Sinai Liberation Day?April 28, 2015 in Egypt
25 April marked the 33rd annual Sinai Liberation day in Egypt, celebrating the return of the peninsula to the Egyptians in 1982. During a ceremony, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi saluted the residents of the region, and the sacrifices of the armed forces in the Sinai Peninsula. He announced the government’s new plans for development in Sinai, including the development of new cities, in particular, New Rafah and New Ismailia. Finally, the president expressed hope that these projects would create jobs for youths in the region.
Despite the positive message delivered by Sisi, the story in Sinai has been a troubled one in recent years. Since 2013, armed forces have struggled to maintain security in the region. Attacks against security forces in North Sinai have spiked to almost daily levels since the ouster of Islamist former President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Egypt’s army, heavily reinforced in the region, has regularly declared arrests, confiscation, and deaths of militants in an effort to quell the operations in the region. In November, the most notorious militant group in the region, Ansar Beit al Maqdis, declared allegiance to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
The new cities planned by the Egyptian government are the result of forced relocation of residents who live on the border with Gaza. A week earlier, Egypt’s Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab issued a ordering the isolation and evacuation of more areas surrounding Rafah in North Sinai. This expands the current buffer zone that was implemented by Egyptian security forces on the border with Gaza. Initially the evacuation was to clear all homes within 500 metres of the border, for fear that homes in the immediate vicinity would be used to cover underground tunnels which could smuggle individuals or contraband into the country. Hundreds of tunnels have bene flooded and destroyed. Currently, the border clearance is expanded to a one-kilometre-wide and 14-kilometre-long buffer zone on the eastern border of North Sinai as part of its fight against militants in the peninsula. The announcements of the buffer zone in recent months have caused the evacuation of hundreds of people, and the demolition of hundreds of houses. Mahlab’s announcement included a promise that evacuees would receive alternative housing and reparations, and a warning that state would confiscate the property of anyone who resisted the evacuation. The evacuations, with little notice, have raised the ire of local residents and caused human rights organisations to speak out against Sisi’s policies.
Meanwhile, on Saturday Egypt extended a state of emergency imposed on parts of northern Sinai. The initial state of emergency was put in place late last year after Islamist militants stepped up attacks in the peninsula bordering Israel, Gaza and the Suez Canal. In October, 33 security personnel were killed in an attack at a checkpoint in northern Sinai, one of the largest attacks to occur in the region. The attack was claimed by Ansar Beit al Maqdis, who seeks to topple Sisi’s government, but largely focuses their attacks on police and security forces in North Sinai. The state of emergency was extended for another three months in January. The current extension is to last for three months, and will impact Rafah, al-Arish, Sheik Zuweid and surrounding areas. It also extends a night-time curfew in place in the same areas.
In the midst of a growing battle against militants in Sinai and throughout the country, last month the US announced that it would lift the ban of the supply of military equipment to Egypt. The ban was put in place when Morsi was overthrown in 2011. The White House said it would release the equipment and “modernise” the way it provided military aid to Egypt, including a greater focus on counterterrorism, border security, maritime security and Sinai security. President Obama directed the release of 12 Lockheed Martin F-16 aircraft, 20 Boeing Harpoon missiles, and up to 125 M1A1 Abrams tank kits made by General Dynamics. With an influx of weapons, the mass relocation of residents, and intensified battles against militants in the region, Egypt hopes to see a second liberation in Sinai.