Egypt: Gov. allocates more state-owned land to the army in Sinai

The Egyptian cabinet has approved a decision put forward by Sisi to allocate 90,000 acres of state-owned land in the Rabaa and Bir Al-Abed areas of Sinai to the Army’s National Service Projects Organization (NSPO).

The NSPO, established by in 1979, is affiliated with the armed forces and assists economic development projects across the country including infrastructure and development projects.

Under the current Egyptian government, the powers of the NSPO have greatly expanded.

Since he assumed power in 2014, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has allocated large areas of land, particularly along the coast, for real estate, tourism and agricultural development. This land is then used for real estate projects for the army.

It is estimated that the Egyptian army owns some 40 per cent of Egypt’s total GDP and owns construction firms, cement plants, hotels and invests in key sectors including tourism.

In June, Al-Sisi allocated two areas of state-owned land in Minya and Beni Suef to the armed forces so they could be used for agricultural purposes.

At the same time, Egyptian authorities began implementing a 2016 decree which allocated two kilometres of land on either side of major roads in Sinai as property of the Ministry of Defense which was predicted to displace more than 80 per cent of the local population.

Also that year Bedouin in the city of Neglia, west of the north coast town of Marsa Matrouh, staged a sit-in to protest against the confiscation of their land which they said was being sold on to the UAE.

Due to its white sand and clear water, the north coast is a tourism hotspot and the property along the seafront has been demolished by the army on the pretext that it has been built on state-owned land.

In 2017 houses in Warraq Island were bulldozed and residents evicted, thereafter locals were accused of illegally squatting on state owned land.

Warraq Island had been earmarked for tourism and business developments, a project which was overseen by the army.

47 Red islands to the army

In August 2019, Sisi issued a resolution allocating 47 state-owned islands in the Red Sea to the army, stating that the land is of strategic military importance.

Most of the islands were used for tourism purposes, including Giftun Island in the resort town of Hurghada which is famous for snorkelling, Tobia Island and Abu Hashish Island, also a famous dive site.

The army is estimated to own around 40 per cent of Egypt’s total GDP and owns construction firms, cement plants, hotels and invests in key sectors like tourism.

In June 2017, Egyptian lawmakers approved an accord transferring the two Red Sea Islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia, a victory for the president who had initially signed the deal in 2016 only to have it rejected by the highest administrative court.

The islands were mainly under the control of the Egyptian military since 1949.

When he initially announced the islands would be transferred to Riyadh, Egypt witnessed the largest protests since Al-Sisi’s rise to power in 2014 and in response security forces arrested demonstrators.

Former Egyptian Ambassador Masoum Marzouk was arrested in August 2018 after opposing the transfer of the Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia and calling for a public referendum on Al-Sisi’s rule before the Public Prosecution released him under a presidential pardon.

Resolution No. 380 of 2019 followed closely after news over the weekend that Egyptian authorities would begin implementing a 2016 decree which allocates two kilometers of land on either side of major roads in Sinai as property of the Ministry of Defense.

When the decree is implemented more than 80 per cent of the local population will be displaced.

Ethnic cleansing

In mid-2019, the Egyptian government demolished Bedouin-owned houses in Tarabin village in South Sinai on the grounds that they were not “legally” owned.

Tarabin is located in Nuweiba, along the northwest bank of the Gulf of Aqaba, where the dramatic mountain range and ramshackle huts on the water’s edge have long drawn travelers.

Beyond the camps that dot the coastline and pull the crowds, Sinai has an underbelly well-known to the local population but perhaps not to these tourists. Ongoing, but heightened since the 2013 coup and Al-Sisi’s rise to power, is the systematic repression of the Bedouin.

Egyptian law imposes tight restrictions on property ownership in Sinai and the government has asked residents and companies in the peninsula to prove they own houses by September, a loose deadline subject to change, or else they will be considered to be illegally occupying state-owned land.

In North Sinai alone around 40,000 pieces of land have been inherited through the wad al-yad practice, meaning houses, farmlands and businesses have been passed through the generations without official documents which prove ownership.

Only Egyptians born to Egyptian parents can own land, but proving where your great-grandparents are from is not easy given that Bedouins generally don’t have birth certificates or ID cards.

