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Egypt's Sinai Question

Middle East/North Africa Report N°61 30 Jan 2007

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS

Terrorism returned to Egypt in 2004 after an absence of seven years with successive attacks and the emergence of a heretofore unknown movement in Sinai. The government’s reaction essentially has been confined to the security sphere: tracking down and eliminating the terrorists. Egyptian and international NGOs have focused on the human rights violations which have been prominent in police procedures. The media have been preoccupied with whether al-Qaeda was responsible. Both the state’s response and wider public discussion have been confined to the surface of events and have ignored the socio-economic, cultural and political problems which are at the heart of Sinai’s disquiet. The emergence of a terrorist movement where none previously existed is symptomatic of major tensions and conflicts in Sinai and, above all, of its problematic relationship to the Egyptian nation-state. Unless these factors are addressed effectively, there is no reason to assume the terrorist movement can be eliminated.

Sinai has long been, at best, a semi-detached region, its Egyptian identity far from wholly assured. Under Israeli occupation from 1967 to 1982, it has remained under a special security regime mandated by the 1979 peace treaty, which significantly qualifies Egypt’s freedom of military action. Its geo-political situation – it comprises the whole of Egypt’s frontier with Israel and with the Palestinian enclave of Gaza – makes it of enormous strategic significance to both Egypt and Israel and sensitive to developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The population of approximately 360,000 – some 300,000 in the north, 60,000 in the south – is different from the rest of the country. A substantial minority is of Palestinian extraction, even if often Egyptian-born; the rest, labelled “Bedouin”, are longstanding natives of the peninsula. The Palestinian element is extremely conscious of its identity and ties to the populations of Gaza and the West Bank. The Bedouin (only a small minority are still tent-dwelling nomads) also possess a distinct identity. Very aware of their historic origins in Arabia and belonging to tribes which often have extensive branches in Israel, Palestine and Jordan, they, like the Palestinians, are naturally oriented eastward rather than toward the rest of Egypt. Neither Palestinians nor Bedouins have any share or interest in the Pharaonic heritage common to the populations (Muslim and Christian) of the Nile Valley.

These identity differences have been aggravated by socio-economic development promoted by the authorities since 1982. The government has not sought to integrate Sinai’s populations into the nation through a far-sighted program responding to their needs and mobilising their active involvement. Instead, it has promoted the settlement of Nile Valley migrants, whom it has systematically favoured, while discriminating against the local populations in jobs and housing in the north and in the rapid development of tourist enclaves (for Egyptians as well as internationals) in the south. These developments have offered scant opportunities to locals and often have been at their expense (notably with regard to land rights), provoking deep resentment. The government has done little or nothing to encourage participation of Sinai residents in national political life, used divide and rule tactics in orchestrating the meagre local representation allowed, and promoted the Pharaonic heritage at the expense of Sinai’s Bedouin traditions.

Thus, beneath the terrorism problem is a more serious and enduring “Sinai question” which the political class has yet to address. Doing so will not be easy. Since this question is partly rooted in wider Middle East crises, above all the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a definitive solution depends on their resolution. But the solution also requires the full integration and participation of Sinai’s populations in national political life, which means it is also dependent on significant political reforms in the country as a whole, which are not at present on the horizon.

While a comprehensive solution of the Sinai question cannot be expected soon, the government can and should alter a development strategy that is deeply discriminatory and largely ineffective at meeting local needs. A new, properly funded plan, produced in consultation with credible local representatives and involving all elements of the population in implementation, could transform attitudes to the state by addressing Sinai’s grievances.

RECOMMENDATIONS

To the Egyptian Government:

1.  Prepare, in consultation with community leaders, the private sector and donors, a comprehensive social and economic development plan for Sinai which:

(a)  deals with the region as a whole;

(b)  takes account of the socio-economic interdependence of the north and south; and

(c)  eliminates all criteria and procedures that discriminate against the local population.

2.  Promote the participation of local communities and their genuine political representatives in development decision-making for Sinai.

3.  Facilitate and encourage the building of local capacities (e.g. local associations) by simplifying political and administrative rules and targeting government grants and loans to equip such associations.

4.  Provide Bedouin communities with the tools to formulate and implement local development projects, notably by organising training courses.

5.  Acknowledge Sinai’s distinct cultural and linguistic traditions as part of Egypt’s national heritage and fund projects that preserve them.

To the Egyptian Political Parties:

6.  Establish or, where already present, develop and extend a presence in the region by recruiting members from the local populations and providing orderly channels for expression of their particular needs and grievances.

To Egypt’s International Partners:

7.  Recognise the danger that the Sinai question, if untreated, may pose to Egypt’s stability in the medium term and encourage and assist the authorities in the conception, financing and implementation of a new special development plan for the region.

Cairo/Brussels, 30 January 2007