Sinai Border Attack: What’s Behind the Unrest in Egypt’s Rogue Province

After a brazen militant attack on an Egyptian base led to the deaths of 16 soldiers, questions are growing over whether Egypt's fragile government can control Islamist extremism on its Israeli border

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Ariel Schalit / AP

An Israeli soldier examines the wreckage of an Egyptian military vehicle that militants drove through a security fence into Israel at an Israeli military base along the border with Egypt on Aug. 6, 2012

Egypt claimed on Monday to have launched a dramatic manhunt for the perpetrators of a brazen Sunday-evening attack on an Egyptian security post that left 16 soldiers dead and at least seven others wounded in the Sinai peninsula. Security officials told the Associated Press that Egyptian counterterrorism units had convened in the North Sinai capital of al-Arish on Monday, along with at least two helicopter gunships to track down the Islamist extremists accused of the attack. But on Egypt’s lawless eastern frontier, where armed Bedouin tribesmen run the show more effectively than the Egyptian police force, a manhunt is more easily said than done; and while lasting change has been promised repeatedly in recent years, no Egyptian authority has accomplished it.

At sunset on Sunday evening, a group of armed militants that Egyptian media and eyewitnesses described as a mix of Palestinians and local Bedouin extremists, stormed an Egyptian security post near the country’s shared border with Israel and the Gaza Strip, killing at least 16 Egyptian soldiers as they sat down to break their daylong fast during the holy month of Ramadan. “They were dead in their food,” says Ahmed Abu Deraa, a local journalist from al-Arish who drove to the scene immediately after the attack. The attackers stole two armored military vehicles and drove toward the Israeli border, where one exploded and the other was incinerated by an Israeli air strike. Abu Deraa says the incident marks the most brazen assault on Egyptian forces in the Sinai since Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel, and its significance was amplified by the timing. “That it was the month [of Ramadan] is significant, and that it was during iftar [when Muslims break their daily fast],” he says.

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But that doesn’t mean the violence is unprecedented. In fact, the warning signs were there. The Sinai peninsula — a territory at the center of centuries of regional conflict and long Egypt’s rogue region — has seen its security plummet in the past 18 months since a popular uprising forced an end to the 30-year authoritarian reign of President Hosni Mubarak. When civilian protesters battled Mubarak’s police forces across the country — and temporarily forced their retreat from the streets — at the height of the January 2011 uprising, Bedouin tribal leaders in North Sinai took their protest movement up a notch: until the government rectified its relationship with the long-marginalized Bedouin, released jailed Bedouin and launched a new plan for security and development, they said, the police would not be coming back. In the intervening months, that promise has largely held true, and clashes between the police and the Bedouin — a historically nomadic people with a distinct dialect and culture from mainland Egypt, who comprise a majority in the Sinai — have surged.

But in the security vacuum, Bedouin leaders in North Sinai have also reported a resurgence of the Islamic extremist organization Takfir wal-Hijra, a group loosely affiliated with al-Qaeda with ambitions of global jihad. No group has claimed responsibility for Sunday’s attack, but Abu Deraa says community members who witnessed the incident in Huriya village near the Karem Abu Salem border crossing were able to recognize local members of Takfir wal-Hijra from among the attackers, as well as men speaking the Palestinian dialect. The Egyptian independent newspaper al-Watan reported on Monday that “anonymous people” had distributed leaflets in the area the week before, urging local residents to kill army officers in the Sinai on the grounds that the army was serving Israel’s interests. It wouldn’t be the first time since their resurgence that Takfir wal-Hijra had passed out leaflets.

Both Egyptian and Israeli authorities were quick to pin the blame primarily on Palestinian militants, suggesting a growing level of coordination between like-minded groups across a border permeated by underground smuggling tunnels.

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Even so, Abu Deraa and an Egyptian government official in al-Arish told TIME on Monday that government reports of a curfew and a security cordon around the border town of Rafah, near where the attacks took place, were simply false. “There is no army or security presence in Rafah — no more than the usual,” says Abu Deraa. “And until now, there is absolutely no presence of police in Rafah and [the nearby town of] Sheikh Zwaid. The only presence is of armored cars and they’re on the main roads.”

Indeed, the government’s course of action in the Sinai in the coming days and months will provide a crucial test for the newly elected government of Mohamed Morsy, an Islamist from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which has long held ties to Hamas, the Islamist group that governs Gaza — and which some of Morsy’s critics, including the daily newspaper al-Dustour, were quick to implicate in the attacks. “Hamas threatens the security of Egypt,” read the independent newspaper’s top headline on Monday. The front page was also splashed with questions like “Is it true that Morsy and his Brotherhood are moving to open an office for Hamas in Egypt?” and “Hamas’ reach within Egypt in cooperating with the ruling Muslim Brotherhood is a very dangerous thing. So will [the military generals from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] be silent, despite the threat to national security?”

Hamas formally condemned Sunday’s attack on Egyptian soil, calling it an act of “terror.” And Morsy, who has stressed his government’s commitment to international agreements, has promised to make the attackers “pay dearly.” But after edging out his opponent with just over half the vote in June, Morsy, who is both the first Islamist President and first democratically elected President in Egyptian history, is already facing a tidal swell of opposition. In addition to inheriting a troubled Sinai peninsula, Morsy has taken the reins of a deeply corrupt bureaucracy and an economy on the rocks. He is grappling with a powerful military junta that has so far proved unwilling to cede full power, maintaining its direct control over the country’s armed forces. And Morsy’s opponents at home and abroad have been eager to paint him as a political disaster in a country that can surely do without any more — to them, he is an Islamist who will allow the already precarious security situation in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula to unravel and whose tenure as President could launch a new round of conflict between Egypt and the Jewish state.

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Indeed, for many in Egypt and abroad, Morsy’s ability — or inability — to turn the Sinai around and maintain Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel will provide a critical portion of the verdict on the Islamist’s first term in office.

But in the Sinai, where the Bedouin population has long complained of neglect and systematic discrimination by the government in Cairo, the test lies in Morsy’s commitment to doing things differently. In practice, Bedouin have not been permitted to serve in Egypt’s military or police forces; roads, hospitals and schools in the Sinai are woefully sparse; and rights groups say that Bedouin men suffer from arbitrary detention by security forces and are often cut out of employment opportunities in the territory’s moneymaking tourism sector — all factors that have pushed the Sinai’s border-zone communities to work in illegal smuggling and may make it a prime recruitment ground for extremists. To keep the Sinai from slipping further into the danger zone, Morsy will have to do more than issue a new sweep of arrest warrants, as the Mubarak regime did after a series of terrorist bombings hit South Sinai from 2004 to 2006 — a policing effort that did little for lasting security and justice but a lot for modern-day tensions. “The community is very worried now about a confrontation, because after yesterday’s attack, the police and army will have to take action,” says Abu Deraa. “The people are afraid that if the army takes action, they won’t differentiate between factions, they’ll just arrest everyone.”

— With reporting by Caroline Kolta / Cairo

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