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Luxury Hotels, Arms Smuggling and Unemployment are an Explosive Mix in the Sinai

Egypt's tourist paradise on the eastern border is being destabilised by the systematic marginalisation of local people.
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Dahab, Egypt:

Amira is a canny saleswoman. Hawking handmade cotton bracelets along the seafront of the resort town of Dahab, she's an expert at the hard sell, pouting "promise you will buy from just me!" and combining crafty bargaining with just the right amount of emotional blackmail. It's only when she stops to involve herself in tourists' card games or to leap into the ocean that she resembles the eight-year-old girl she is.

Amira and her sisters are living in the strange limbo of Sinai's tourist towns. The Bedouin natives have seen an influx of foreign tourists, followed by international corporations who build gated hotels, and finally Egyptians from the Nile Delta seeking work. Speaking to shop owners along the boardwalk, it's hard to find a single person born in Sinai. "We have to follow the money," one shop owner, originally from Cairo, tells me. "Nobody wants to be a millionaire, but this is where the jobs are."

Inland, away from the beachfront strip of sunbeds and dive shops, the village of Assilah is marked by crumbling mud-brick houses and alleyways thronged with sheep and goats wandering past polished new jeeps. Some residents have cashed in on the tourist industry, but many still subsist on raising livestock as they have for centuries.

On the horizon are the dry mountains which hide one of Mubarak's most disastrous legacies, which could have a drastic impact on the region.

Scarred by trenches and barbed wire from conflicts with Israel, sparsely populated and drought-prone, the interior of Sinai is becoming a focus of fears on both sides of the Egyptian-Israeli border. Sensationalist headlines in the region warn of its becoming "the new Somalia". A Wikileaks cable last December revealed concerns that Iran was forging links in the peninsula. There have even been unlikely rumours of an "al-Qaeda in the Egyptian Sinai".

What is certain is that the absence of police in the Sinai since the revolution has lifted the lid on an already volatile mix of tribal conflicts, economic frustration and extremism of all stripes. The army, whose presence in Sinai is limited by treaty with Israel, has struggled to maintain control.

The small arms trade is flourishing as more and more people buy guns for self-defence. Pipelines carrying oil and gas to Israel have been bombed, fighting has broken out several times in northern towns, and seven Israeli civilians died when gunmen crossed the border and opened fire on a public bus. The killing of Egyptian border policemen in the ensuing chaos caused diplomatic tension, and has sparked debate between the two countries about the possibility of lifting part of the Camp David accords and allowing Egypt to station more troops there.

The origins of this growing instability lie in the policies of the Mubarak government, and if they are to be resolved the solutions cannot be military alone. A surge of tanks and helicopters will do nothing to solve the regime's legacy in Sinai, which is one of poverty, marginalisation and high-security luxury hotels.

Sinai lags far behind the rest of Egypt in terms of development. Even in the northern city of el-Arish, salt water still flows from the taps in some districts, and inland whole villages lack water and electricity. In 2006 the New York Times reported that in some areas only 8% of young people had full time employment. Eight-year-old Amira is making more money than many adults inland.

The Mubarak-era government’s solution was investment in tourism, which deliberately excluded many who were native to Sinai. A 2007 report by International Crisis Group found that government policies kept Bedouin out of jobs in tourism and laws have prevented them from working in the police or civil service. Jobs went to immigrants from mainland Egypt, and most profits went to multinational companies. Frustration here stems as much from economic marginalisation as from actual poverty.

From poverty and anger came crime. Smuggling into Gaza became a lifeline. With the smuggling of goods came the smuggling of weapons, and with the smuggling of weapons came the militant groups. The frustration of living on the edges of Egyptian society made the message of these groups far more appealing.

The only long-term solution to the Sinai's crisis is to begin to integrate Sinai into Egypt and to draw its isolated population into the surge of national pride that has followed the revolution.

Politicians are waking up to the need for change in Sinai, but there is vast potential for failure. Continuing to expand tourist ghettos will just create hundreds more Amiras; families scratching out a living on the edge of an imported culture. Relying only on an Israeli-backed, potentially violent crackdown will only create further disorder and cast a shadow over the optimism of post-Mubarak Egypt. Investment and attempts to break down legal restrictions and prejudice could still, possibly, reverse the tide.

The lessons of Sinai's history are clear: engaging with its people is the only way to prevent a slide into chaos which could shake the whole region.

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