Who runs Sharm el-Sheikh?

South Sinai, much like Sinai at large, is a place where the native inhabitants continue to be eschewed in favor of big businesses.

The Um al-Sid cliff top, commonly known as Hadabet Um al-Sid is one of Sharm el-Sheikh’s famous landmarks, and consists of a cliff that overlooks the Red Sea. The area has attracted high-profile business attention, as the land atop the cliff became a prime location for real estate investors.

(A photo of the construction work at the Um al-Sid cliff top; photo credit: Sinai Reef)

A re-stabilization project of the cliff started in late 2013/2014, a project that at first glance was meant to avert the collapse of the cliff. The project is a great example of how the government is pushing forth its “neoliberal” agenda that serves big business interests above all else, and here is how.

By stabilizing the cliff via this LE80 million project, the South Sinai governorate hopes to attract investors, as Ahmed Sherif, a resident of the cliff and volunteer at Sinai Reef, explained in his testimonial. The project’s paperwork, including the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) study, was withheld from residents, despite a requirement that a public hearing be held with the residents, as mandated by law 4/1994 and law 9/2009. This begs the question of why a project, supposedly for the safety of the residents, be hushed up like this? And why was there a fierce deployment of security forces to guard the project’s premises once the cliff-top residents congregated and halted construction work?

Residents mobilize

Soon after the residents mobilized, Sinai Reef managed to secure a meeting with the prime minister. Before the meeting was initially scheduled, Minister of Environment Laila Eskandar was not invited, giving an idea of how much the environment is neglected in short-term business politics. Eventually, the minister of environment’s presence was secured and a meeting was held with the Arab Contractors, the prime minister, Sinai Reef, Dr Mamdouh Hamza, Sinai Reef’s engineering consultant, and South Sinai Governer Khaled Fouda. Initially, the Arab Contractors attempted to defend themselves but lost out to Dr Hamza, who said that this is a major catastrophe waiting to happen, not to mention that all government bodies involved failed to include the safety of the coral reefs in their studies, which are right below the cliff and include five major world-class diving sites.

According Dr Hamza, the project could have led to the collapse of the cliff and “caused a catastrophe no less than the collapse of the Korean Bridge and the Tehran Airport scandal.” This gives a rough idea of how rushed the studies for the project were.

This begs a number of questions. Why did the government push for such a project, and rush the engineering and mechanical studies to the point where basic faults were overlooked? Why would Sinai Reef’s police complaint fail to be investigated properly and only be transferred to the Sharm el-Sheikh prosecutor after a campaign by residents who wrote telegraphs to the prosecutor general? How is it that such a program was rubber stamped by the Ministry of Environment?

The gatekeepers

For these questions to be answered, Sinai Reef itself needs to be contextualized further. Sinai Reef is composed of a group of people who in the past worked on the environment in a non-institutionalized way. Less than a year ago, the group decided to concentrate their efforts and establish an environmental conservation and community participation NGO. This fell firmly outside the confines of previous “civil” society activity, if any, in Sharm el-Sheikh, which included a monopoly of investors’ associations, NGOs and organizations created to administer bilateral aid. These NGOs were the South Sinai governorate’s civil society arm that distributed aid during Ramadan, during crises and other occasions.

After bringing attention to the violations at the Um al-Sid cliff project, Sinai Reef’s licensing process was halted. Revenge by the South Sinai governorate did not stop there. Some Um al-Sid residents fear that their local municipality may remove public green areas they planted with their own money. These were areas that the local municipality was supposed to plant but neglected. Most residents today are fearful that the municipality will purposely lose track of the submitted paperwork and they will accordingly fail to acquire the licenses for these green areas amongst other property zoning permits. 

Sinai Reef completed paperwork for licensing several months ago, and had already began working on a study to execute a project for Bedouin fishermen with the Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Agriculture and South Sinai governorate. Not only that, but Sinai Reef’s co-founder, Hesham Gabr, was appointed member to an environmental committee under the South Sinai governorate.

Why the sudden agitation against Sinai Reef then? The devil is in the details of the governor’s appointment.

Governor Khaled Fouda is among the only governors who retained their posts since the Supreme Council of Armed Forces’ (SCAF) first transition period, following January 25, 2011. Since his appointment, a number of individuals have surrounded him and composed the entourage of the governor.

