In the heart of Al-Arish, the capital of the North Sinai Governorate, Metito is building a desalination plant at the cost of $96 million.
The water group, which is headquartered in the UAE, says the plant will provide enough water for 750,000 people. But as construction rolls ahead, local residents are asking exactly who this drinking water is for.
North Sinai only has 400,000 residents. There used to be 500,000 but a fifth of them have been displaced – mainly from Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid – as the Egyptian government pursues a systematic policy to rid the area of locals.
Residents have also been forced out south of Al-Arish where the airport is being expanded and are now bracing themselves for a third round after the Egyptian president issued an official decree to confiscate houses, residential buildings and land surrounding Al-Arish port.
Much of this displacement took place under “Operation Sinai”, a purge on the impoverished northern peninsula launched in early 2018. Under the pretext it was fighting a war on terror, authorities searched residents’ houses, demolished them and sealed off several towns.
The military campaign wound down seven months later but the punitive measures have remained in place, in various degrees of intensity, since then.
Over the past three weeks a fresh security campaign has gathered pace. Security forces have bulldozed houses, prevented people mourning at funerals and installed security cameras on people’s houses, reports Mada Masr, in response to a number of terror attacks on checkpoints in late June.
South Sinai is also affected. Motorbikes and 4x4s are banned except in beach towns and spare parts are hard to get. Power tools and chemicals for agriculture are also banned.
At the beginning of July, residents living in the peninsula heard that people carrying North Sinai IDs wouldn’t be able to travel to the south without a protector who guarantees in writing at the police station that they know the person and is responsible for him, a system that has unofficially been in place since forever, Ahmed, who lives in the area, told me.
On top of this, there’s an unofficial curfew in place throughout most of Sinai, which in the mountain areas stretches from 6pm until 6am. The only place this is not implemented is on the beach – Sinai has a beautiful stretch of coastline along the shore of the Red Sea, but even here a number of military checkpoints have popped up.
“Probably the mindset is: tourism has to be protected from the locals,” says Ahmed.
Since the spring, locals need a permit to get past the newly created checkpoints and into certain beach areas, which can be obtained from the police station if you are a fisherman, work in a coffee shop or have a business on the beach.
“It is difficult to describe the current climate: it is sad, humiliating. Above all, the financial situation here is getting worse,” he says.
People living in the mountains don’t have enough to get by with the supply of subsidised flour bags exceeding demand, says Ahmed. Petrol fills are recorded and jerricans are banned, which means people can’t take the fuel home to power their generators.
It’s hard to really understand what’s happening in Sinai since the Egyptian regime has imposed a media blackout there whilst simultaneously pushing the narrative that the army’s efforts in Sinai are successful and heroic. Over recent weeks a number of social media accounts that provided vital information have been shut down and suspended.
“It goes so far that you cannot even trust your neighbour,” says Ahmed. “Nobody would dare to talk to the press, an official or a stranger.”
The Egyptian government insists it is making Sinai more accessible from the Egyptian mainland as it completes four tunnels under the Suez Canal to connect it to the peninsula.
But locals tell a different story. A local truck driver recently complained about the new fees at the Suez Tunnel – for private cars the price has jumped up to 20 Egyptian pounds ($1.2) from two Egyptian pounds ($0.2) and for trucks and buses from 80 Egyptian pounds ($4.9) to 200 Egyptian pounds ($12).
“They don’t want anyone to come to Sinai,” he said.
The big question – what is the ultimate goal for Sinai? – should be considered in the context of the country as a whole. Many areas are undergoing similar cycles of displacement and gentrification, or the expulsion of the poor so that rich investors can enjoy their land.
Property allegedly built on state land in Marsa Matruh, a resort town on Egypt’s northern coast known for its white sands, is being demolished whilst land on the beach has been auctioned off to private bidders.
Warraq Island in Cairo made headlines in 2017 after houses were bulldozed and residents evicted after being accused of illegally squatting on state land. Warraq Island had been earmarked for glitzy residential buildings, much like the nearby Maspero district, from which 4,500 families were displaced. Those who were offered compensation complained it was far below the market value.
Then there’s Trump’s “deal of the century”, under which Egypt is said to be handing over a portion of the Sinai Peninsula to the Palestinians: “Most Sinawis still believe that a Palestinian state in Sinai is the goal,” says Ahmed.
On the ground, there is no doubt that the systematic, ongoing displacement of North Sinai has had harrowing effects on the people there. Prior to Metito’s plant, people in North Sinai dug their own wells and used personal generators to water the fields. The vegetables and fruit they produced were some of the best in the country, in particular their olives and olive oil products.
“It is really painful that people who worked their entire lives to ‘make the desert green’ are being forced to leave their land and with their fields destroyed,” says Ahmed. “It is hard to believe that any kind of development in Sinai will benefit the original population.”
“It is, in a way, a project to create a new Egyptian in Sisi’s image, in a new Egypt.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.