North Sinai’s ATM war

It took Arish resident Mohamed Khaled three hours to find a working ATM and access his monthly salary. His hands were shaking, but not just from the biting December cold — it was 1 am and the curfew in the North Sinai town had gone into effect.

Khaled, 40, shoved the money into his pocket without counting it and headed home, sticking to small, dark side streets to avoid the police cars looking for curfew violators in the city. 

Khaled’s struggle is repeated on the 25th of each month — payday for thousands of residents in North Sinai, where access to ATMs and banking services is limited.

About 450,000 people live in North Sinai’s six largest urban centers. Arish, located on the Mediterranean, is the region’s capital and most populous city with 199,000 residents.

Thousands of people have moved to the city in the past seven years, fleeing conflict in Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed.

Seven of the eight bank branches and 25 of the 26 ATMs operating in North Sinai are located in Arish. Bir al-Abd, a city of about 100,000 people, only has one branch of the state-owned Banque Misr and one ATM. 

Arish’s overburdened ATMs frequently run out of money and go out of service. Fixing them is time consuming and expensive. Since technical teams stopped working inside North Sinai after a technician was injured by a stray shot in 2018, machines are now sent to neighboring governorates for maintenance, a banking source told Mada Masr. Additionally, the region’s spotty internet network makes the machines generally unreliable.

About 46,000 people work in the government and the public sector, and they all collect their salaries through ATMs, per a 2015 decision by the Finance Ministry. Many private sector workers and retirees also collect salaries and pensions through ATMs. 

ATMs are surrounded by dense crowds at the beginning and end of each month; people expect the errand to take hours, and make sure to bring water with them, particularly on hotter days. Those who have children with them make sure to bring snacks and sweets. 

By last December, the lines had become noticeably longer and more chaotic. Scuffles occasionally break out between people as they wait, and security personnel stationed in front of banks often have to intervene to organize the lines. 

In late December, the North Sinai governorate announced on its official Facebook page that Banque Misr would provide two mobile ATM trucks, each containing two machines, and install five additional permanent ATMs.

To residents’ disappointment, the long lines did not disappear. Only one of the two promised trucks showed up in the city of Bir al-Abd, and one of its machines broke down after just two days. Of the five ATMs, only three operated by Banque Misr appeared, and they were not new machines after all, but rather old ones that had been broken and repaired out of town.

Even residents who try to avoid the crowds by going to the ATMs after the dawn prayers fail “because everybody thinks of the same thing,” according to Yasser Hamed, an employee in the Education Ministry. “There shouldn’t be queues to begin with.”

Atef Soliman says he’s bewildered by officials’ disregard for the problem, which is obvious to anyone walking in the streets of Arish on payday.

Banque Misr’s branch “is located right across the street from the city council, and the council head sees the crowds as he goes in and out of his office. Dozens of elderly men and women stand in long lines for hours” Soliman said. “Now it is really cold in Arish, and none of the officials are doing anything about it.”

All of the ATM machines in Arish are located at bank branches. Soliman and others have noted that the machines are only replenished with cash once a day at around 10 am, a bank policy that he says is exacerbating the crisis.

Some have turned to post offices, which also pay out salaries and pensions, only to find more long lines.

Abeer Mohamed, an Agriculture Ministry employee, said she couldn’t withdraw her salary for more than two days at the post office in Arish because it was full of people.

People usually start to gather in front of the post office at 6 am, three hours before it opens, just to secure a good position in the line, Mohamed said. Post office employees give priority to their relatives and friends, which makes the situation explosive for the people waiting, she said. 

In the city of Sheik Zuwayed, 40 km east of Arish, residents often send their bank cards with friends and family going to Arish to withdraw cash. Sheikh Zuwayed’s population of approximately 60,000 doesn’t have an ATM or a bank, and the post office is often not an option because of multi-day electricity outages and internet problems. 

The ATM crisis is just one example of the challenges North Sinai residents have endured for years: from restrictions imposed on goods and on travel, to the closure of the industrial zone and razing of farms. 

The underwhelming official response to this crisis has led some residents to feel as though they are being driven out of their cities on purpose, expressed in a now-common saying: “They won’t push you out, but they are daring you to stay.”


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