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Patriotic songs not enough
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 02 - 10 - 2013

If we plunged into a deep sleep on 6 October 1973 and only woke up today and took a look at Sinai, it would probably seem as though we hadn't missed much. The peninsula that had been freed by the Egyptian army then is the scene of a similar battle against another enemy that isn't very different from Israel.
Sinai is a large part of the consciousness of this nation which was forged by the long history of trials and challenges in the face of which it either met defeat or victory. Over 30 years ago, on 6 October 1979, Egypt took repossession of the bulk of that peninsula which had fallen under foreign occupation on the morning of 6 June 1967. It took another decade of negotiations and arbitration to regain the remainder of that territory. During that period, there also remained the perpetual question: when is the government that won the victory and reasserted its sovereignty over that territory going to come and reclaim its land for agriculture, build cities and infrastructure and develop industries? This did not happen and because of the delay the second battle erupted against another enemy: terrorism. This enemy emerged and took root in the void left by the state. The National Democratic Party regime and the Muslim Brotherhood regime contributed, each in their own way, to the further erosion of Sinai and, hence, to leaving Sinai prey to that enemy until it almost seized control. Thus, the battle today in Sinai is the battle to eliminate the effects of that invasion that has lasted for twice as long as the Israeli occupation.
On Monday morning North Sinai experienced two more attacks by gunmen, one at the entrance to Arish, the other at the third precinct police department in that city. A soldier and a civilian were killed, and two other soldiers were critically wounded. The incidents, which added to the long series of similar attacks in Sinai that necessitated intensive combing operations to uproot terrorist lairs, occurred amidst a general state of alert in the ranks of the Armed Forces as the 6 October commemorative celebrations approach.
General Alaa Ezzeddin, director of the Military Studies Centre, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the military still has many tasks before it in its battle against terrorist groups. He said the media were conveying the impression that the battle against terrorism in Sinai was over. This was inaccurate and he sought to correct that impression: “We can say that the Armed Forces have almost put an end to terrorism there and that they are scoring faster rates of success, according to the information we have from the field, indicating that the operations are proceeding in the right direction to uproot terrorism and to eliminate its sources.”
On the ground in Sinai, some are sceptical as to whether the military operations can succeed in eliminating the terrorist groups that had embedded themselves in Sinai during the past two and a half years. They maintain that another strategy is needed to ensure that the phenomenon does not reproduce itself. In an interview with the Weekly, Sinai activist Mosaad Abu Fagr said, “The failure of the Egyptian state reflects itself in Sinai. If under a police or military state Sinai is turned into a huge military camp, as occurred under Mubarak, under a theocratic state it is turned into a pasture land for all jihadists arriving from abroad, as was the case under the Muslim Brotherhood. Now, once again there is a force that wants to transform it into a huge military camp. But the crucial question is how can the state succeed in creating a huge civilian camp in Sinai? That is the real challenge.”
Abu Fagr, who is a member of the Committee of Fifty that is charged with amending the constitution, continues, “The current problem is we are not explaining things as they are and turning instead to patriotic songs and anthems. If we had looked reality in the face we would have known what to do in Sinai and Sinai would be a different place to the one that exists now which is not suitable for life, not even for bird life. How can birds exist with Apaches in the air and tanks on the ground?”
The Sinai activist agrees that the current reality in Sinai is the product of Mubarak's police regime and Morsi's religious regime and that the International Muslim Brotherhood helped draw terrorism into Sinai and to fund it by investing in illicit commerce with Gaza and the Hamas government. However, he also believes that fighting the terrorist groups would be better handled by special anti-terrorist forces than by the national army which is equipped and trained for war against the armies of other nations. “Yes, there are circumstances, but they are being engaged in the wrong way. This engagement does not need planes or tanks. If the situation requires a major surgery, then we need to call in a force that is professional in major surgery.”
Abu Fagr went on to discuss the repercussions from operations that include the demolition of homes which is “needless in such operations, regardless of the motives.” “Those who think that by pounding Sinai it will go to sleep are mistaken. Pounding will only produce terrorism here, or crime there. Those who believe that beating those Bedouins on the head is a natural action and that it will serve the desired ends are wrong. The opposite is the case. When you hit a Bedouin on the head, the next moment he will go up into the mountains and there his services will be purchased by any passing devil. Half the people of Sinai have fled from there to Cairo because of what is happening there. Sinai has become the biggest prison camp in the world today.”
