Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula has long been one of the most under-developed areas of the North African country, despite renewed pledges by successive governments to transform the volatile desert region into a promising tourism and agricultural hub.
The country’s longest-serving presidents have never been interested in investing resources to develop the area, experts say, including Egypt’s current President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
“Every Egyptian regime since declaring the Egyptian republic in 1952 had the ability to transform Sinai into a multibillion-dollar agricultural, mining, industrial, naval and tourist hub,” Sinai researcher and writer Mohannad Sabry told Al Jazeera.
As Egypt approaches its presidential election on Monday, Egyptians are expected to elect Sisi for a second term, but likely not for his renewed pledges on development, nor for his promises to overcome “terror” attacks in the country.
Dubbed a “sham”, the election is widely expected to see Sisi outwin his only opponent, 66-year-old Moussa Mustafa Moussa, chairman of the liberal El-Ghad Party, and a Sisi loyalist who has previously heavily endorsed the president.
Following a campaign to silence opposition, Sisi has marketed himself as the only choice for the Egyptian people, including the 1.4 million residents of the Sinai Peninsula who are witnessing his government’s “brute force” strategy to combat armed groups in the region.
Egypt has for years been battling an armed movement in the peninsula, which has gained pace since the military overthrew democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in mid-2013.
During his 2014 election campaign, Sisi vowed to implement a project that would “fully develop” the peninsula within less than two years of his election.
That year, after a deadly suicide bombing that killed 31 soldiers, the general-turned-president declared a state of emergency in the peninsula, describing it as a “nesting ground for terrorism and terrorists”. The declaration brought curfews and highly restricted residents’ freedom of movement.
The failure of his strategies, which have to date claimed the lives of hundreds of Sinai residents and forced many others to flee, poses one of the biggest challenges for Sisi’s government.
Sisi’s “brute force” strategy, and his latest military operation, which gave security forces a three-month deadline to restore “security and stability” to the peninsula, came after a string of attacks that claimed more than 400 lives in a matter of months.
The death of more 300 people in a bomb and gun attack on a mosque in the town of Bir al-Abed last year was the largest mass shooting attack the region has seen.
In February 2018, Sisi said the development of the thinly populated region is a matter of “national security” – a very “catastrophic” view of the region, Sabry noted.
He said that another term would not bring about change, or buy Sisi more time.
“It is not about time but rather strategy, policies and the will to accomplish any reforms or long-term solutions for the region’s issues,” Sabry said.
“What we are seeing is further deterioration and insistence on flawed policies and total lack of will to apply anything but brute force, creating more damages, and sinking the country into the Sinai dilemma further.”
Last month, Sisi’s aides announced that at the end of the government’s military operation “Sinai will be transformed to a new Sinai”.
Despite these efforts, analysts Al Jazeera spoke to say people have yet to see a concrete proposal for the area’s development.
According to them, the government’s outlook on Sinai will not improve its security or economic standing anytime in the near future.
Issandr El Amrani, head of the North Africa section at the International Crisis Group, told Al Jazeera it is the government’s sequential outlook that has prevented it from developing the area.
“It is a security-first approach that postpones the economic development side of things – wrongly so since in the meantime Sinai’s civilian population has paid a heavy cost,” he explained.
“For them, development and economic growth come after the ISIS problem is resolved, and that is taking much longer than they anticipated,” Amrani added, using one of the acronyms for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).
Previous attacks in Sinai have mostly targeted security forces and members of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, but mosques in North Sinai’s Sheikh Zuweid town have also been attacked.
The constant violence on the peninsula has led to the displacement of 30,000 families, who have fled the towns of Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid and El Arish over the past two years.
While tourists from around the world travel to enjoy the southern part of the peninsula’s Red Sea coasts and resorts, its northern province, by contrast, is underdeveloped and lacking in basic infrastructure.
Swaying the tribes
Pledges to create 1,500 jobs by establishing “agricultural, industrial and urban communities” in Sinai have been perceived by some as a bid by the government to sway Sinai’s mostly tribal residents in joining the fight against armed groups.
Sisi has repeatedly called on Sinai’s 11 main tribes to “cooperate” with the country’s armed forces deployed in the region. Though some responded to the call, experts say these “regime loyalists” are often “rewarded directly”.
Sabry, who has spent years researching the peninsula and its people, said the tribes did not agree to anything.
“They haven’t been allowed to join the effort against ISIS,” he said of the bulk of the tribes.
When asked whether Sisi’s pledges acted as a “reward” for those who wanted to help fight the uprising, regional expert Robert Springborg said the government would likely seek “partners” in its development projects with those who have sided with it.
“The lack of development is due to the government’s interest in facilitating the takeover of touristic lands by those connected to it, rather than in broader development,” Sprinborg, Middle East scholar and a non-resident fellow at the Italian Institute of International Affairs, explained.
The military campaign in Sinai may have marked a new phase of the state’s relationship with Sinai and its people, but it marks “another low”, Sabry noted.
In the past, leaders of the country have failed to extend services to the peninsula – especially its northern half – rendering it the poorest, least-developed area.
But the question to consider at this time, Sprinborg says, is, “what will the government do if in fact, violence resumes in northern Sinai or elsewhere in Egypt after the end of Operation Sinai 2018?”