Egypt’s “war on terror” hits the headlines
Egypt's Sinai problem grumbles on, largely under the radar of the mainstream media. But make no mistake - as problems go, it's a big one
The world’s eyes are on Syria and Iraq’s troubles, US Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace framework, and the anarchy in Yemen that has recently seen the kidnap of an English teacher. Unseen by the journalists, however, (mainly because it’s too dangerous to get there) is the grumbling sore that is Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
This weekend, that sore burst into life with the death of three tourists and a coach driver close to the Taba border crossing between Egypt and Israel near Eilat. This is the first time that tourists have been specifically targeted by terror groups in that part of the Middle East (the bomb had been physically attached to the coach earlier in its journey) and may mark a strategic shift in terror activity.
So what is going on in the Sinai and what are the implications for Egypt and Israel – even the rest of the Middle East?
On July 3rd, 2013, the Egyptian military, under defence minister General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, deposed President Mohammed Morsi after only one year of his increasingly controversial reign and suspended the equally controversial constitution approved by only 30 percent of eligible Egyptian voters in 2012.
At that time, the Sinai peninsular (that part of Egypt that borders Israel, both arms of the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea) had been an increasing security problem for the country for some years. This was fuelled partly by the easy access for terror groups from Gaza in to the area through illegal smuggling tunnels.
So far, so lawless. The virtually stateless Bedouins tribes have caused problems across the Egypt-Israel border for a long time and have kept up with the times by moving into people smuggling (refugees trying to reach Israel), kidnap and torture for ransom (the same refugees), and drugs.
Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood-spawned terror group ruling Gaza, had expected an easy ride under Morsi, himself a top Brotherhood man. Although things didn’t go quite as well as they expected, Egypt did little to stop the multi-million dollar trade through smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border and it was easier for people to travel across the legal Rafiah border crossing as well.
Following the killing of sixteen Egyptian soldiers near Rafah in August 2012, however, Egypt cracked down on the lucrative tunnel trading as part of efforts to try and plug the security vacuum in Northern Sinai being exploited by Islamist groups.
Hamas was not the only group to take advantage of an Islamist at the head of one of the Middle East’s most important nations. An assortment of extremist groups began to use the Sinai as a safe haven for training, with access to some of the weaponry floating around after Gadaffi’s fall in Libya and free travel backwards and forwards to a complicit support base in Gaza.
Under Morsi, the Islamist groups were allowed to run rampant in the wild and inhospitable Sinai, setting the scene for the attacks that have been happening in recent months, culminating in last weekend’s deadly bomb blast at Taba.
With little or no infrastructure and mostly isolated from much of the Egyptian economy, illegal occupations and industries flourish among the Sinai Bedouin clans, especially in the mountainous southern part of the peninsula.
A recent Vice magazine article points out that what attempts there have been at developing the area have excluded the Bedouin, who are also not represented in either the Police or Army. With some 80 percent or more of the people living there existing below the poverty line, it is not surprising that illegal crops like opium are popular.
Nor is it surprising that some Bedouin took advantage of the revolution that toppled President Mubarak to take revenge for their exclusion and poor treatment by attacking Police and Army posts. And now some are helping to swell the ranks of the Islamist groups.
Egypt has suffered since the 2011 revolution and the huge demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. From being a stable, if oppressed, nation under the iron dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, she has entered a period of instability and anarchy.
Coptic Christians became the scapegoats of Muslim Brotherhood supporters and the tension between an effectively Islamist leadership, grumbling salafists and more liberal opposition parties exploded with Morsi’s removal by the military.
The chaos in the more central areas of Egypt, up and down the Nile river, have further exacerbated the deteriorating security situation in the Sinai as security forces have been forced to concentrate their efforts elsewhere.
Following Morsi’s ouster, Egypt’s military has made more efforts to clamp down in the Sinai. The vast majority of tunnels under the border with Gaza have been closed down and more focused operations have been taking place as part of Operation Desert Storm; Egypt’s own “war on terror”.
