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As COP27 approaches, Egypt is concealing rights abuses and environmental issues in Sinai

November 3, 2022 at 11:38 am

Camels and bedouins in the South of Sinai [Celestino Arce/NurPhoto via Getty Images]

Imagine being at home with your family and five children. Cooking, watching TV, helping the kids with their homework. Then imagine Egyptian security forces breaking into your house, arresting your husband and then coming back a day later for your 14-year-old son.

This is Arish, the capital of North Sinai, and it’s a story Um Ibrahim recounted to me in an interview four years ago. Since then, Um Ibrahim has discovered her husband has been tortured to death and, when I spoke to her again last week, she told me she has no idea where her son, now 18, is.

This is a devastating story, but it’s not an isolated incident. It’s just one of the many examples of severe human rights abuses taking place in Sinai, where the UN climate summit COP27 will be held on Sunday.

Egypt being next COP27 host while it is one of the most polluting nations - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Egypt being next COP27 host while it is one of the most polluting nations – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Yet despite being on the same peninsula where the global conference will take place, Sinai rarely makes the news as the Egyptian government has placed a relentless media blackout on the area.

In the name of the war on terror, the military has forcibly displaced between 70,000 and 100,000 people from the town of Rafah, on the Egyptian side of the border it shares with Gaza.

Homes and farmland have been razed to the ground; unarmed civilians have been extrajudicially executed by the military. And children, like Ibrahim, have been taken away from their families, forcibly disappeared and tortured.

Will anyone speak up for Ibrahim and other children like him at COP27? Will human rights abuses that take place in Sinai even be on the agenda?

Unfortunately, probably not.

Like its human rights record in Sinai, the government is also trying to conceal its environmental record. As COP27 approaches, it has come under increased scrutiny and the spotlight has turned to issues such as the erasure of green spaces and the building of highways through historic neighbourhoods.

South Sinai residents have told me they’re particularly concerned about the fate of Saint Catherine’s Protectorate, an Egyptian national park in Sinai which encompasses the UNESCO World Heritage Site St Catherine’s monastery and Mount Sinai, where Moses is said to have received the 10 commandments.

Sinai is famous for its dramatic mountain range and of course its Bedouin population, many of whom act as mountain guides around Saint Catherine. It’s a peaceful place and draws a very different type of tourist to those who go to Sharm El-Sheikh, where the appeal is nightlife and development.

This is all about to change. A government mega project, the Grand Transfiguration Project, is being built in Saint Catherine’s Protectorate. The tourism hub will include five hotels, a theatre, a convention hall, a museum and a youth centre.

When it’s finished, Bedouin women will tend to their goats and fires to make tea, looking out opposite high-class villas for wealthy tourists. How much of the revenue from this development will go back to the locals? It has already threatened their way of life.

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For the $197 million the first stage of the project has cost, many feel the government should have instead invested in schools and hospitals which are desperately needed.

The development is threatening rare wildlife, and it has completely altered the landscape and scarred the village. Buildings are traditionally made with local rocks and small amounts of cement. Now they are predominantly built with cement and rocks brought in from other areas, which don’t match the colour of the mountains.

The government has cut down trees, built roads through villages and destroyed gardens and a cemetery, just to build the project. The rise in the population and incoming tourism will generate pollution and waste.

People are asking where the water is coming from for the project as there is a severe shortage in Sinai. At St Catherine’s the residents are completely dependent on rain and snow for water and barely have enough water to irrigate their gardens, drink and wash with.

But an artificial lake has been built, and people would like to know how it will be filled. Already a lot of the trees planted for the project have died, presumably because they haven’t been watered.

“Generally, what happens here is that people working on the development project get the water first,” one person told me. “Or the military or the police. And if there’s excess, they bring it to the Bedouins.”

Just 80 kilometres from the conference centre, COP27 attendees are scheduled to visit St Catherine. But rights groups have said there is no evidence representatives of Sinai residents and Bedouins have been invited to participate in the summit in a meaningful way, and there are no Egyptian NGOs based in Sinai, or focused on Sinai, attending.

The delegation is unlikely to be told exactly what’s going on at St Catherine’s. As one resident told me: “If climate activists saw what was really happening in Sinai, they would laugh. It’s not coherent with any kind of policy. And it’s not at all preserving the environment.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.