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Egypt resumes trade at Sinai port as Islamic State threat regresses

Egypt has recently reopened the Al-Arish port in North Sinai as part of efforts to revive the economy in the area that has struggled under years of Islamist insurgency.
A Libyan ship carrying aid for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip docks at the Egyptian port of el-Arish on July 15, 2010 after agreeing to deliver its cargo of aid through Egyptian territory. AFP PHOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP via Getty Images)

CAIRO — For the first time in several years, a commercial ship docked Jan. 4 at al-Arish port in North Sinai, where all activities had been suspended due to military operations against IS militants. 

The reopening is part of the Egyptian government’s efforts to link this strategic port to the Suez Canal, seeking to boost development in Sinai.

The New Moon cargo ship is transporting 3,000 tons of cement from the military-owned al-Arish cement factory to Libya for reconstruction projects, according to the port’s director Maj. Gen. Mohamed Sharif. In a Jan. 4 statement, Sharif said that five more vessels will dock at the port soon. He said that reopening the port to export traffic will offer a lifeline for the people of North Sinai.

Sharif added that the Suez Canal Economic Zone (SCZone) Authority made great efforts during the downtime to develop and modernize al-Arish port and turn it an international harbor on the Mediterranean coast.

On July 15, 2019, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ordered that the port be affiliated with the Egyptian Armed Forces, with the SCZone Authority financing, developing, operating and managing it while the army provided security.

Yaman al-Hamaki, an economics professor at Ain Shams University, told Al-Monitor, “The opening of al-Arish seaport is part of a government plan develop it and link it to the SCZone, which Sisi inaugurated back in August 2015, as well as the Golden Triangle in the Red Sea, to the coasts of Europe. The port will make it easier for the factories in Sinai to export their products and become more competitive. Sinai is teeming with raw material.”

The governor of North Sinai, Maj. Gen. Mohamed Abdel-Fadil Shousha, said in his speech at the reception ceremony Jan. 4, “Several of the area’s riches and resources, including glass sand and salt, which will be exported in the future.”

Shousha added that al-Arish port “is now eligible for exports to various countries in the world, notably Europe, thanks to the directives of President Sisi, who agreed to speed up the development projects at the port and put it on par with other seaports on the Mediterranean coast.”

He pointed out that the port will open new horizons for development in North Sinai, providing direct and indirect job opportunities.

“2021 will be a good year for Egypt and North Sinai,” Shousha said.

A source close to security and government officials in Sinai who asked not to be named told Al-Monitor that the army had set up several checkpoints on the roads between factories and the port to reduce risks and threats posed to trucks, which had been the targets of attacks.

On Nov. 10, 2017, the Islamic State attacked seven trucks belonging to a cement factory in central Sinai, killing the drivers and an army officer.

“The reopening of the port, however, reflects a new strategy that the Egyptian government started in 2020 to develop Sinai, which calls for beginning development projects without waiting for the end of the war on terror,” the source said. He added that according to the strategy, the fight against IS in Sinai will continue to prevent disruptions to development.

In 2018, the Egyptian government announced a plan to develop the vast Sinai with the support of the army. The peninsula had suffered decades of marginalization since its liberation from Israel in 1973 and its re-annexation to Egypt following the Camp David Accords that Cairo signed with Tel Aviv in 1979.

The source said that the government appears intent on implementing its development plans despite the risks the workers in the area. He added that the government recently started establishing logistical routes that avoid dangerous points controlled the terrorist organization south of the Bedouin town of Sheikh Zuweid and al-Arish airport, where there was an attempted attack on an airplane carrying the defense and interior ministers in December 2017.

“At the same time, the intense strikes since the launch of the comprehensive military operation in 2018 have destroyed IS pockets in Sheikh Zuweid, Rafah and southern al-Arish, forcing most of the IS militants to other areas in western North Sinai. This allowed the government to further implement development plans,” the source said.

The Sinai Reconstruction Authority's projects for the 2020-2021 fiscal year include 77 development projects for hospitals and water desalination plants as well as housing projects, with a total cost of 5.2 billion Egyptian pounds ($332 million).

Egyptian researcher on Islamic and extremist movements Maher Farghali told Al-Monitor, “In the past few years, the government has become aware that the activities of the armed terrorist groups in Sinai are partly due to the lack of development and economy in this part of Egypt, which has been marginalized for decades.”

He added, “The government began focusing on the development side without slowing down on security operations. There has been a noticeable decline in IS activities in the peninsula, mainly due to the extensive security campaigns, in addition to the collapse of the group’s main branch in Iraq and Syria as well as the escalation of internal disputes within the organization.”

Farghali added, “Organizations [like IS] do not die. They continue to exist, albeit not the same as they started out. However, Sinai needs major development efforts to repair trust after the decades of marginalization there.”

The anonymous source explained, “Sinai’s people only want to go back to their villages and farms, which they had to leave during the years of the war on terror, and the disbursement of the delayed compensation for damages to their homes and farms.”

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