Sisi’s Grand Transfiguration Project

Summary: a mega-tourism hub in the South Sinai town of Saint Catherine threatens the local Bedouin population, the environment and an ancient monastery that is a UNESCO world heritage site. 

We thank Amelia Smith for today’s newsletter. Amelia is a London-based journalist and author who works closely with communities facing the most serious challenges within the UK, Egypt, Syria and the MENA region. She has edited two non-fiction books about Egypt and the Arab Spring and interviewed scores of political prisoners and their families. She is author of the novel Behind the Sun. 

Two years ago, Egyptian authorities sent kids to capture stray dogs living around Saint Catherine’s Protectorate and told them they would be put into a fenced gate next to the checkpoint. “Instead, they made a hole and buried the dogs,” one Sinai resident told me. “Half of them alive.”

As world leaders gathered in the Sinai Peninsula for Cop27, Egyptian authorities once again offered 500 Egyptian pounds for dogs from Saint Catherine’s Monastery to be removed. It was part of a mass cleanup as the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi presses ahead with the Grand Transfiguration Project, a mega-tourism hub it is building in this peaceful retreat which will encompass five-star hotels, a restaurant, shopping bazaars, a visitor’s centre and more.

Whilst the government has boasted about development projects like this across the country, locals and rights groups have raised serious concerns that it is destroying the ancient heritage and natural environment of the area.

Saint Catherine’s Protectorate is an Egyptian national park in South Sinai and home to Jabal Musa, Mount Sinai, where Moses is said to have received the ten commandments. Also of key significance is the 1,400-year-old Saint Catherine’s Monastery, which was granted world heritage status by UNESCO in 2002.  Sitting at the foot of Jabal Musa, it is the oldest continuously operating Christian monastery in the world.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent Saint Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai
The Ladder of Divine Ascent, a late-12th-century Christian icon at Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai

Saint Catherine’s is roughly 50 miles from where the Cop27 conference draws to a conclusion on Friday, and whilst a delegation from the summit visited, it’s unlikely they were told what’s really happening here as the Egyptian government has tried to conceal its environmental record through an extended crackdown on free speech.

The project has scarred the village and destroyed its natural beauty, locals tell me. Whilst traditionally buildings have been constructed with local rocks, the rocks being used now are brought in from other parts of the country and don’t match the colour of the dramatic mountain range South Sinai is famous for.

As one local told me: “We are adding concrete boxes to the mountains, thinking that by doing this we will look more civilised to the world. We are somehow ashamed of the project.”

The local Bedouin population, many of whom work as mountain guides and offer their own traditional guesthouse experience to visitors, will now look out onto five-star accommodation for wealthy tourists – a project that will seriously threaten their way of life.

There is a question mark over how this multimillion-pound tourism hub will benefit residents, in particular the two local Bedouin tribes, the Jebeliya and the Awlit Said. Women in particular fear that little will trickle down to them and besides this, that there are other priorities. The Sinai Peninsula is in desperate need of investment in schools, hospitals, and infrastructure.

Not only will the influx of tourists – estimated to double the town’s current population – bring a swell of waste, but it will seriously stretch water resources. In Saint Catherine’s, locals rely on rain and snow water to irrigate their gardens, wash, and drink.

“We do get government water,” one resident told me. “But generally, what happens is that people in the development project get the water first, or the military or the police. If there’s any excess, they bring it to the Bedouins.”

Saint Catherine’s is home to a critically endangered leopard, one of the world’s smallest butterflies, the Nubian ibex, and the pink sparrow, all of which are now threatened by the industrial levels of pollution the project has created.

The locals have not been consulted. “The army came one day and redid the path that goes up to the monastery,” said one resident. “I asked people close to the monks if they were told about any of this beforehand, and they told me they literally came up one day and said this is what we’re going to do.”

“This is UNESCO World Heritage land and neither the monastery nor UNESCO, were properly informed what or how things would be done.”

The cheap airlines which transport holiday goers to Sharm El-Sheikh have helped transformed this Red Sea Resort into a developed tourist centre where nightclubs, luxury resorts and restaurants have damaged coral reefs and filled the sea with plastic. Many fear Saint Catherine’s as they know it will be swallowed up under similar levels of development and reconstruction.

“Sharm is a fortress walled in with four tightly controlled gates where everything is monitored,” one local resident told me. When it was built in 2019 to protect tourists in Sharm, the wall which now surrounds the city separated the tourists off from the Bedouin town of Al-Rowaisat and controlled who would enter the city with a series of checkpoints.

The local Bedouin population, who have lived in Sinai for centuries, have been overlooked for jobs in Sharm’s tourism industry in favour of Egyptians who were encouraged to move to the peninsula.

To make way for the Grand Transfiguration Project in Saint Catherine’s, the government has already cut down trees and destroyed gardens and homes around St Catherine’s. Of particular concern is a highway being built to connect the protectorate to South Sinai’s capital, Al-Tur.

When they heard a local cemetery would be destroyed as part of plans to realise the project, locals stood in front of the gravestones, but a bulldozer came anyway and bashed through them. Instead of carefully transporting the remains with care, dogs roamed the cemetery with bones in their mouths. “If they are doing this to our dead, what will they do to the living?” one resident asked.

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