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Crossing over to Sinai

There is no crossing to, or back from, North Sinai today. The peninsula is almost isolated.

April 25 marks Sinai Liberation Day, commemorating the date when Egyptian troops crossed the Suez Canal in 1973 to liberate Sinai from Israeli forces. Since then, the day was designated the “crossing” label, which has transformed into a developmental motto for the peninsula. But this “development” effort by the state has been nothing but a façade for the past 40 years.

Today, you can only cross to Northern Sinai, or roam its streets, at predetermined hours, outside the curfew. Places like the south of Rafah, which was targeted for an avant-garde desert-farming project through well irrigation is now completely cut off. It has become a war zone.  

The North Sinai governorate has been isolated for almost a year now, under the pretext of the “war on terror.” The region is barricaded by military checkpoints, and the Salam Bridge — the only link between North Sinai and the rest of the peninsula—has been closed down. The only way to cross over the Suez Canal today is a grueling ferryboat ride. It could take you up to two hours to cross over today, for what used to be a swift 10-minute drive over the bridge. 

When I was in Arish last week, a group of local youth was stepping up their “Sinai is out of coverage” campaign. They are suing telecommunication companies for the recurring communication outage in Sinai – a major problem for almost a year now. Communication outage has reached up to 14 hours a day, while the companies are collecting their bills as usual.

Anwar Falougi, an agent for one of the telecommunication companies, told me how he has been getting a lot of blame from dissatisfied customers. He said he tried numerous times to ask about the reasons behind the communication outage, and he was told it was for security reasons, and the situation could last more than six months.

The Arish Wall and terrorism

Sinai has undergone a number of geographical divisions since the “liberation.” Administratively, it is divided into three governorates: South Sinai, North Sinai and the city of East Qantara (part of the Ismailia governorate). The most violent division was the security dissection following the Camp David agreement, which split the peninsula into three zones (A, B and C) in accordance with their proximity to the Palestinian borders. Accordingly, this has marginalized a large number of residents, particularly those living in border and tribal areas.

Throughout the past year, however, the Egyptian authorities have been building a security wall in northeastern Sinai. The barrier will surround Arish, to wall it off from neighboring Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafah. Seven kilometers of the wall have already been constructed in what engineers are calling a new division of the North Sinai governorate. The idea behind building the wall is to ward off armed attacks on the city, especially those targeting cement and paper factories, in addition to other military-run industrial complexes. In general, the wall is meant to prevent armed groups from having access to the city. The eastern part of the wall begins with the olive fields, and moves along the Rafah border to the “al-Tawil” road, where the gas pipeline – bombed several times by militants – is located.

But all these security concerns are not enough to justify isolating those residing on the east side of the wall.  They will not only be isolated from Arish and the peninsula, but will also be detached from Egypt in general.

Under the tile of “the great Arish wall,” a number of northeastern Sinai residents have wrote on their Facebook pages about the devastation that this wall will bring them. They remind us that such security divisions have never succeeded in warding off terrorists. They have also spoke of the vested interests of businessmen in the construction of the wall, especially since it potentially puts an end to some of their land disputes with tribal leaders.

Moreover, anyone who is opposed the state in Sinai today is called a terrorist. I am not speaking here of the armed opposition in the streets, but situations where this occurs inside the working of official institutions. In the recent Engineers Syndicate elections in Arish, for example, one of the candidates, Abdel Kader al-Shorbagy, was accused of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood (now considered a terrorist organization by the Egyptian state) only because he belonged to the same tribe of a former Ikhwan candidate. This accusation was denied by many of the syndicate’s youth, who in turn accused the rival candidate (who belonged to Mubarak’s former National Democratic Party) of making false accusations as part of a smear campaign. Engineer Ahmed al-Helw said that after the failure of this smear campaign, the former NDP candidate’s supporters smuggled in extra ballots into the ballot boxes, in order to repeat the elections.

Elections aside, life of the North Sinai residents is threatened on more basic levels.

No Water in Sinai

There is a new crisis in North Sinai after water authorities have decided to provide running water only once every three days in Arish. The residents learned of the reason behind this water scarcity after four days, when they accidentally discovered that city’s main water storage well has collapsed.  They also learned that repairing it would take months, if it were to be repaired at all. The water they are receiving now is from the drinking water supply line of the Ismailia governorate. Around a week ago, the residents began distributing the water stored on the day running water is supplied, and have to manage with this for three days.

It is only ironic that supplying running water to Sinai was the state’s largest project after the “crossing” of 1973. They established the Sinai Development Authority, which is headed by a retired military general (as is the case with most local authorities). The project ended up owing millions of Egyptian pounds to its funders and failed miserably in its agricultural land reclamation mandate. In addition, the Salam Canal (80 km from Arish) has stopped functioning.

What we are witnessing today in Sinai is a comeback of the same state inefficiency that has preceded the January 25 revolution. Worse, the state is reluctant to provide North Sinai with any alternative solution, such as digging wells. And this negligence has led residents to dig them by themselves, through popular initiatives.

Nevertheless, the state has continued with its celebration of the crossing over to Sinai on Sinai Liberation Day.