War and development in the Sinai
Sinai -The Sinai’s image in the minds of many Arabs is that of an inflamed area, the principal theatre of action in wars between Egypt and Israel.
When the guns fell silent following the 1979 peace treaty and conditions stabilised, ideas for populating the Sinai and kick-starting its economic development emerged. But there was opposition that warned peace with Israel might not prevail and the region might revert to a state of instability.
For a long time, the Sinai remained prisoner of the dual discourse of development and war. Whenever the tug of war tilted in favour of the former, military considerations weighed in towards the latter. Indeed, a fixture in Egyptian military thinking is that Sinai will always remain a vast theatre for military operations; the first lesson cadets in military academies learn is that the peninsula is the key to war and peace and a starting point in any strategy for defending Egyptian national security.
It is for this reason that development projects have been confined to the peninsula’s southern coast along the Red Sea and the gulfs of Aqaba and Suez. Investment in projects in the other regions of Sinai remains absent in keeping with military dogma.
The Egyptian leadership has started implementing large-scale projects west of the Suez Canal, expanding projects inside Sinai and compensating for years of inaction and neglect that helped foster the growth of radical Islamic movements. The situation worsened with the grafting of a number of local and external factors that transformed Sinai into a centre for conspiracies and scenarios aiming to make of the region a constant thorn in Egypt’s side.
At the same time, pro-development advocates grew more convinced that economic and social development in Sinai is an important tool in eradicating terrorists from the area.
The terrorists took advantage of the state’s laxity, particularly during the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, to stash large quantities of weaponry in Sinai and to smuggle in a number of extremist elements and settle them there. As a consequence, battles led by the security forces against these elements have been particularly ferocious.
Terrorists have used to their advantage poverty, unemployment, the brittleness of the economic fabric, and the feeling of social injustice among the local population, and succeeded in exhausting the army and police forces despite the latter’s apparent victories in the field.
The penetration of terrorism in Sinai and its infiltration of the social fabric increased the importance of choosing the option of development by Egyptian officials and pushed them to hasten the implementation of the planned projects. This did not sit well with those refusing development as a solution. Dissenting voices warned of the excesses of projects, which are likely to be lost in the event of a war against Israel.
The result was that the political leadership in favour of the developmental approach was aware of the military risks to the development campaign in Sinai and allowed the military to oversee the projects as a compromise between security requirements and development needs. Project sites have been chosen based on strategic considerations to allow ease of military manoeuvres, if needed, and all security issues have been addressed.
The traditional approach to dealing with the Sinai seems to be held hostage by old considerations in which development and the population were seen as threats. New approaches in modern warfare, however, have transformed these elements to deterrents, in the sense that investments in Sinai can serve as pressure on an aggressor state (Israel, for example), because the capital owners have trans-border political, economic and media channels through which they can protect their interests.
Furthermore, population density has become an instrument that could deter the use of brute force. We can see that in the victories realised by Hamas and Hezbollah against Israel. Even though the Hamas and Hezbollah armed forces bore considerable losses, they achieved moral victories that forced Israel to stop its military operations following high civilian casualties.
Therefore, planting Sinai with people and stone could become a double weapon at the strategic level wielded in the service of the Egyptian national security in its broadest sense.
A second advantage lies in the fact that the benefits from development to the population of Sinai would end their sympathising with the terrorists under the pretext that the region has been neglected and would motivate them to preserve and protect the gains they reaped by expelling extremists and cooperating with security forces.
It would also encourage them to stop cooperating with the operators of the tunnels, be they Egyptians or Palestinians, and end this phenomenon, which has strained security forces as the tunnels served to smuggle criminals and weapons.
The third advantage resides in the positive signals the development projects send to Israel and its allies, namely that Egypt wants to maintain peace and will not seek a military option unless forced to.
Putting development ahead of military thinking regarding Sinai does not mean abandoning such precepts, for the military institution is in charge of setting the limits of development and is not likely to forget its dogma. Besides, modern warfare can be remotely controlled and each party can get to the other from a distance of hundreds of kilometres with no need for the presence of immediate borders to launch military operations.