Egypt has ambitious Sinai development plans but challenges abound
CAIRO - Egypt announced an ambitious development plan to transform the Sinai Peninsula but many question the feasibility of the project while the Egyptian military battles Islamic State (ISIS) militants who have turned the region into a battleground.
The plan, unveiled by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, seeks to introduce huge agricultural, mining, industrial and tourist investments to Sinai.
“An investment map for Sinai is in the making and it will primarily seek to invite the attention of local and international investors to the huge opportunities present in this part of Egypt,” said Hani Younis, the spokesman for the Housing Ministry.
The ministry is responsible for implementing Sinai’s development plan, which will seek to modernise the Sinai Peninsula, an area of more than 60,000 sq.km, which has seen little investment over the past decade. The Sinai Peninsula is home to about 400,000 people, mostly Arab Bedouins, who are for the most part ambivalent towards the central government.
With large areas of the peninsula lacking services and a security presence, it was relatively easy for ISIS to establish a stronghold there. The Egyptian Army began a major operation against the group in early February but has encountered difficulties.
Militants in the Sinai Peninsula began as home-grown groups linked to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood or al-Qaeda. However, ISIS quickly moved in after several groups pledged allegiance to it and foreign jihadists are flocking to the peninsula following ISIS’s retreat in Iraq and Syria.
An ISIS-claimed attack on Sinai’s al-Rawda mosque in November 2017 killed more than 300 people, one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in the country’s history.
An Egyptian military operation seeks to eradicate ISIS from all of Egypt. If the operation is successful, Cairo will seek to transform the Sinai Peninsula into a major economic centre.
The development plan, the Housing Ministry said, aims to alter the geography and demography of Sinai. The plan envisions the population of Sinai growing from 400,000 to 3 million within four years.
It also looks to change the central and northern parts of Sinai — areas with significant ISIS presence — into massive agricultural, industrial and mining production sites.
“The plan is easy to implement, given the vast resources present in Sinai,” said Yumn al-Hamaqi, an economics professor at Cairo University. “Most of Sinai’s land is suitable for agriculture and the peninsula is awash with mineral resources.”
Sisi said he hoped to complete the plan by 2022, which would be the end of his second term in office, should he win re-election as expected this month. Sisi linked the security situation in the peninsula with lack of development and called for all Egyptians to work in “solidarity” to back the project.
Financing is just one of the major potential stumbling blocks, with the development plan calling for $15.6 billion in investment.
While the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have contributed unspecified funds for the implementation of the plan, a large portion of the budget remains outstanding. The remaining funds will come, Sisi hopes, from donations by Egypt’s business community and citizens.
Pro-government media have been appealing to the public to contribute funds to the development of Sinai.
Security is another challenge, analysts warned, as it would be impossible to initiate a major national project while ISIS and other militant groups operate from the territory.
“This is why security threats will remain a challenge in the way of developing this important territory of Egypt,” said retired army General Hossam Suweillam.
The expectation is that, even if the army defeats ISIS in part of the Sinai, the group would relocate to the mountainous areas where it would be very difficult to get its fighters out. There is also a huge network of tunnels between Sinai and Gaza used by ISIS militants. The tunnel network is also used by the Gaza-ruling Hamas in smuggling in essential goods and fuel.
Egypt has sought to mitigate the use of tunnels by evacuating the border strait with Gaza, demolishing hundreds of homes and destroying tunnels when they are discovered. However, the tunnel network will continue to be a threat given its sophistication and the difficulty in uncovering all areas of the network.
“It can take the troops a long time, even after the end of the ongoing operation, to trace and destroy all the tunnels,” Suweillam said. “Until then, these tunnels will continue to be a menace to security in Sinai.”