CAIRO (Middle East Eye) – As government-paid bulldozers razed a local cemetery in the winter of 2021 in Egypt’s South Sinai, members of the indigenous Jabaleyya tribe stood watching in disbelief.
“People spent the entire night picking the remains of their dead relatives from what the bulldozers have done,” said Mohannad Sabry, an author and researcher who has written extensively on Egypt’s Sinai peninsula.
The destruction of the cemetery was to pave the way for construction that is part of the Great Transfiguration Project, officially launched by the Egyptian government in March 2021 with the stated aim of turning South Sinai into a tourism hub.
But the majority of the project, which is roughly 70 percent complete, is to be housed in the St Catherine nature reserve, a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site that includes the ancient St Catherine’s Monastery and Mount Sinai, a site revered by followers of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. The monastery stands at the foot of Mount Horeb, where, according to the Old Testament, Moses received the Tablets of the Law. The mountain is revered by Muslims as Jebel Musa.
A number of experts, including Sabry, have accused the Egyptian Ministry of Housing, Utilities and Urban Communities, which is overseeing the project, of violating World Heritage Site regulations by carrying out construction they say will undermine the historic and religious character of the city, as well as expelling the indigenous Bedouin population - with no published plans for compensation.
Egyptian government officials have previously refuted the claims in statements to Middle East Eye, insisting the project will not harm the heritage of the city and its surrounding environment.
But John Grainger, former EU project manager for the nature reserve, the St Catherine Protectorate, between 1996 and 2003, signed - along with Sabry - an open letter in March stating that the current project violates UNESCO’s criteria for a World Heritage Site and that the plan should mean the reserve is placed on the World Heritage in Danger list.
“We’re talking about tens of thousands of cubic meters of concrete,” Sabry told MEE.
The new buildings include at least five hotels and hundreds of villas and private houses.
Sabry, the author of Sinai: Egypt’s Linchpin, Gaza’s Lifeline, Israel’s Nightmare, said the project is being carried out at the expense of the local Jebaleyya tribe, the original inhabitants of the city, known historically as the Guardians of St Catherine. All Bedouin houses that stood in the way of construction have been razed, he said, and residents turfed out.