Egyptian Minister of Defence Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has banned the ownership of property in “strategic areas” of military importance, ending a controversy over whether Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, a strategic area, has been targeted as a possible alternative home for the Palestinians.
“Sinai will remain a part of our beloved Egypt, and the army will never allow it to be threatened,” said a military statement on Monday.
Armed Forces Decree 203/2012 includes all land and property within five kilometres of Egypt’s borders with Gaza, except property in the Northern Sinai city of Rafah.
The decree covers the Sinai Peninsula, the Red Sea islands, nature reserves and archaeological areas. Neither Egyptians nor foreigners will be allowed to own or rent land or property in the affected zones.
In addition to the prohibited zones, a second measure of the decree allows only Egyptian nationals born of Egyptian parents to own land and real estate in Sinai. Companies wholly under Egyptian ownership will be allowed the same rights.
A third aspect of the decree prohibits non-Egyptians from owning land or real estate in Sinai and allows Egyptian nationals to own buildings built on state land that remains the property of the state. It also permits Egyptian nationals to rent houses under a long-term lease of 50 years instead of the 99 years previously allowed.
The decree’s fourth measure commits those seeking ownership or rental of any already existing constructions to obtain permission from the defense ministry, the interior ministry and intelligence services.
The decree comes after a long period of discussion. In October, Prime Minister Hisham Kandil laid out procedures for Sinai residents to claim land ownership in the peninsula and committed those applying to purchase land in Sinai to apply for proof that they did not hold a second nationality and a certificate confirming that both of their parents were Egyptian.
He also stipulated that in the case of non-Egyptians inheriting such land, they could not then sell or donate the property to non-Egyptians. The government also took responsibility for monitoring all such cases.
However, the law permitted non-Egyptians to own houses in Sinai and stipulated a 99-year lease period, granting Arab citizens the same rights as Egyptians. The military decree has now overturned these measures. Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Armed Forces spokesman Ahmed Ali said that the decree was designed to cope with threats to Egypt’s national security on its eastern borders.
“The Sinai Peninsula is a military operations zone for the Egyptian army. As a result, the military has to have the upper hand when it comes to economic or political activity related to the peninsula,” Ali said.
“The defence minister is authorised to issue legislation to control strategic areas for military purposes.”
The present decree also deals with Palestinians maintaining close relationships with Bedouin tribes in Sinai that could allow them to take over land in Northern Sinai. There have been leaks of intelligence reports speaking of the purchase of land by non-Egyptians, and many Palestinians have marital relations with Egyptian tribes in Southern and Northern Sinai.
Such reports led to protests by Bedouin young people two months ago in Northern Sinai demanding that the government control the phenomenon, which expanded following the Israeli war on Gaza in 2008, and to preserve Bedouin rights as residents of Sinai.
According to General Talaat Musalim, a military expert, the suspicious land acquisitions could be related to an Israeli study by ex-Israeli national security consultant Jura Eiland, which suggested regional alternatives to the two-state solution in historic Palestine.
“The study suggested splitting off 720 sq km from Sinai in order to settle the Palestinians in a new state that would begin in Gaza and extend to Arish,” Musalim said.
He said that the report had added to concerns over the situation in Sinai, which has been affected by unrest and security problems since the 25 January Revolution.
In early August, militants attacked a military unit in Rafah and killed 16 Egyptian soldiers. The army reacted by launching a military operation called Operation Eagle but later changed to Operation Sinai.
Neither the Eagle nor the Sinai operations achieved success in revealing the identities of those who had carried out the attack.
The military decree has been welcomed by Sinai residents, who believe the Egyptian government has adopted discriminatory policies towards them, notably by allowing non-Egyptians to own land in Sinai on 99-year leases while restricting their ownership of properties belonging to their own Egyptian grandparents.
Ousted former president Hosni Mubarak issued a law prohibiting the ownership of property in Sinai by both Egyptians and foreigners. However, he granted foreigners and businessmen with close relations to his family large amounts of land under the leasehold arrangements.
Now that ownership of property in Sinai is permitted only to Egyptians, Sinai residents and Bedouin will seek to purchase properties previously owned by non-Egyptians, particularly in cities such as Sharm El-Sheikh and Dahab.
A judicial source who spoke under condition of anonymity said that the decree would be applied to existing cases of foreigners owning property in Sinai.
“Only Rafah is an exception to the decree due to its special situation as split between villages on the Egyptian and Palestinian sides of the border,” the source said.