights. The western border was to be at the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Suez.

When the delegation presented its report to Herzl in Paris, he quickly travelled to Egypt to submit the proposal to the Egyptian government. Herzl proposed a deal to lease Sinai to the Zionist movement in a plot to establish a company that would have a concession to control Sinai for 99 years.

The report stated that the eastern border of the new Jewish homeland would be on the Ottoman border, in other words Palestine under Ottoman rule. However, it did not mention Palestine by name, since Zionism did not recognise the existence of Palestine and referring to the Ottoman border would allow for further expansion east, since the Ottoman empire was starting to retreat at the beginning of the 20th century. This would have allowed the Zionists to add new territories to the project.

The scheme gave the Zionist authorities sovereign powers that are only allocated to states, and it stated that any Jew who immigrated to Sinai would benefit from the privileges granted to European nationals at the time.

The Egyptian government unequivocally rejected the proposal and Cromer — fortunately — also objected. Nonetheless, Herzl was convinced that Sinai was the ideal place to gather the Jews. He went on to fight a fierce battle to take Sinai and create this entity on Egyptian land.

This account confirms that the claim that Palestine is the promised land of the Jews is a lie, since Arab territories in Palestine were only seized by the Zionists after they had failed to grab other territories, among them the Egyptian Sinai.

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