Creating a buffer zone along the border with the Gaza Strip has been the Egyptian government’s priority since the Oct. 24 attack that killed more than 30 soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula. The plan, which promises to stem the flow of smuggled weapons and militants, necessitates the immediate evacuation of thousands of residents and the demolition of hundreds of homes.
While both the decision and the speed of its implementation are lauded as a positive step toward eliminating terrorism in a restive region, concerns about the financial and psychological damage sustained by locals are emerging.
Lawyer and human rights activist Gamal Eid said the evacuation constituted a blatant violation of the constitution. Article 63 “states clearly that forced evacuations of citizens are prohibited,” he said. “Even if only one person refuses to evacuate, it’s still a crime.” Eid also objected to permitting the evacuation in return for compensation. “The constitution mentioned nothing about compensation.”
Naeim Gabr, a chief of the Sawarka tribe in northern Sinai, said he did not see how evacuation would contribute to countering terrorism. “This is absolutely illogical. National security is achieved when an area is properly populated, not deserted,” he said, adding that some residents are planning to file lawsuits that could reach an international level. He also noted residents’ strong ties to their lands. “No compensation can replace the land for the locals of Sinai.”
Political activist Haitham Mohamedin said the evacuations “will neither end terrorism nor protect soldiers in Sinai. They’ll only trigger animosity between the people and the army,” which is “treating the people as second-class citizens, and accuses many of them of treason.” The army “is technically imposing martial laws on the people of Sinai, on the basis that the peninsula has become a military zone.”
However, security expert Hossam Sweilam said the evacuation plan “was done in agreement with the Sinai locals, and most of them accepted the decision and will be compensated. Even if it’s unconstitutional, the constitution isn’t a holy book, and national security takes precedence over the constitution.”
Sweilam said the buffer zone, and a planned canal inside it, will be large enough that members of Palestinian group Hamas “wouldn’t be able to infiltrate the Egyptian border.”
Military and strategic expert Mahmoud Zaher refuted claims that the government was treating Sinai residents as traitors. “On the contrary, the army is fully aware of the major role played by the people of Sinai in helping it combat terrorism,” he said. “The army is now asking them if they can go one more extra mile.”
Zaher also denied that Sinai residents were being treated as second-class citizens. “They are of course first-class citizens, and nobody can say otherwise. We know that evacuation isn’t a pleasant business, but the government is unfortunately forced to do it. It’s a matter of national security.”
Samir Ghattas, chairman of the Middle East Forum for Political Studies, highlighted the importance of a buffer zone in closing tunnels used to smuggle weapons and militants from Gaza into the border town of Rafah.
“Those tunnels constitute a grave threat to Egypt’s national security,” he said, adding that Hamas has been “using Sinai as a warehouse for their weapons” because “they’ll be safer than in [Gaza], where they’re subjected to Israeli attacks.” Ghattas said Sinai residents found to be involved in smuggling would be forcibly evacuated and not compensated.
He acknowledged that some residents have started complaining, but not about the evacuation in principle. “They only complained that they weren’t given enough time,” he said, referring to the 48 hours given to leave their homes.
Sinai-based journalist Mustafa Singer said the evacuation, “delivered over megaphones, took people by surprise.”
New York Times reporter Kareem Fahim said it was hard to gauge local reaction because it is difficult for journalists to get access to the area, and because protests without permission are strictly banned. “But the lack of outcry also seemed to measure the fatigue in Sinai, after decades of government neglect and months of armed conflict pitting the army against a stubborn insurgency.”