Sinai Insecurity: How Israel and Egypt’s Military Could Benefit From Islamist Insurgencies

  on

Egypt's Sinai Peninsula saw an onslaught of air strikes for the first time in decades, reported state media on Wednesday.

The strikes, which are being carried out by the Egyptian military, are meant to suppress the insurgencies that have erupted in the Sinai within the past few days. Reports indicate that 20 militants have been killed so far.

It began on Sunday, when a check-point on the border between Israel and Egypt was overrun by suspected Islamist militants. The intruders killed 16 Egyptians soldiers, stole two cars, crashed through a security fence and entered Israeli territory. Israeli air-strikes stopped the vehicles and killed several of the militants.

Militants also appear to have coordinated a series of attacks on seven more check-points and a cement factory on Tuesday night, according to the New York Times.

Now, rumors are swirling in Egypt, Israel, and Gaza. This is a crucial test for new Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi -- his actions could establish his country's relationship with Israel, which is complicated by Egypt's growing relationship with the Palestinian group Hamas that governs Gaza.

It is also a test for Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF. Their defense of the Sinai puts them in a prime position to siphon power away from the nascent Islamist government -- and Israel stands to gain from such an arrangement.

Peninsular Problems

The Sinai is significant because it is the only part of Egypt that shares a border with Israel, and because it was a keystone of the 1979 Arab-Israeli Peace Treaty, which established a partnership between Egypt and Israel that has become an axis of stability in the Middle East. For the past 33 years under Presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, a relatively secular Egypt has cooperated with the West and become a useful ally to the United States in an otherwise tumultuous region.

The 1979 treaty stipulated that Egypt would demilitarize the Sinai Peninsula -- it was a way to head off military brinksmanship near the 140-mile border between the two countries.

But this has engendered other problems. The Sinai is mostly desert, and sparsely populated. Its main contribution to the Egyptian economy comes from an isolated string of resort towns along the coast of the Red Sea.

In other words, the Sinai is a world of its own.

"The population of approximately 360,000 - some 300,000 in the north, 60,000 in the south - is different from the rest of the country," said a report from the International Crisis Group.

"A substantial minority is of Palestinian extraction, even if often Egyptian-born; the rest, labeled 'Bedouin,' are longstanding natives of the peninsula. [...]These identity differences have been aggravated by socio-economic development promoted by the authorities since 1982. The government has not sought to integrate Sinai's populations into the nation through a far-sighted program responding to their needs and mobilising their active involvement."

This isolation has led to a security crisis in the Sinai, and the lawless deserts there have become an ideal camping ground for militants. There have been sporadic attacks in recent years, mostly centered around the resort towns. Terrorist bomb attacks in the area have killed 34 people in 2004, 88 people in 2005, and 23 people in 2006.

The Egyptian revolution of 2011, which led to a security breakdown all across the country, made matters even worse in the Sinai peninsula -- reports indicate that there have been at least 15 attacks there in only the last year.

One Bedouin tribal leader from the Sinai, Ahmad Sallam, told the L.A. Times that the violence has reached record highs.

"The extremists have increased [their activities] since the revolution. They have blown up the gas pipeline to Israel. They have targeted checkpoints and fought with the Egyptian army," he said. "They seem to have political aims but no one knows what they are. We are worried they could get stronger."

The Balancing Act

Sunday's attack, which is one of the most violent in recent memory, was especially concerning because Egyptian troops at the checkpoint were unable to stop the onslaught, and because the militants evidently saw Israel as the ultimate target.

This puts Egypt's post-revolution president in a tough spot. If Morsi is to maintain Egypt's Western alliances, he must uphold the 1979 treaty that stipulates a partnership with Israel. Cracking down on militants in the Sinai will help to maintain security, and this would establish a pattern of cooperation between Cairo and Tel Aviv.

Then again, Morsi is an Islamist and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He is therefore associated with certain groups -- most notably Hamas of Palestine's Gaza Strip -- that oppose the state of Israel and have carried out deadly attacks against it.

And as Egypt struggles to form a permanent government, the president is constantly at odds with the secular national military, which has ties to the old Mubarak regime and is more inclined to accommodate Israel. But Egypt's Islamist citizens, who make up Morsi's core constituency, are eager to see their post-revolution country assume a new role as an Islamist power in the Middle East, unbeholden to Western (and Israeli) demands.

In his pursuit of legitimate power in the post-revolution government, it is in Morsi's best interest not to let those voters down.

Nevertheless, Egypt has so far worked closely with Israel in combating the Islamist militants of the Sinai Peninsula. It's not just air strikes. According to the New York Times, Egyptian and Israeli generals have met near the border to share information about the ongoing investigation into the attack. And Israel did not hesitate to the return the bodies of Egyptians militants who were killed on Israeli soil.

Most significantly, Egypt has closed down its underground border crossings into Gaza. The tunnels had been used to transport migrants, food, fuel and weaponry -- they were a physical embodiment of the connection between Egypt's Islamists and the Hamas administration, to the dismay of Tel Aviv.

Closing the tunnels will plunge Gaza's already struggling economy into an even deeper crisis, and that bodes well for the partnership between Egypt and Israel.

Pointing Fingers

In the end, this is a victory for the Egyptian military, whose secular roots have constantly put it at odds with Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

For SCAF, the death of 16 troops in Sunday's attack was at once a tragedy and an opportunity; it gave the military new inroads to open up a strong offensive against Islamists in the Sinai, and it led to the closure of the Gaza tunnels. Morsi has been a mouthpiece for Egypt's response to the attack, but SCAF seems to have gained considerably from the events of this week. Ultimately, Egypt's Islamists are weakened. Meanwhile, the people of Gaza are paying a heavy price due to the severing of a major economic lifeline.

The Muslim Brotherhood is up in arms over these developments.

The organization released a statement on its website Monday, according to Reuters. They see the events of the last few days as part of a ploy instigated by Israel and executed by SCAF.

"This crime can be attributed to the [Israeli intelligence organization] Mossad, which has been seeking to abort the revolution since its inception and the proof of this is that it gave instructions to its Zionist citizens in Sinai to depart immediately a few days ago... [this] makes it imperative to review clauses in the signed agreement between us and the Zionist entity [Israel]."

Morsi hasn't made such claims -- he continues to play his cards close to the chest, pledging only to target the perpetrators of violence, regardless of affiliation.

"Those behind the attacks will pay a high price as well as those who have been cooperating with those attackers, be it those inside or anywhere in Egypt," he said in a statement on Monday.

Still, some are convinced that Sunday's attack and the pursuant events were all part of grander scheme to undercut Egyptian Islamists and their allies, especially those in Palestine.

According to Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar, there's a new joke making the rounds in the Gaza Strip: "Israel cooked, Egypt ate, and Gaza has to wash the dishes."

Join the Discussion