AL ARISH, EGYPT — There are stretches along Egypt's Al Salam Canal that look like success: Farmers bustle about lush wheat fields and olive trees heavy with fruit in the middle of one of the country's most arid regions.
The canal, which brings Nile river water to the harsh Sinai desert, is supposed to be the multi-billion dollar centerpiece of a government project started in 1994 to bring prosperity to some of the country's poorest people, including Northern Sinai's Bedouin tribes.
But its successes are basically islands amid a sea of crusty sand that was all supposed to be blooming by now. The hundreds of thousands who were supposed to be settled here are nowhere to be seen. And a project that was greeted with initial optimism by the Bedouin is now seen by most as more evidence that they don't really matter to the central government.
The stakes in the Sinai are higher than just reducing poverty. Government officials and analysts say militant Islamist ideals have been spreading among the Sinai's disgruntled population, fueled by poverty and government neglect. The smuggling networks maintained by many Bedouin in the absence of other economic options are conduits for weapons and militants. Terrorist attacks in the Sinai in the past three years – which followed seven years of quiet throughout Egypt – have claimed over 130 lives.
Yet while many experts and local residents say development is the best way to undercut support for terrorism, the Egyptian government has allowed the canal program to lag, even as it favors a heavy-handed security approach that is generating more anger among the Bedouin.
"The authorities have not really appreciated the extent to which there has been resentment arising over recent years," says Hugh Roberts, North Africa project director for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), which recently urged the government to focus on inequitable development on the peninsula, which has boomed as a tourist destination in recent decades. But almost all of the jobs on what the government markets as the "Red Sea Riviera" go to outsiders, not native Bedouin. "The emergence of terrorism in the peninsula constitutes a wake-up call," says Mr. Roberts.
The Egyptian government claims that all of the operatives involved in the three bombings that struck Sinai Peninsula resorts between October 2004 and April 2006 have been killed or captured. But there are signs the ranks of militants are growing: Just last week, Egyptian security forces arrested 57 Palestinians and Egyptians – three armed with suicide belts. They intended to sneak into Gaza through an underground tunnel and commit suicide attacks in Israel, an Egyptian security official said.
Underdevelopment is just part of the problem in the Sinai. Since the terrorist attacks, the government has arrested thousands of people on flimsy pretences and tortured many of them, according to Human Rights Watch.
Such methods have drawn vows of revenge from local militant groups and enraged much of the local population, adding, experts say, though many residents say poverty is the key factor that pushes some towards militancy. "This is the reason for terrorism in the area," says Gehad Hussein, an Al Arish farmer. "There's a lack of jobs, of water, housing, development. If we had these things we'd be happy and our children would be happy."
North Sinai's 300,000 people are mostly Bedouin, former nomads from the Arabian Peninsula with strong tribal allegiances and a historical distrust of a central government. Government programs for the Bedouin have typically focused on using food aid to convince the nomads to settle down, but failed to follow up with jobs, hospitals, or schools.
When the government announced in 1994 that it would spend $13 billion dollars over 20 years on a 164-mile long canal, many were full of hope. The project isn't exclusively for the Sinai; in addition to the 400,000 acres of arable land its designed to open up in the Sinai, a futher 220,000 acres are scheduled to be added to the west of the Suez canal.
But since, only about $3.7 billion has been spent, according to a recent ICG report, and the canal is about a third complete. Most work has halted, with the government diverting funds to the Toshka project to develop the country's western desert analysts say. That irrigation scheme could ultimately cost $70 billion.
"Toshka is huge ... so (the government) moved the Al Salam budget from Sinai to Toshka," says Habib Ayeb, a French geographer and water expert. Today North Sinai residents scoff at the project. "It gave me hope for my future, for the future of my sons," says Ghanem Abou Nousayra, a Bedouin farmer in Rafah. "But nothing happened."
Today Nousayra supports his wife and 16 children and grandchildren on two acres of land, with water expensively brought in on tankers, generating a yearly profit of $700.
North Sinai Deputy Governor Ahmed Salah El Din denies canal construction has stopped, and says that the authorities will begin distributing land to North Sinai residents this summer.