As the army continues its campaign against terrorists in the Sinai peninsula, there are growing calls in Egypt for comprehensive development projects in Sinai. Opposition figures, politicians and former officials are seeing this goal as a strategic effort to enhance the country’s national security. It seems that this topic will become one of the priorities for President Mohammad Mursi and the entire Egyptian leadership.
Developing Sinai is not a new demand or aim in Egypt; it has been on the agenda since the peninsula returned to Egyptian sovereignty on April 25, 1982 after the Camp David accords were signed between Egypt and Israel in March 1979. But why has development in Sinai become so important for Egyptians after 30 years of neglect?
Historically, Sinai was the gateway for all invaders of Egypt — since ancient times until the Israeli aggression in 1956 during the Suez crisis and again on June 5, 1967 during the Six-Day War. Maybe this highlights one of the main debates in the Egyptian strategic military doctrine.
As all Egyptian researchers and the entire political elite consider the development of Sinai as key to enhancing national security, plans were set up decades ago, concentrating mainly on the huge resources and potential of the peninsula and how it can add great value to the Egyptian economy. These plans included resettlement of two to three million of the population in the peninsula. A huge budget was allocated for ambitious development goals during 1980s and 1990s. But in 2012, there were still no tangible results in Sinai, which accounts for 6 per cent of the entire Egyptian territory. Now, after 30 years, Egyptians have found that neglecting Sinai has greatly endangered their national security.
The dilemma of Sinai has always been national security. According to Egyptian researcher Ahmad Ebrahim Mahmoud, a section of top Egyptian military leaders were not in favor of huge investment in Sinai because they thought it would be lost if and when Israel launches a war against Egypt. However, another section of military leaders believed that more population in Sinai would be advantageous militarily when it comes to defending the region and the whole of Egypt (Reconstruction of Sinai: The challenges of Defense and National Security imperatives – January 1, 2000, Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies). According to Mahmoud, the majority are in favor of the second option. This might help those among the Egyptian politicians and public pushing for a strategic effort to develop Sinai.
Recent reports said that the cabinet of Prime Minister Dr Hesham Qandil has approved the budget for some projects in Sinai. If such a step is the beginning of a long-term plan, it surely hints at a shift in Egyptian strategic doctrine. But obviously it’s a hasty response rather than a long-term plan. The plans have been in the drawer since the 1990s, but the high cost of such plans might push Egyptian leaders to hold their horses for a while. The Egyptian economy is not in the best shape right now. Funding development plans for Sinai would require massive restructuring. Furthermore, this can create a a model in socio-economic development, benefiting from all the expertise available now and avoiding the type of “development” that crushes the native population and destroys ecology and resources. Surely, the plans for developing Sinai should always consider the national security of Egypt and should be in harmony with it.
With all the human resources at their disposal, Egyptians might consider many options to achieve this mission. But, whatever they choose, the wheel will not stop once it is set in motion.
And, what about the Israelis? Will they accept a prosperous Sinai, with a growing population? Israelis might consider occupying Sinai again however unlikely many might think that is. Or they may think of turning it into an alternative homeland for the Palestinians by pushing the people of Gaza there. But most importantly, they would never let Egyptians go on building a prosperous and strong country. Its national security again. Is Egypt ready for such a strategic shift?
Mohammad Fadhel is a Bahraini writer and media consultant based in Dubai.