Most people associate the Sinai Peninsula with spectacular desert sands and mountains, magical sunsets, beautiful beaches and nomadic people. Moreover, its history is entwined with all three monotheistic religions and at the same time with wars and violence. Since Israel and Egypt signed a peace agreement in 1979, the Sinai was mostly tranquil and became a source of much needed foreign currency income for Egypt, due to tourism and energy production. The Sinai desert has all the traits observed by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in his book The Little Prince: “I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams.” In the last few years the Sinai, beyond its deceiving serenity, has presented an increasing security challenge for the Egyptian government. This situation worsened after the fall of the Mubarak regime, mainly because the army was preoccupied with events elsewhere in Egypt.
For a long while it seemed that there was no real potential for the place to become a source of instability. Perhaps this feeling was due to its sparse population of around 500,000 compared to its vastness of 61,000 square kilometres. Also, the relationship between Israel and Egypt had not yet deteriorated. This perception of calm was, however, very deceptive. The growing resentment among the Bedouin inhabitants, who have been treated harshly and unfairly by consecutive Egyptian governments, combined with the open space, which is the dream of militants attempting to operate away from the reach of security forces, in addition to becoming an outlet for the besieged Gazan people, made the Sinai a haven for smugglers and ideological militants.
Putting agreements to the test
These developments are putting to the test one of the most significant premises of the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, which had ended the state of war between the two countries. It was the premise that for the peace treaty to be sustainable, this enormous body of land, three times the size of the state of Israel, must stay demilitarised. This in return would provide a reassuring strategic buffer zone between the two countries. Psychologically it helped Israel to overcome its fundamental fear of a surprise attack by the most powerful Arab country. For the Egyptians, this arrangement enabled them to enjoy the economic benefits of the oil and gas fields and international tourism without the danger of war. One of the ironies of this situation is that while Israel in the past insisted that Egypt should adhere to her obligation and not to allow troops beyond what was agreed in Camp David, now Israel is actually demanding that Egypt prevent attacks, originating from the Sinai, on Israeli targets. This led to more Egyptian troops stationed closer to the Israeli southern border. Is this a sign of normalisation between the two, or a risk Israel thinks is worth taking?
The current breakdown of law and order in the Sinai Peninsula started long before the fall of the Mubarak regimeYossi Mekelberg
To be sure, the current breakdown of law and order in the Sinai Peninsula started long before the fall of the Mubarak regime. Nevertheless, it gathered momentum thereafter as the army dealt with other priorities, this created a sense of opportunity for different groups to challenge the existing order. The unholy cooperation between the Bedouins, who mainly resent the Egyptian government’s discrimination and maltreatment of them, the Palestinian militants, who see Israel as their main target and international Jihadists who fight everyone who does not adhere to their version of religious-political ideology, contributed to the fast deterioration of the situation in the Sinai. Abduction of foreigners became quite a common affair, sabotaged gas pipes, selling of arms and explosives to radicals, and human trafficking of refugees and migrant workers into Israel became a daily occurrence. The smuggling of goods and arms into Gaza using underground tunnels has been taking place for years.
Egypt’s relationship with Israel
Last week’s military operation by the Egyptian security is part of the efforts by the commanders of the Egyptian army and the government in Cairo to regain control in the region. Since the coup against the Muslim Brotherhood in July and the return of the Egyptian military to power, the relationship with Israel has improved, and with it security cooperation in the Sinai. The geo-politics of the Sinai is of immense importance not only for Egypt and the countries bordering it, but also internationally. The peninsula borders the Suez Canal, and the narrow strip of water that is the Gulf of Aqaba, separates it from Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
The Gazan border, one of the smallest borders, is probably one of the most challenging. Following the victory of the Hamas in the elections of 2006, and assumption of full control by it a year later, the tiny, though highly populated, piece of land suffered from Israeli blockade, international sanctions and frequent military conflicts with Israel. It became both a hotbed for militancy and also a source of alternative economy, relying on the smuggling of goods and weapons through an elaborated system of tunnels. This became a source of livelihood to many inhabitants of the Sinai, who know the terrain there better than anyone else. In concurrence with the deterioration of stability in Egypt, the area became a launching pad for the Hamas’ surprise attacks on Israel, and also a base for a number of groups which are commonly, though inaccurately, known as “global jihadists.” Some suggested that among these militants are Algerian and Libyan veterans and at the same time groups such as Ansar Bayit al-Maqdis (Supporters of Jerusalem), which consists mainly of Bedouins. This concentration of highly ideologically motivated young people with experience in guerrilla warfare poses real danger to authorities in Egypt itself and the bordering countries.
The military operation by the Egyptian army last week to curb militancy, and the suicide attack by an Islamist group that killed six Egyptian soldiers, indicates that both sides are determined not to lose this battle. The removal of President Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood from power in July also sent a clear message of intent to those who challenge the army’s authority in the Sinai. However, restoring law and order there might prove a very ominous task, especially when fighting a highly determined enemy that is more familiar with the physical and social terrain.
It is not only Egypt that feels it cannot lose this battle but also Israel, and to an extent Jordan and Saudi Arabia. For Israel, it may open a brand new frontier, including rocket attacks and infiltration. For the Jordanians and Saudis, there is a genuine fear that this type of militancy might spread further into their countries. Even the Hamas in Gaza might find some of these groups too unruly to handle, as they might challenge their authority, diverting them from the struggle against Israel. This creates a tacit alliance aimed at bringing back stability to the Sinai Peninsula, but Egypt will have to do more than just use military force to ensure this.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.
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