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The Sinai Powder Keg

 

TEL AVIV– The crisis in the Sinai Peninsula seems to have been dwarfed by Sunday’s drama in Cairo, the civilian coup staged by President Mursi against General Tantawi and the army’s supreme command, but it has not lost its importance.

Earlier this month, jihadi terrorists ambushed an Egyptian military base in the Sinai Peninsula, killing 16 Egyptian soldiers. They then hijacked two armored personnel carriers and sped toward the frontier with Israel. One vehicle failed to break through the border crossing; the other penetrated Israeli territory, before being stopped by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). In response, Egypt’s military and security forces launched an offensive against Bedouin militants in Sinai, while President Mohamed Morsi forced the General Intelligence Service’s director to retire and sacked the governor of Northern Sinai.

 

 

The episode highlights the complexity of the Middle East’s changing geopolitical landscape, the fragility of Egypt’s post-Mubarak political order, and the explosive potential of Sinai, which, though sparsely populated, includes Egypt’s borders with Israel and the Palestinian enclave of Gaza. Indeed, since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster last year, security in Sinai has deteriorated, and the region has become fertile ground for Islamic extremism.

The 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty mandated that Sinai be largely demilitarized in order to serve as a buffer zone between the two former enemies. Tourism and natural-gas pipelines linking the two countries provided economic resources for the local Bedouin.

But, as Mubarak’s regime declined, so did the government’s control over the Bedouin. Palestinian militants from Gaza – an active arena of Israeli-Palestinian confrontation since Hamas gained control in 2007 – and jihadi terrorist elements affiliated with Al Qaeda and the larger “global jihad” network penetrated Sinai, exploiting the government’s neglect of the region and inflaming the local population’s feelings of disenfranchisement.

While Israelis complained about Mubarak’s “cold peace,” they appreciated that he adhered to the treaty’s fundamental provisions. And his decline and fall – and the behavior of his successors from the military and the Muslim Brotherhood – have indeed revived security challenges, raising difficult questions about the region’s future.

For example, in August 2011, a jihadi group from Gaza seized control of an Egyptian outpost on Israel’s border and killed eight Israeli civilians. Their objective was to damage further the Israeli-Egyptian relationship, which is already more fragile than ever, and they succeeded: the IDF accidentally killed several Egyptian soldiers during the incident. The Egyptian security forces’ subsequent failure to prevent demonstrators from storming Israel’s embassy in Cairo brought matters to the brink of crisis.

The consequences of the uncertainty and disorder that have plagued Egypt for the last 18 months are spilling over into the increasingly lawless and strategically significant Sinai. Last month, a pipeline carrying Egyptian natural gas to Israel and Jordan was bombed – the 15th such attack since Mubarak’s regime was toppled – and remains out of commission.

There are four principal actors in this arena: Israel, Egypt, Hamas, and the Sinai jihadis. Israel wants, first and foremost, peace and stability. To this end, Israeli leaders expect Egypt’s government to reestablish its authority in Sinai, and have agreed to Egyptian requests to increase its military presence in the region, even though such action runs contrary to the peace treaty.

Moreover, Israel has practically abandoned any hope of receiving agreed gas supplies from Egypt, and has not pressed its demand that Egypt block the passage of sophisticated weapons’ to Gaza. Israel is determined not to act against terrorist groups and infrastructure on Egypt’s territory, And, in view of Hamas’s close links with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, whose political party backed Morsi’s successful presidential run, Israel has restrained its response to terrorist and rocket attacks from Gaza.

But Egypt’s divided government has not established a coherent policy. Relations with Israel are managed by the defense minister, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and the military security establishment, whose leaders are determined to maintain a peaceful relationship with Israel and to secure Egyptian sovereignty in the Sinai. For them, the lawless Bedouin, the Sinai jihadis, and Hamas and other groups in Gaza threaten Egypt’s national security. But their will and ability to translate this view into policy are limited.

Meanwhile, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are playing a double game. While Morsi denounced the recent attacks (particularly the deliberate killing of Egyptian policemen) and issued an implicit threat against Hamas, the Brotherhood published a statement accusing Israel’s Mossad of perpetrating the attack – a claim that Hamas’s Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh has repeated.

In fact, Hamas, too, is playing a double game. Having lost Syrian backing, it is hoping that the Egyptian Brothers will provide its kindred movement with political and logistical support. Yet it allows radical Palestinians and jihadi groups in Gaza to conduct operations in Sinai.

The fourth actor, the Sinai jihadis, comprises primarily Bedouins, whose distinct origins and long-time marginalization has led some to identify with radical Islamist groups (often while working in the Arabian peninsula). While this group’s primary goal is to undermine Israel-Egypt relations, they do not shy away from operating directly against the Egyptian state. Given their strategic location, Sinai jihadis could easily be used by larger terrorist networks against strategically vital targets, such as the Suez Canal.

Egypt’s government was humiliated and incensed by the recent terrorist provocation. But it is too early to tell whether its security crackdown in Sinai is a one-time operation, intended to placate angry citizens, or the beginning of a serious effort to address the interconnected problems in Sinai and Gaza.

It is too early to tell to what extent the showdown in Cairo has been related to, or expedited by, the Sinai events. It is too early to tell whether the Egyptian state’s offensive against the jihadists in the Sinai will continue and at what pace. But clearly, the explosive potential of the Sinai has been increased by the Muslim Brotherhood’s takeover in Cairo. Israel’s channel of communication with Egypt has disappeared and may or may not be replaced by a similar military channel. Hamas in Gaza and the Bedouins in the Sinai must have been emboldened by the developments in Cairo. Egypt’s domestic politics will take their course. Israel had to trade softly in its relationship with Egypt and in the Sinai since January 2011, and it will have to tread with even greater sensitivity in the coming days.