x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Sinai's crisis is a development challenge first

Security in worsening on the Sinai peninsula, but the root cause of these challenges are decades of failed economic policies.

Egypt's Sinai is at a crossroads. The peninsula, particularly its northern reaches, is showing the strains from decades of economic neglect by the former regime. With security worsening, there are now legitimate fears the Sinai is destined to become one of the region's most explosive flash points.

Incidents of hostage taking for ransom - including this week's capture (and swift release) of 25 Chinese workers - are increasingly common in the security vacuum left by the downfall of the previous regime. But the root cause of these challenges are decades of failed economic policies. Stability depends on ameliorating these grievances.

Rampant corruption during the former regime created bottlenecks that impeded investment in the north, unlike in southern Sinai. Projects that were underway, like the tiraa (irrigation canals), were suspended for years. They can and must be restarted.

So too must efforts be made to remove legal impediments so indigenous farmers can support themselves, something the Mubarak regime discouraged. Land ownership disputes, and imprisonment for illegal drilling of water wells, has put many farmers out of business - and forced others into drug trafficking and other illicit forms of making money. Attacks in the more prosperous area of southern Sinai can be attributed to a widespread sense of injustice on the part of northerners.

For decades the Bedouin have also been left out of the region's mineral and tourism industries. The newly-elected parliament, with a sense of urgency, must address these fundamental problems as a step towards restoring calm.

These are of course long-term solutions; there may be a need for more immediate fixes. While Egypt's 33-year-old peace treaty with Israel limits troops numbers in the region it does allow for exceptions. Egyptian police alone do not appear up to the task.

Ultimately, Sinai's problems require economic reforms that only politicians can deliver. In this, Cairo's track record is abysmal.

Former governments - from Sadat to Mubarak - talked about developing the peninsula, building rail and transportation systems and reforming land ownership rules. Rarely did they deliver.

Egypt's newest leaders can ill afford to follow in their footsteps.