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Unwelcome to Egypt

Book Review: 'Sinai: Egypt’s linchpin, Gaza’s lifeline, Israel’s nightmare' by Mohannad Sabry

From the waterfront at Ismailia, a mid-sized Egyptian city situated halfway up the Suez Canal, two things are visible. The first is a slow-motion parade of colossal container ships, each bearing up to a hundred-thousand tonnes of cargo; from the right angle, the vessels appear to be floating ethereally through the sand dunes and rocks that rise and fall as far as the eye can see behind them.

The second is a large set of letters built into the eastern bank of the canal, which marks the start of the Sinai Peninsula – more than 20,000 square miles of rugged desert at the juncture of Africa and Asia, and the stage for some of history’s most dramatic episodes. It was here, atop Mount Sinai, that Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments, and it was here, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, that wars unfolded which would determine the modern shape of the Middle East. The letters are red and gaudy, and framed with a massive black border that is designed to convey solidity and permanence. “Welcome to Egypt,” they read.

Sinai’s place in Egypt’s popular imagination has always involved a paradoxical blend of forgotten hinterland and core identity. The many battles over sovereignty in the Peninsula, and its return to Egyptian authority in 1982 following 15 years of Israeli occupation, are woven into the foundational mythology of the post-colonial Egyptian state, and the self-justification of its leaders. “The best days of my life were when I raised the flag of Egypt over the Sinai,” declared former President Hosni Mubarak in his last ever speech to the nation, less than 24 hours before being toppled. As Mohannad Sabry, one of the very few journalists to have reported extensively from the region in recent years, observes, Mubarak presented Sinai to his own population and the world in three distinct ways: as a beach playground for foreigners and moneyed Egyptians, as a clichéd reference point for ritual commemoration, and as a barren wilderness inhabited only by outlaws and traffickers. What was missing from all these narratives were the voices and lived experiences of half a million people, the majority of them Bedouin, for whom the Sinai Peninsula is home.

In bringing those voices and lived experiences to the page, at a time in which Egypt’s latest iteration of dictatorship is prosecuting a brutal military assault in the area and attempting to enforce a media blackout on its activities, Sabry has done a great service to all those that are interested in the Arab World’s most populous country and its ongoing turbulence. In contrast to the analysts who view Sinai as little more than an important puzzle piece in a much wider geopolitical game, or the government officials who reveal themselves to be ignorant of Sinai’s basic geographical features, or the elite cheerleaders of Egypt’s current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who demonise and dehumanise those who dwell within it – “let us destroy it, burn it, turn it into fire … until no living creature is left on its land,” suggested one prominent newspaper columnist in 2014 – Sabry has found ways to let Sinai’s Bedouins tell their own stories on their own terms.

He shows us the graffiti scrawled onto the walls of Sinai’s prison cells by victims of state torture, traces the intricacies of the giant smuggling operation that runs through tunnels underneath the Gaza border, and maps the shifting, contested and often overlapping power structures that assert claims over local citizens’ lives. On the issue which dominates contemporary debate on Sinai, that of growing jihadist militancy, Sabry supplies much-needed historical depth and nuance; he takes us back to the early 1980s when the Mubarak dictatorship set out to neuter the influence of popular Sufi clerics for fear they would undermine state authority, and explains how it was the government’s policies of deliberate underdevelopment and general inattention to the area that first attracted militants fleeing the government’s dirty war in southern Egypt. Now that jihadist radicals have established bases in the Sinai, that same cycle – widespread impoverishment and state hostility to any form of genuinely autonomous tribal organisation – is proving to be a powerful engine of recruitment, especially when coupled with the army’s barbarism. “The bombarded homes, unlawfully murdered civilians, and the stifling conditions under which tens of thousands of people lived [have] created the perfect incubator the regime once accused the Bedouin of providing,” Sabry argues.

In the course of his investigations, Sabry does more than merely shine an expert light onto the Peninsula; he also illuminates many of the faultlines that have animated so much political unrest across the country as a whole. Economic exclusion, high-level corruption, the normalisation of violence against civilians by a security apparatus that considers itself beyond the law; these are problems that sit at the heart of Egypt’s revolution and counter-revolution, but in Sinai they vibrate at a higher, deadlier pitch.

Many Egyptians, for example, suffer from energy shortages and were furious at the export of gas to neighbouring Israel for below-market prices; the outcome of a deal struck between powerful Mubarak family cronies and former members of the Israeli intelligence apparatus which is estimated to have deprived the Egyptian treasury of $11bn in revenues. It is in Sinai, though, that Bedouins walk for miles to leave empty gas canisters on the side of the road with banknotes tied to the handle in the (often vain) hope that a supply truck will eventually pass by and replace them with full ones; it is through Sinai, too, that the pipeline carrying gas to Israel provocatively runs, and it is there that repeated bombings over the past half-decade have brought it to a halt. Egyptians everywhere have found ways to challenge ‘mini-Mubaraks’ in their community who have been co-opted by the state, and at the height of the 2011 uprising Egyptians everywhere demonstrated their rejection of his rule by burning dozens of police stations to the ground. It is only in Sinai, however, that grassroots organisations talk of forming their own army, and where attacks on the state’s security installations often involve AK-47s and RPGs.

Sinai continues to exert a powerful influence over the rest of Egypt’s political struggles. In April, President Sisi’s decision to hand over two small Red Sea islands just off the Peninsula to his regional sponsor Saudi Arabia triggered unprecedented protests in the Nile Valley where 95% of the population live; ten days later, Sisi’s opponents in Cairo, Alexandria and other major cities used the occasion of Sinai Liberation Day, a national holiday, to take to the streets once more – exposing Sisi’s many contradictions, and braving tear gas and jail along the way. Back in Sinai itself, meanwhile, residents continue, under the hardest circumstances imaginable, their attempts to resist the state’s marginalisation and fight for political agency.

In one of the most meaningful scenes in Sabry’s urgent and excellent book, he recounts how the popular storming of a police compound in the north Sinai town of Sheikh Zuwayyed during the anti-Mubarak uprising resulted in hundreds of ID cards, confiscated over many years by vindictive officers, being retrieved and returned to their owners. In Egypt, the carrying of ID cards is compulsory; leaving home without one is a serious risk, and makes any interaction with officialdom impossible. Without an ID card, you are invisible and can assert no rights; the act of reclaiming them was a way of Sinai’s Bedouins inserting themselves into a script they had been long been written out of and forcing their way on to the stage. There is no better analogy for Egypt’s revolution as a whole. Sinai is unique, but many of its volatile dynamics are also universal. Sabry makes clear that Sinai’s status quo – one in which Sisi holds glitzy government conferences in the south and sends Apache gunships to the north – is completely unsustainable. The same can be said of Sisi’s rule on the other side of the Suez Canal as well.

-Published in The Times Literary Supplement
-September 2016