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Securing Sinai airport comes at cost to locals

President Sisi’s announcement to build a large safe zone around the El-Arish Airport in order for it to resume operations raised the ire of Sinai residents whose houses and lands would be destroyed in the process.

CAIRO — At the Nation’s Story Conference in Cairo Jan. 18 to lay out the achievements during his first presidential term, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said that El-Arish International Airport in the northern Sinai Peninsula should resume operation — unthreatened. The airport had been closed since Dec. 19, when the Islamic State-affiliated Wilayat Sinai launched a missile from a farm targeting the jet of the ministers of defense and interior. The incident led to the death of one officer, while two others were wounded.

Sisi said that a safe zone of 5 kilometers (3 miles) deep will be built around the airport. More than 20 kilometers will be demolished if the area is square-shaped, which is equivalent to half of el-Arish city that stretches along 48 kilometers.

On Jan. 23, north Sinai Governor Maj. Gen. Al-Sayed Abdel Fattah Harhour announced that the police and army have appraised the value of citizens’ houses and farms that are 5 kilometers to the east, west and south of the airport and 1.5 kilometers to its north in order to arrange compensation, as the government is proceeding with its demolition plan. Harhour said a committee was formed to evaluate the home value and work is currently underway.

Sinai member of parliament Salama al-Raqii told Al-Monitor, “Sinai citizens are tools for the government in its war on terrorism, and they are the ones losing their loved ones, investments and money the most.”

He added, “El-Arish is the capital of north Sinai and the 400-acre El-Arish Airport is located to its south. It has a terminal that can accommodate 200 passengers per hour and a tarmac that is 3,019 meters long and fits four planes. Undoubtedly, operating the airport is a developmental and security service, but it should undergo objective and technical studies of the surrounding environment.”

He noted that in case a safe area around the airport is needed, it should not exceed 500 meters to the north adjacent to the city. The area surrounding the airport would also extend to the east where Al-Hemyat Hospital is located, and to the west and south to guarantee appropriate security.

Raqii said that the construction of a new airport in Lahfan area or in al-Qawareer, south of el-Arish, could be suggested, and it would be equipped for comprehensive development and future expansion.

Sinai parliamentarian Hussam Rifai told Al-Monitor, “El-Arish Airport is civil and has not been used [for civil aviation] for four years [only military use remained until Dec. 19] when the incidents [army’s war on terrorism] broke out. What is the problem with eradicating terrorism and then re-operating the airport? Compensating citizens is costly. If there is a rush to operate the airport, then the time required to appraise land, negotiate, compensate citizens and demolish the extra spaces could be used to build a new airport.”

He said, “Securing a 5-kilometer area from the four sides for El-Arish Airport is not a sound decision because it was taken based on security measures that might be useful now, but harmful in the long run. The decision was based on the evaluation of the capacity of terrorists’ mortars that have a 2-kilometer range. What if terrorists develop their capacities and create far-reaching missiles with a 10-kilometer range? Would the entire el-Arish city be demolished for the sake of the airport?”

Rifai added, “If houses and olive presses are not removed, then keeping olive groves and houses close to the airport would be futile because citizens would lose the main source they need to work.”

Rifai argued that the decision would increase the tension between citizens, the army and the police in north Sinai and engender a tragic situation. A similar scenario occurred when the Egyptian army demolished houses in Rafah in October 2014 to set the stage for eliminating IS, leading to the displacement of 80% of citizens and the evacuation of the city.

Khaled Arafat, secretary of al-Karama Party in Sinai, told Al-Monitor that the decision is to torch el-Arish valley with its citizens and farms that were planted over 500 years ago and that generate income for the inhabitants. At a distance of 5 kilometers from the farms, the state can build an airport along 50 kilometers without impacting the lives of its citizens.

He said that Sinai citizens now feel that the war is not on terrorism but on them, thus worsening the situation.

Mohammad Matar, the former director of security for the north Sinai governorate, told Al-Monitor that the ideal solution is to build a safe zone around the airport by giving exit and entry permits in a 5-kilometer range without removing farms and buildings.

In a conversation with Al-Monitor, Mohammad Nour al-Din, a security expert and former assistant to the minister of interior for public security affairs, said, “Building a safe area around El-Arish Airport is a sovereign decision and nobody can object to it. Building a new airport would require huge sums of money and complicated security and technical equipment. Compensating disadvantaged citizens would be less costly because people do not own lands in Sinai.” People build their houses on state-owned lands and acquire the house for 15 years.

Ahlam al-Asmar, a member of the National Council for Women and former director general of public relations at the Sinai Development Agency, told Al-Monitor, “These decisions are adding to our enemy list. Development in Sinai is based on personal efforts made by citizens. Each citizen plants the land around his house without help from the state. What can we expect from citizens after demolishing their farms in el-Arish and prior to that in Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid?”

She added, “I left work at the Sinai Development Agency after it turned into a brokerage rather than development office. Its role became restricted to charging investors for permits and approvals from ministries and committees without providing a development plan or budget.”

Asmar said that Sinai has been neglected for 35 years, and it has become a hub for fugitives and criminals. She called on officials to have mercy on Sinai’s citizens who have been under curfew for four years. The shutdown of the Suez Canal Bridge since July 2013 has also prolonged the trip by land between Cairo and Sinai to 13 hours instead of 3.5 hours.

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