The crackdown by General Sisi and the military has divided the country further. The launch of the Army’s Operation Desert Storm was publicly acclaimed and mandated in Cairo, where Morsi’s deposition was generally popular. In the Sinai, however, the excluded bedouin saw the military coup as portending a return to Mubarak-like crackdowns and repression, a view reinforced in their eyes by increased security on routes between the Sinai and “mainland” Egypt West of the Suez Canal.
So where do things stand now (February 2014) and what are the implications for the strategic players in the area?
There are three regimes intimately concerned with the future of the Sinai insurgency. Egypt desperately needs stability, both in its government and its economy and the Sinai troubles have to be dealt with for that stability to take root.
As for Gaza, it wants its tunnels back. The lack of effective security control in the Sinai allowed Hamas to project its influence to a degree by permitting the Islamist terror groups to use Gaza as a resource base. Conversely, her relations with the Islamists and those Bedouin sympathetic to them have allowed weaponry to pass the other way, boosting the ability of Hamas to attack Israel.
Having lost a “friend” in President Mohammed Morsi, Hamas now finds itself effectively surrounded by enemies. While Israel allows large amounts of both aid and commercial goods to enter the enclave, she still classes Gaza as an enemy entity.
Before July 2013 the Rafiah crossing and the illegal network of tunnels gave Gaza some economic “breathing space”, but the present military-controlled emergency regime has flooded or otherwise blocked almost all the tunnels. This is causing major problems for Hamas, who skimmed off millions of dollars in taxes from the tunnel trade.
And Israel? As the security situation deteriorated, particularly under President Morsi, Israel hardened her border with Egypt. This border had been remarkably porous in places and had allowed people and goods to pass illegally into and out of Israel.
Under the 1978 peace treaty with Egypt, there were to be no Egyptian security forces near the long desert border with Israel. The rise of the Sinai insurgency has brought closer co-operation between Israel and Egypt. Israel has responded more than once to Egyptian intelligence warnings and Egypt has allowed cross-border drone operations by Israel.
Further, Israel has been flexible in her application of the peace treaty terms, with Egyptian soldiers operating closer to the border. The popular tourist centre of Eilat is vulnerable to cross-border missile attacks and has already suffered one ground attack from across the border.
In an interview earlier this month with Tablet Magazine Yaakov Amidror, Former Head of the Israeli National Security Council, outlined Israel’s concerns with regard to Egypt. The first of these is to see stability rather than turmoil and “…someone [in Cairo] who understands that the control over Sinai is as important to Egypt as it is to Israel.”
Amidror also pointed out that the “al Qaeda-like organisations” operating in the Sinai threaten Egypt’s security in Cairo. On top of this, he described a Gaza where Hamas flourishes as paradise for extremists, who can use it as a base from which to attack Egypt.
Amidror agreed that “…we prefer the generals as partners in dialogue.” Some highly active back-channels are clearly open between Jerusalem and Cairo.
The overall effect of an increasingly active insurgency (this week warning all tourists to leave Egypt), supported by a terror-incubating regime in Gaza has been to bring about a strong convergence of interests between Egypt and Israel.
Regionally those same Arab regimes that pronounced their three “no’s” back in 1967 are finding Israel’s stability, military strength and openness to dialogue to be important game-changers in the ongoing war between groups espousing Sunni, Shia or al Qaeda/Muslim Brotherhood ideologies. (The Brotherhood is a Sunni-based organisation, but let’s not forget its influence on al Qaeda through Ayman Al Zawahiri).
Besides getting on with being a beacon of technology and democracy, Israel looks likely to continue supporting or resourcing Muslim leaders who are supposed to be her enemies. Strange bed-fellows indeed.
Nick Gray is Director, Christian Middle East Watch, a British organisation dedicated to objective and factual discussion of Middle Eastern issues, especially of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Nick, who is a regular contributor to The Commentator, blogs at cmewonline.com
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