The (in)famous “Gameyat Mostasmereen Ganuob Sina” (The South Sinai Investors’ Non-Governmental-Organization) began to expand its tentacles and not just become part of his entourage, but the full-fledged gatekeeper of all things in South Sinai, from zoning permits to land distribution. This investors’ NGO monopolized business and investment opportunities in South Sinai.

It was part of a large trend of “businessmen-run NGOs” that came to life under former president Hosni Mubarak’s tenure, when the state attempted to shift competition out of parliament and into civil society. Most of these “businessmen-run NGOs” acted as closed guilds to represent the business interests of their board members. In its initial stages, most people were encouraged to fill out membership applications (with a hefty membership fee) so that they could say they were part of the organization. Membership guaranteed an audience with the governor and calls could be made to resolve paperwork that would otherwise take months to be processed, with no guarantee of approval.

Competition is between members of the NGO over issues related to getting land allotted, issuing zoning permits and approving projects. The entity also presents itself as the face of Sharm el-Sheikh and the representative of the high-life of the Sharm el-Sheikh residents’ society.

Eventually, the investors’ NGO violated its own by-laws, which state that its membership is open to all “investors” of the South Sinai region. It started to refuse new membership applications as word got around that with enough new members, an extraordinary general assembly could remove the existing board of directors.

Though NGO law 84/2002 is vague on the matter of exclusive membership, the important thing to take away from this is that some members of the Sharm el-Sheikh community discovered that the only way to survive this was conform to the NGO by being members.

Sinai Reef, for example, has a hard time getting licensed precisely because it falls outside the dictates of what “civil” society should look like in Sharm el-Sheikh, while this “businessmen-run NGO” gets away with much larger violations of law 84/2002 because it represents the government-sponsored neoliberal visage of the city. It hosts dinners, events and finances “developmental projects” for the South Sinai Governorate. The Um al-Sid “renovation and stabilization” project falls under this “developmental projects” rubric. And I believe that this project would have paved the way for an overhaul of the real-estate map, by issuing the land on top of the cliff for investors.

The “businessmen-run NGO” always has a finger in the pie when it comes to anything that goes on in South Sinai. This includes media appearances and support for “new” South Sinai Governorate initiatives. In fact, an ignored Al-Ahram 2011 investigative report featured the “businessmen-run NGO” with the seemingly provocative, yet wholly accurate title: “The big gang still rules Sharm el-Sheikh”.

That the headline includes the word “still” reflects that this phenomenon was expected to end after January 25, 2011. Needless to say that members of this investors’ NGO had started creating their own political parties and cosmetically changed and severed their old relationships with the government lackeys they previously supported. The decision by the Al-Ahram investigative journalist to publish local testimonies using initials and not full names speaks volumes about this businessmen society’s power and viciousness.

This society has recalibrated the governorate’s policies towards “important causes,” focusing on photo-ops to “encourage the return of tourists,” planning the future “development-cum-investment” plans, while unlicensed shacks, stores and other violations in Sharm el-Sheikh flourished, damaging the income of small store owners who pay hefty licensing fees. Illegal, and quite damaging, hagglers filled the streets and sold unregulated and half-price rip-off tours away from the eyes of the Ministry of Tourism (which regulates and guarantees the safety of these tours by sending an inspector and putting a speedometer on each tourism licensed vehicle). The police take their share of such profits as they allow hagglers to fill the streets, while Tripadvisor’s reviews feature warning statements such as “You must be prepared to haggle hard… Entrapment ploys and possible scams [such as] taxis, shops, perfume and oil cigarettes, fraudulent ATMs, timeshare and airport services.”

This phenomenon is a result of a larger government strategy that focuses solely on a “quick fix” neoliberal approach to remedy the tourism sector, which ends up damaging the environment.

The government perceives the tourism sector as a foreign currency generating industry that should have a high turnover of tourists, while regulation becomes frowned upon. This results in increasing damage to the environment as marine life continues to die due to hazardous speedboats that try to squeeze in more and more customers per day. Because the environment has been defined as being outside the ‘individuals’ rights (the right to operate a business, work and ‘stability’) in the tourism industry, which always translate to higher turnover and income, environmental issues therefore become silenced and othered.

It is this realization that can only explain how South Sinai Governor Khaled Fouda, had the audacity to stand in front of the camera and ask residents who are protesting the construction project at the Um al-Sid cliff-top the following:

“How did you get the [Environmental Impact Assessment] paperwork? What business is it of yours? You do not review and challenge the work of big government professors and the Arab Contractors.”

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