Egyptian Presidential Candidates Discover Sinai

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People attend Friday prayers in Tahrir square in Cairo 20 April 2012. Tens of thousands of Egyptians demanded on Friday that their military rulers stick to a pledge to hand over power by mid-year after a row over who can run in the presidential election raised doubts about the army's commitment to democracy. The banner reads, "military council has no role." (Photo: REUTERS - Mohamed Abd El Ghany)

By: Rana Mamdouh

Published Friday, April 27, 2012

Pledges to put an end to years of marginalization under Mubarak have fallen on skeptical ears in an area of Egypt that is used to hearing scores of unfulfilled promises.

Abd al-Halim Hafez’s song “Good Morning Sinai,” adapted from the poem by Abd al-Rahman al-Abnoudi, is always sung on the anniversary of the liberation of the Sinai Peninsula from Israeli occupation. Egyptians celebrated the 30th anniversary on Thursday.

For the past 28 years, the celebration was accompanied only by images splashed over TV screens and newspapers of deposed president Hosni Mubarak laying a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and another on the grave of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat.

This year was different. Field Marshal Muhammad Tantawi assumed Mubarak’s wreath-laying role. Meanwhile, Sinai was treated to an unprecedented series of campaign visits from candidates in the forthcoming presidential elections, led by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Muhammad Mursi and the revolutionary forces’ nominee, Hamdeen Sabahi. All hopefuls voiced their commitment to developing the region and addressing its people’s numerous grievances, making promises that sounded familiar to those frequently made but never delivered during the Mubarak years.

The “Country of Turquoise,” for which thousands of Egyptians gave their lives, was never a development priority under Mubarak. He always appointed trusted retired generals as its governors. Sinai’s economic resources – whether real estate, oil, or the gas that supplied 40 percent of Israel’s needs – were meanwhile placed at the disposal of Mubarak’s friend, Hussein Salem, now a fugitive.

Mubarak and Salem viewed Sinai purely as the territory of the Camp David agreement with Israel. Everything they did there was related to bolstering that accord, under which Sinai was divided into three zones, each demilitarized to different degrees to ensure that Israel faced no threat from the Egyptian army. The official media scarcely mentioned Sinai other than in the context of “security campaigns,” illegal weapons, smuggling, the tunnels to Gaza, or Israel – whose citizens filled the region’s hotels.

The January 25 revolution brought little more to Sinai than a visit from former Prime Minister Essam Sharaf last April. This initially raised hopes that the peninsula might finally be freed from the siege and exclusion imposed on it by Mubarak’s regime and his close ties with Israel. But only empty promises followed. Although Sharaf pledged that those living in Sinai would be accorded land ownership rights, nothing has been done.

There were abundant promises, too, from the presidential hopefuls who flocked to Sinai ahead of the second liberation anniversary after the revolution.

They were preceded by their published election programs, in which most acknowledged the need to address Sinai’s problems, though rarely devoting more than a couple of lines to the matter.

Sabahi’s program sufficed with saying that he would be committed to the development of Sinai if elected president, without specifying how his vision of the region’s development differs from the one which Mubarak always claimed to have.

Independent Islamist candidate Abd al-Moneim Abul-Futouh’s program included Sinai as one of several border areas in which he promised to increase state investment, along with outlying regions in the west and south of the country.

Mubarak’s former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa echoed his ex-boss’ approach to solving Sinai’s problems by affirming in his election manifesto that he would give top priority to restoring security in Sinai. It also said that he would enable local people to acquire ownership rights over their lands, overcome discrimination against them in obtaining public sector jobs and joining the army, police and judiciary, and bring an end to the decades of marginalization, exclusion, and injustice they have suffered.

Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, outdid all the others by not just visiting Sinai and discussing its problems with local people, but also devoting a special section in his election program to it. Titled “Sinai Development Plan,” it envisaged dividing Sinai into five economic zones, and focusing development efforts on specific sectors in each (agriculture, commerce, manufacturing, and livestock herding in the northern zone around the provincial capital at al-Arish; mining and small industry in the central zone; agriculture, commerce, and livestock in the west; tourism in the southeast; and tourism along with mining and petroleum extraction in the southwest). Railways would also be built linking Sinai to Suez and Ismailia under the plan, which Mursi estimated would cost Egyptian Pounds (LE) 20 billion (US$3,300,000,000) over a period of five years.

Nevertheless, local observers saw the presidential candidates’ visits as little more than electioneering, pointing out that their proposals for aiding the region’s development and addressing its grievances were vague and not properly thought out – reminiscent of the Mubarak-era promises.

According to writer Masaad Abu-Fajr, what the people of Sinai want from Egypt’s forthcoming president is something altogether different. Numbering over half a million, they only have one representative in parliament. Mubarak treated them as traitors or agents, and did not even acknowledge many of them as Egyptian. In all his years in power, all Mubarak did for Sinai was divide it administratively from one governorate into two. The next president, says Abu Fajr, must firmly re-establish the sense of Egyptian identity for those living in Sinai.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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