In Sinai

Amir-Hussein Radjy

Sitt (‘Lady’) Amariyya’s almond trees haven’t given a crop for almost five years. The weather is warmer and the winters come later to the Sinai mountains, with less melting snow and rain than before. Insects have infested her pomegranate, apricot and olive trees. The mountain herbs that her goats eat dry out in the hotter summers and grow more sparsely than they used to.

When I visited Sitt Amariyya a couple of months ago, we sat under the quince trees in her orchard, boiled a kettle of tea, and ate apples and grapes. The young men in the village have taken to calling her ‘Saint’ Amariyya. My guide and his friends said she still followed the ‘old Bedu ways’. It’s a harsh life, without electricity or roads. Two years ago, the winter floods washed away part of her house and stranded her for several days. She only treks down to the town of Saint Catherine, where her sons live, on important holidays.

As we left, Amariyya asked us if we could find her barbed wire in town. Her neighbours didn’t tend their orchard as well as she did, she said, and had taken to climbing over the stone wall to poach her harvest. Many of the other gardens have been abandoned and are falling into ruin, as the Bedu leave the mountains for new livelihoods in the towns.

The changing climate isn’t helping either. Although the town only sprang up as a permanent settlement during Israel’s occupation of the Sinai Peninsula, the gardens around Saint Catherine date from the founding of its monastery in the fifth century. But everyone said the weather had changed in the last five years. Ali El Mekaniki works in an orchard overlooking the town, owned by the local Greek Orthodox monks. It once enjoyed a favourable, sheltered climate, but now the olive flowers wilt in the April heat and unpredictable blasts of cold in May hobble the fruit. In town, the herbalist, Ahmed Saleh, said the drier weather had led to dustier winds: ‘The herbs are unhappy.’

The dust is also thicker because of the big construction projects the government has begun in the past two years, which are transforming Saint Catherine. The floodplains had been empty for millennia – and were designated a nature reserve in the late twentieth-century – but now the monastery overlooks a shopping mall and visitor’s centre, surrounded by hotels and barracks-style housing. A cement plant smogs the horizon. The cemetery has been razed, though there was empty land around it the authorities could have developed instead. This is the presidentially mandated ‘Great Transfiguration’ of Saint Catherine, much of which has been contracted out to Ibrahim El-Argany, a businessman known for his close ties with the army. A monk winced when I asked him about the new projects, but said he couldn’t speak unless I went through state security first.

Egypt is extremely vulnerable to climate change. The Nile Delta is sinking as the seawaters rise along its Mediterranean coast. Rainfall is dropping across the country. In the Eastern Desert, the Ababda Bedu are among Egypt’s last pastoral nomads. Many are already abandoning their pastures. But they told me the authorities are using water scarcity to push them to resettle in government-built coastal towns and leave their ancestral lands – now partly closed off to visitors and securitised.

It’s hard to separate the army’s remaking of Egypt’s geography from the encroaching ecological disaster. In Saint Catherine, much of the water is now trucked in from the coast. Garden wells are providing less than they used to. The authorities haven’t explained how they will supply the new resorts and fill their swimming pools. The rebuilding of Saint Catherine began abruptly without consulting residents or conducting an environmental impact report, as required by law. The same goes for the port of New Alamein, which the government bills as the future ‘key to Egypt’ and a ‘green city’ slated to cover twice the acreage of Paris. Its inland lake and extensive marina, designed to attract yacht tourism, have already damaged the local ecosystem. The city includes a large new summer palace for the president.

Revolution isn’t a dinner party, Mao said, but perhaps counter-revolutionary rule is. While I was in Saint Catherine, Egyptian officials were preparing for COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh. Pro-government media portrayed the global summit as a celebration of President Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s leadership. ‘Egypt is respected, Egypt is an important country, Egypt is at the heart of events,’ the TV host Mostafa El Bakry said, over footage of the former general greeting European and American leaders. The broadcast was preceded by a montage of state celebrations: parades of military hardware, cutting ribbons on massive highways and bridges, and neo-Pharaonic fêtes like the splashy inauguration of Luxor’s ‘Avenue of Sphinxes’.

It’s hard to see where the bread for the circus will come from: debt servicing has ballooned to 40 per cent of state revenue. Egypt has asked the International Monetary Fund for a further emergency loan of $3 billion. As people on social media were quick to point out, that is less than the price of the monorail being built to connect the new capital with upscale suburbs on the other side of Cairo. The monorail’s cost is equivalent to half the national education budget.

The image of progress and stability that Egypt’s rulers have pieced together might reassure its European and Gulf partners, but it looks very different if you are at the other end of the system. A young man in St Catherine told me he was drafted into working for an army-run ‘biofarming’ enterprise during his military service, which earned him less than a dollar a week. At least it taught him the tricks of organic farming, he said. He’d later tried out opium trading, tourism, mountaineering, farming and herbalism to make a living. It’s not an uncommon story.

Later I walked with him up the stone steps of Abu Jiffa, which overlook Saint Catherine. From its heights, we could see the town laid out like a map, wreathed in dust. The din of drilling and digging rang up from the valley. ‘All this is for them,’ he said. ‘It’s not for us.’