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Sharm fence, sharp controversy
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 02 - 11 - 2005

Is the fence being built around the popular Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh meant to keep the Bedouins out? Amirah Ibrahim talks to officials, tourism insiders, and local residents about the barrier's potentially positive and negative impact
A fence is going up around the popular Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh, as part of a security plan to help prevent terrorist attacks. Just over three months ago, more than 60 people were killed when suicide bombers launched simultaneous attacks outside two of the city's hotels as well as its downtown market.
"The fence, designed to extend 20km around every part of the town frequented by tourists, would force all vehicles to pass through one of four checkpoints, making it harder for bombers to attack," said a security official. The source said security forces would patrol the fence. "Once it's complete, access to the city will be restricted to police- monitored entry points, equipped with state- of-the-art explosive detection equipment."
Four kilometres of the fence on the northern side of the resort, and a smaller section on the southern side, are already complete. The finished portions have concrete foundations, with a wire fence rising to 1.5 metres above the ground -- enough to deter vehicles, but probably not high or strong enough to keep out people on foot.
While security bodies have thus far failed to clearly identify the perpetrators of the Sharm El-Sheikh attacks, most of their suspicion has been targeted at Sinai's Bedouin community. In the aftermath of the incident, authorities raided several Bedouin communities in the vicinity and, according to human rights groups, arrested thousands of people.
A similar campaign of mass arrests took place after the earlier bombings in Taba. Combined with a crackdown on smuggling in the area, tensions between the Bedouins and the government are at a high point. As a result, the controversy over the fence has been intense from the moment the first signs of its construction appeared on the ground.
Critics say the barrier will increase the likelihood of attacks by terrorists rather than curb them. "They want to keep Sinai Bedouins out of Sharm El-Sheikh, which will only add to our community's feelings of alienation," a Bedouin elder told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Rather than preventing terrorism, that will only increase it."
It has been suggested that one of the communities that was raided by authorities -- Al-Ruweisat -- will be split in two by the fence, with half of the area's residents ending up on the wrong side of the security perimeter. "It will cut off Al-Ruweisat, where many of us live, from the rest of Sharm El-Sheikh," the Bedouin elder said.
South Sinai Governor Mustafa Afifi denied that the fence was "meant to stop any particular group of people". Speaking to the Weekly, Afifi said the fence was part of an Interior Ministry project meant to control and secure traffic on the Sharm El-Sheikh highway. "The highway has been the scene of tragic accidents because certain parts of it are very dangerous and require greater safety precautions. Camels, for instance, used to wander onto the road from the desert and cause very serious accidents. Last month, our head veterinarian and his family were killed in just such an accident. I have also been the victim of a car crash with a camel."
According to Afifi, the fence is only meant to cover a limited part of the 110km ring road surrounding Sharm El-Sheikh. He also said there would be plenty of entry points, and not just four as had been reported. "There will be an entrance for every village, as well as entrances for the industrial zone, the military units, the MFO units, safari locations, and wherever there needs to be a connection through the desert with the road."
The governor seemed dismayed that the media had chosen to place a negative spotlight on the fence (opposition daily Al-Wafd, in particular, has launched a fierce campaign against it), while completely ignoring the governorate's recent accomplishments. "We haven't heard a positive word in the press about the measures that we have taken over the past four years to reduce the damage that comes with the annual heavy rains. Why?" Afifi's theory is that "some people don't like to see stability in Egypt, and work to spoil the relationship between the different elements of the community -- like Bedouins and the state."
He said that a great many of those working on the fence are, in fact, Bedouins, who "realise they benefit more when tourism flourishes. They are in favour of procedures that bring more investments and more tourism to the area." The aim, he said, was to complete the fence within the next three months.
The Tourism Ministry sees the barrier as a key part of reassuring travellers that the destination is safe. "It's not like the Great Wall of China," the tourism spokeswoman said, "but more like a series of security checkpoints so we can monitor who is coming in and out of the city. It is part of a series of measures we are implementing on the ground, and tourists will be able to come and see for themselves how security has been stepped up."
Sharm El-Sheikh's reputation as a world- class holiday resort extends far and wide. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has vacationed there with his family several times, and President Hosni Mubarak maintains a presidential residence in the town. The resort's numerous hotels and conference facilities have attracted a number of important Middle East peace summits.
"In the wake of the bombings, there was a drop-off in the number of bookings," the tourism spokeswoman said, "but overall we have doubled our capacity for the year." The UK market seems especially healthy, with recent figures indicating a 66 per cent increase -- compared to last year -- in the number of Britons taking package holidays between May and October. Encouraged by the growth, GB Airways have just launched new flights from London's Gatwick airport to both Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada.
Tourists arriving by plane are unlikely to notice the new security measures unless they leave the city in a vehicle, since the airport as well as the majority of hotels are well within the fence's boundaries.
Some tour industry insiders are worried about the fence's impact. "The fear is that the sight of security forces patrolling a fence that's ringing a resort town will ruin the holiday atmosphere, and deter holidaymakers from coming," said the manager of a five-star hotel. "Some of our guests have been asking us why the city is surrounded by a fence, and whether it is still a target for terrorist attacks."
Others have reacted more positively. The owner of a five-star hotel and a member of the South Sinai Investors Association said, "the feedback we are getting is that it is reassuring people that things are safe. If we end up with even 10 per cent better security, it will be great. But we are confident that the results will be much better than that."


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