General Ezzeddin disagrees with Abu Fagr's logic and charges that his claims are a slur against the army. “The man whose hand is in the water is not the same as the man whose hand is in the fire,” he said suggesting that civilians such as Abu Fagr had the luxury to criticise from the comfort of safety. “The Armed Forces have sustained numerous losses in this battle with those armed groups. And they are the ones who started it, the moment that regime that had sheltered and supported them fell. The army hoped to avoid loss of life as much as possible, especially among unarmed civilians. But given a major military operation of this nature, we have to admit that there was a margin of losses on the other side that fall under the category of collateral damage. For example, when soldiers are on the pursuit of a wanted criminal and that criminal takes shelter with his tribe or in a home and starts shooting, should the soldiers just stand and watch? Or to cite another example, after gunmen attack a patrol or a checkpoint, the army is likely to arrest a number of those at the scene in order to question them. But those who were clearly not involved will be released immediately or treated as witnesses. When we look at the list of people who have been arrested, we will find that most of them had been involved in terrorist acts and, moreover, are key figures in international terrorism and not just at the level of local organisations. All those who were arrested had their confessions recorded in the field. There is a process of hyperbolising reports regarding the intimidation of peaceful people and targeting civilians. The reality is totally different. The army is fully cognisant of the weight of its humanitarian responsibility to protect civilians, above all, and not to drag innocent people into this hell the exorbitant costs of which the army is paying with the blood of its officers and soldiers. It is sustaining these costs, moreover, solely in order to reassert the nation's control and sovereignty over its territory and to secure its dignity.”
General Ezzeddin also took exception to Abu Fagr's assertion that a professional anti-terrorist force was needed to deal with the terrorist groups in Sinai. “The army is sufficiently trained to deal with those groups. It also has forces specialised in these types of confrontations and equipped and trained to the most advanced levels for these purposes. There is no need to go into detail but we need to stress that these forces are facing guerrilla gangs that were trained to confront armies, but our army will repel and defeat them.”
Gazi Abu Farag, a member of the Tarabin tribe in central Sinai, told the Weekly, “True, there are problems with the current handling of the security question due to many factors. We, in the centre area have launched an experiment that we hope will avert many of these problems. It is to create a Sinai National Guard.” Drawing a map of Sinai in the air as he spoke, he continued: “Military operations are taking place along the Sinai coast. They began with the closure of the tunnels and moved inwards along this strip between Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid and Arish to clear the area of terrorists. However, the problem is that, when faced with that difficult confrontation, the jihadist groups fled to the centre and south. This is when we began to form the Sinai National Guard, which coincided with the 30 June Revolution. We started with 35 individuals, after which dozens of others joined as volunteers, and we perform systematic patrols of the Centre Sinai area. We are in contact with General and Military Intelligence, army bases and army outposts. The moment we see a person or a vehicle from the black banners (in reference to the banners sported by militant jihadist groups) we make immediate contact with one of those authorities, but we do not engage in any combat. Many military operations have succeeded because of our actions in the recent period. The security agencies approved our initiative to encourage the tribes to cooperate with them in confronting those elements.”
In the context of the upcoming commemoration of the 6 October victory, General Ezzeddin referred to the decades of neglect and mishandling that worked to make the conditions in Sinai what they are today. “Now, now, is the time to remedy those failures. We must open the drawers and pull out the development plans that we had spent so many years in preparing in numerous centres. We have many plans in the Centre of Military Studies and there are dozens of plans in other centres, such as the centres for agricultural and desert research, for water management and energy, for phosphate and other mineral extraction. All it will take is political will. This political will probably exists now with General Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in spite of the relentless war being waged against him by many in the current political arena. He is reluctant to confront those fools who are ignorant of the crucial issues of the nation and of realities on the ground, although he is the most qualified to handle many challenges, foremost among which is what is happening in Sinai. Even if he does not have a plan of his own on the development of Sinai, as this does not fall under his responsibility, he would certainly be able to create one and carry it out with the highest degree of competence. Let's take a look at history. When Nasser was a Free Officer and led the 1952 Revolution, no one would have imagined that he would build the High Dam or nationalise the Suez Canal. But he did, because he had the vision and the ability.”
Returning to the need to begin the development of Sinai immediately, he said, “The time has come to relinquish many illusions. It is better that this moment comes late than not at all.”
Sinai activist Abu Fagr shares the sentiment. But he stresses that development efforts “need to be based on Sinai tribes which have become the accused in the maelstrom of this conflict. Also, these are the tribes that have lived on this land since 5,000 years. These are the tribes that call their children Salem, Salman, Salma and Suweilam, because this is the land of Salam — peace — ever since Christ and his mother passed through it and bequeathed to us the legacy that says, ‘We entered this land and found that its people open their doors to strangers.' Others passed through this land in the same manner, including those who turned it into an environment attractive to terrorism. Terrorism is a foreign virus. It was introduced here by those regimes that had ruled us for 30 years. Now that virus needs to be expelled.”