Even if they can, registering their land is a costly process and this is before you have paid for a lawyer, travel expenses and official fees.

For those that can’t meet the requirements, their property meets the same fate as the buildings in Tarabin – decades of family history, crushed to the ground in a matter of hours.

This practice goes contrary to article eight of the 1906 Egyptian-Ottoman boundary agreement which established the border between Sinai and the Ottoman provinces of Hejaz and Jerusalem (that later became the Egypt-Mandatory Palestine border), which states that “natives and Arabs” living on both sides will continue to retain ownership of waters, fields and land.

It also contradicts the Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention No. 107, which protects indigenous people from discrimination, but this will mean little to the Egyptian authorities, who have proved time and time again that conventions and laws are a nuisance, rather than something to abide by.

The destruction of houses in Sinai has been largely focused in the north, home to the bigger tribes of Sawarka, Remikat and Taraben, who have long asked the central government to respect their rights, says the journalist Massaad Abu Fajr, who is from North Sinai and whose house has been destroyed by the Egyptian government. To this end in 2007 residents founded the “Wedna Neaish” (We want to live) movement, but instead of respecting their demands authorities arrested several of their prominent members.

The government’s official line is that it is fighting a war on terror, but given that a 2018 Tahrir Institute report estimated that there were 1,000 militants in Sinai at any given time, the fact that 100,000 people have already been displaced indicates that the security campaign is completely disproportionate to the threat that is posed.

War on civilians

Locals believe it is actually a war on civilians and that these punitive measures are designed to force the Bedouin in Sinai to emigrate. It’s ethnic cleansing, says Fajr.

Historically, the Egyptian state has always doubted the loyalty of the Bedouin. Well-known Egyptian journalist Muhammad Hassanein Heikal warned his friend Gamal Abdul Nasser that the Sinai tribes are a problem. Since then, discrimination has been handed down through successive governments.

The Bedouin have been excluded from the lucrative profits generated by tourism in the southern peninsula, at one time a third of the country’s overall tourism revenue. They have also been overlooked for jobs in the tourist industry in favor of Egyptians from the Nile Valley who were encouraged to emigrate there to dilute the local population.

The Bedouin are not allowed to join the army or police force and are prevented from holding significant posts in government. Authorities spend more time demonizing them as drug smugglers, rather than implementing urgently needed reforms to integrate and develop the community.

When the file landed on Al-Sisi’s desk he took it to a new level and decided to destroy the existence of the Bedouin entirely, says Fajr. The peninsula has completely changed at the hands of the general turned president.

Under the terms of the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, Sinai was actually a demilitarized zone and armed forces were strictly limited. Now the Egyptian army is everywhere. Checkpoints have popped up along the coast and prevent residents from getting onto the beach, unless they have a permit that states they have a business there.

The government has now decided to implement a 2016 presidential decree to transfer two kilometers on either side of certain roads in North Sinai to the Defense Ministry, which will displace more than 80 per cent of the population of Al-Arish.

Fajr’s family house once stood in Rafah, a now-bulldozed city along the eastern border of the besieged Gaza Strip. In the first three month of Al-Sisi’s “Operation Sinai”, 3,000 houses were razed here to create a buffer zone along the border.

The flattened territory is a casualty of Egypt’s hopes and aspirations to find a way into a part of the country which has long been off bounds to its tanks. They offered to help Israel protect its border and in exchange Israel allowed soldiers access and has carried out its own covert air campaign in Sinai.

It takes roughly eight hours to drive from the deserts of Sinai to the Egyptian capital, a geographical distance that symbolizes the political isolation of the Bedouin. Here, in the parliament’s air conditioned House of Representatives, MPs recently gathered to amend legislation which regulates Egyptian nationality and foreigner residence in the country.

Under the law the prime minister has the right to grant citizenship to any foreigner who buys real estate owned by the state or deposits seven million Egyptian pounds ($0.42 million) into the country in a bid to boost foreign investment and solve the economic crisis.

Both the emir of Kuwait and the king of Bahrain have been granted the right to purchase land in Egypt. In 2016, Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa became an Egyptian citizen and was able to purchase two villas in South Sinai, a move which compounds the government view on the indigenous people of the Sinai peninsula: rich foreigners are more welcome in Egypt than its indigenous Bedouin.