Since the fall of President Mubarak, the Sinai has become an area of increasing lawlessness and instability. The region has turned into a base for drug smuggling, weapons smuggling, human trafficking, and a wide array of militant activity. The Sinai’s border with Israel and its proximity to the Suez Canal make it an area of vital strategic importance and its deterioration has the potential to threaten regional stability, the Egyptian-Israeli peace accords, and Cairo’s relations with the West.
The dynamics of the Sinai are complicated. The region’s Bedouin are angry about a lack of public services and economic development and oppose the government in Cairo. Added to this is the presence of numerous groups that support Palestinian, jihadist, and al-Qaeda causes, as well as the Takfiri people who left Egyptian society to build a perfect Islamic society in the Sinai. The area is home to approximately 1,600 Salafi-Jihadist militants. Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian factions have moved their safe houses, armouries, and explosives workshops into the peninsula. There are even reports that al-Qaeda groups are becoming active. In August 2011 al-Qaeda’s website proclaimed the establishment of an al-Qaeda “Emirate of the Sinai Peninsula.” In December 2011 a statement by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri declared that Ansar al-Jihad, a new al-Qaeda group, had been established in the Sinai. Additionally, these militants are well armed since the Sinai is a base for weapons smuggling into Gaza, which has increased since the North African revolutions took place. Some of these armaments are coming from weapons stockpiles in Libya that were left unsecured after the fall of Colonel Qaddafi.
Recently there have been several terrorist attacks launched from the Sinai. In August 2011 eight Israelis were killed near Eilat in a cross-border attack that was planned by a Palestinian Islamist group and carried out by Bedouin. In April 2012 two American tourists were abducted from Nuweiba by Bedouin demanding the release of a tribesman. There was also a spate of deadly attacks in the Sinai in August 2012. On August 5, militants armed with semi-automatic weapons and hand grenades attacked Egyptian border guards, killing sixteen and wounding seven. The militants then stole armoured vehicles and broke through the Israeli-Egyptian border before being killed by Israeli Defence Forces. This attack was followed just days later by a series of simultaneous attacks against five Egyptian security checkpoints in North Sinai that wounded five security officers and a civilian. In May 2013 seven Egyptian soldiers were held hostage by regional militants.
Israel has requested several times that Egypt stabilize the region, even offering to modify the peace treaty’s troop levels. However, Egyptian leaders have proved either unable or unwilling to address the problem. The Israelis permitted an amendment to the peace accords last summer that allowed Egypt to deploy seven battalions into the Sinai; however, only two materialized. Moreover, the security forces in the area are woefully under-equipped, with reports that Israeli forces have had to provide food and provisions to their counterparts. Cairo launched Operation Eagle in the summer of 2011, but it ultimately failed, doing little to secure the region. The Sinai’s inhospitable terrain, which includes mountains, limited roads, and little government control, provides ample locations for militants to hide and further complicates security efforts.
U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton warned during her July 2012 visit to Egypt that the Sinai could become an “operational base for jihadists” if security is not improved. The fear is that Salafists in Gaza and the Sinai are joining forces, creating an environment that is ripe for al-Qaeda. There have been reports that Egyptian al-Qaeda members have moved back to the region from Pakistan in order to take advantage of the Sinai’s changing dynamics. Additionally, America is concerned about the safety of its military personnel involved in the Sinai’s multinational observer force. Bedouin have recently held up observer convoys, refusing to let them pass until Egyptian authorities release their tribesmen. In March Bedouin held one of the multinational bases for a week, and in May ten Fijian soldiers were held hostage for two days. In August a militant group called Soldiers of Islamic Law demanded the expulsion of American troops from the Sinai. If violence against the multinational force continues or if casualties ensue, there will be pressure for Washington to take action to secure the area or to reduce and/or end its involvement with the observers, a prospect that could be devastating for the Israeli-Egyptian treaty.
The continued attacks originating in the Sinai and the region’s general instability threaten Egypt’s relations with Israel and the United States. It presents the possibility that Israel will at some point feel compelled to violate Egyptian sovereignty by conducting cross-border counter-terrorism operations. This becomes increasingly likely if Israel feels boxed in by the many threats on its borders, including instability in Syria and Iranian nuclear proliferation. Under these circumstances a cross-border raid could present an attractive option for an Israeli government that may need to demonstrate military strength in the face of rising insecurity. If the Sinai continues to devolve into a hotbed of terrorist activity, the U.S. may also feel compelled to act, especially if the area’s activities take on global consequences.
Cindy May is a PhD student in the Department of POLIS at Cambridge