Abu Fagr believes that some of the underpinnings of the remedy for the Sinai problem need to be addressed in the constitution. As one of the members of the Committee of Fifty he hopes to promote the inclusion of “articles pertaining to Sinai that will re-establish the framework of its relationship with the state so as to affirm this region's particular culture and identity.”
Deputy Minister of Culture Sabri Said agrees that Sinai has experienced severe cultural neglect during the past 40 years. It has been deprived of sufficient cultural services, just as it has of crucial health and educational services. “It is sufficient to say that in the whole of Sinai, there is only one cultural palace, and that is in Sharm El-Sheikh,” he said. “After that land was restored to us, we had a project but it was quickly forgotten following the assassination of Sadat at the outset of the 1980s when the government was forced to confront terrorism and extremism. As a consequence, the people there felt culturally remote and alienated from the capital. To make matters worse, the government began to favour major tourist projects in South Sinai, ignoring the huge historical and cultural heritage of that peninsula.” He went on to note that great artists, such as Mustafa Bakir, have dedicated their lives to the documentation, preservation and promotion of Sinai arts and culture which can be marketed internationally as folk heritage.
As the deputy minister of culture suggested, Sinai was just as overlooked economically as it was culturally. Magdi Sobhi, an economic expert and deputy director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies told the Weekly, “A big question mark has hovered over a mysterious region for decades. Why was Sinai never developed? It was in the interest of the state. The plans were there and ready to be put into effect from the moment it was liberated. Was there some agreement between the Camp David partners? I don't think so. It would have probably come to light after all these decades.”
Salah Salem, head of the North Sinai branch of the Doctors Syndicate told the Weekly, “When I was a student here in Sinai, the president [Sadat] met some of my colleagues and I and told us how he hoped to develop Sinai and end the idea of Sinai as a place of war, invasion and the pursuit of greed. This helps explain why he said that the 1973 War was the last of the [Arab-Israeli] wars. He dreamed of making Sinai like Malaysia. But he was never able to fulfil that dream. He was assassinated by the same hand that is assassinating Sinai today. After him came Mubarak whom Israel pressured to keep from developing the region and he caved in to those pressures. After Mubarak came the Muslim Brotherhood who did what we know they did in the Sinai.”
Another economic expert, Ibrahim Nowar, former deputy minister of trade and industry said, “Yes, there were plans for the development of Sinai. I was one of those who took part in drawing them up in 1981. Then Sadat died and the plans were shelved. But they can be put back on the table now. We have the structure; all it needs is funding and it is believed that even this problem is solvable if we devise short-term rescue plans alongside the long-term plans. I believe that these short-term plans should be put into effect in tandem with the operations to combat terrorism in Sinai. With one hand we would be striking terrorism; with the other we would be developing and planting the sprouts of construction.”
6 October commemorates the victory over Israel in 1973 and with this in mind General Ezzeddin reminds us that “Israel was the enemy then and it remains the enemy. It has interests to pursue, whether by war or other means. The sole variable is the tactics it uses in order to penetrate our national security and influence our political decisions. Our role is to work out how to counter those tactics and to prepare for any potential confrontation with it.”
Said Okasha, managing editor of Mukhtarat Israeliya, published by Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, told the Weekly, “Israel is currently in a phase of turning what is happening in Sinai to its own advantage through coordination with respect to the ongoing military operations there.” The implication is that what the Egyptian army is currently achieving in Sinai benefits Israel indirectly. However, he also points out that the current operations in Sinai had buried the US-Muslim Brotherhood project for an alternative homeland for the Palestinians in Sinai, as well as other projects, such as the Giro Eilan concept that saw Sinai as a mere buffer zone in which conflicts between [Israel and Egypt] could play out.
Numerous allegations have been levelled in Egypt against Palestinian factions in Gaza for involvement in the terrorist activities in Sinai. In some quarters the threat to national security was perceived great enough to warrant hints that Egypt could respond militarily to strike the network of militant groups in Gaza. Could those groups still constitute another threat to future development plans? In Okasha's opinion, the threat of military intervention laid that matter to rest as it drove home the impression that Egypt is prepared to respond if necessary.
As for General Ezzeddin: “We support the Palestinian cause for the sake of the nation and for the sake of the Arab nation, which begins at the borders with our neighbour. It is not for us to intervene to remove the Hamas regime. That is a question that has to be decided by the Palestinians themselves. What we should do is to work to reduce the differences between the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza [Fatah and Hamas] and then focus foremost on transforming those factions from ‘against us' to ‘for us'. I believe that however hostile Hamas may feel towards the current regime in Egypt it will strive towards a good relationship with it. In spite of Hamas's hatred for the Mubarak regime, it was keen to open any channels to deal with it. Therefore, intervention to unify the Palestinians is better than intervention to generate crisis. However, no action should be taken at the expense of our national security and sovereignty. That point was settled from the first moment of the 30 June Revolution.”

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