The Saga of Sinai: A Neglected Hotspot Egypt’s Morsi Must Not Let Explode

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From left: Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil, President Mohamed Morsi, and Defense Minister Abdelfatah al-Sissi arrive at Almaza military Airbase in Cairo on May 22, 2013 to attend the welcoming of the policemen and soldiers who were seized in Sinai by kidnappers following their release.

Egypt’s newspapers and multiple nightly public affairs shows this week brimmed with breathless coverage of a host of hot-button issues. There was President Mohamed Morsi’s dramatic decision to close the Syrian embassy. There was the war of words between Egypt and Ethiopia over the latter’s plans to build an upstream Nile dam. Then Morsi controversially replaced more than half of Egypt’s governors, including appointing one official linked to a violent terror attack. Bubbling behind all this is mounting speculation over massive anti-Morsi protests planned for the end of June.

And then there was Sinai—vital, volatile and terminally neglected Sinai. A survey of four different major daily Egyptian newspapers over a three-day span revealed absolutely no major articles or editorials about the Sinai Peninsula, a strategic, arid triangular landmass roughly the size of West Virginia that teems with weapons, is virtually lawless, deeply impoverished and resentful of the rest of the country.

“The situation in Sinai is just shockingly bad,” said Amr Hamzawy, an opposition politician and former MP. “We have both a security crisis and a development crisis there and we’ve had them for a long time.”

The stakes for Sinai’s drift toward chaos are high. The peninsula’s geographic position makes it vitally important not only to regional stability but to the global economy as well. The recent rise of Islamist militant groups in Sinai—its vast unsecured spaces are fertile ground for both recruitment and training—has led to fears of a fanatical armed enclave directly bordering both Israel and the Gaza Strip.

This absence of Sinai’s enduring crisis on the Egyptian public’s radar comes less than one month after the brazen kidnapping of seven Egyptian soldiers there. The hostages were eventually released unharmed on May 22 after a series of carrot-and-stick moves by Morsi and his military.

The Egyptian army—which is normally limited by the Camp David Accords from deploying too heavily in Sinai, which partially borders Israeli territory—conducted a menacing public buildup of armored vehicles and helicopters for days and issued warnings of a looming crackdown. Meanwhile, the country’s intelligence agencies held round-the-clock negotiations with tribal leaders. The strategy worked and Morsi was able to take the credit for a successful bit of crisis-management, albeit one that seemingly underscored just how mysterious the inner workings of Sinai truly are. Details of the resolution only surfaced through a series of anonymous, and often contradictory, leaks to reporters by government and military sources.

Ziad Akl, a political scientist and dedicated Sinai-watcher, wrote a recent column listing the Sinai conundrums. “The number of unanswered questions about what happened is ridiculous,” Akl wrote. “For example, who exactly was negotiating with the kidnappers? Why did suddenly the negotiations work? If these negotiations did not work for a week then suddenly were effective then something must have changed, some kind of compromise must have been made, what was it? Where are the kidnappers? When so much remains hidden, don’t be surprised when truth is lost, don’t be alarmed when rumor becomes fact.”

Whatever the realities, the issue quickly slipped from national attention, leaving Sinai where it was always been: out-of-mind, neglected and overshadowed by the Cairo-centric concerns of the national conversation.

Sinai’s political and economic importance can’t be overstated, though. In addition to bordering Israel and the Gaza Strip, it contains the Suez Canal—a crucial global shipping route. Under the authoritarian regime of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, a beachgoing tourist industry bloomed: resorts like Sharm El Shiekh on the southern tip were given their own international airports and waves of European tourists came and went without ever going near Cairo or the Pyramids. That business has suffered tremendously in the past two years as post-revolutionary instability has scared many away.

But the Sinai development boom also revealed one of the larger truths of the region: the money that was made in Sinai rarely stayed in Sinai or benefitted its residents. “The huge tourism industry is all owned by Cairenes or foreigners,” said Akl, an analyst with the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “The locals don’t own anything.”

One of the few healthy businesses that the locals do own are the cross-border tunnels smuggling goods into the Gaza Strip. When Israel—with Egyptian cooperation—largely sealed the strip, the area along the border became an immediate boomtown. Sinai tribes such as the Swarka whose lands encompassed the border found themselves at the heart of a thriving illicit trade and the resulting cashflow created a new class of armed semi-criminal kingpins.

Sinai’s residents are mostly Beduoin—an ethnic distinction that has grown somewhat tenuous given that few Bedouin are actually nomadic anymore. Yet they consider themselves a people apart from the rest of Egypt and often nurture long-standing grudges over the neglect and high-handedness they say comes their way from Cairo. The region was under Israel occupation between 1967 and 1979, and a certain generation of Israelis still waxes nostalgic over the beaches and bohemian campsites of Sinai. Similarly, it’s not hard to find older Bedouins who will openly proclaim that they had it better under the Israelis.

The central government, Sinai residents say, only cares about the resorts and the roads that connect them. But beyond that Cairo regards Sinai as purely a security concern, with generations of heavy-handed police tactics creating a toxic relationship between residents and the security forces. At times Sinai’s challenges seem nothing short of biblical. Government-run daily Al-Ahram recently reported that Egypt’s chronic diesel fuels crisis had hindered the movement of state-owned trucks bearing insecticide, leading to swarms of locusts descending on Sinai towns and resorts.

Under Mubarak, the region was hardly tranquil either. The Gaza tunnel trade meant a steady flow of money and guns, and the Interior Ministry was often overmatched in its confrontations with militants since the Army has been forbidden since the Camp David talks from deploying in the eastern half of the peninsula. There was a string of terrorist attacks on Sinai hotels in Mubarak’s final years, and tensions between police and the Bedouins frequently ended with dead officers and razed police stations.

The 2011 Egyptian revolution destabilized an already shaky security situation further as armed groups of Islamic militants proliferated. The state news agency recently reported that one particular checkpoint near the Gaza border had been attacked 39 times since February 2011.

In the past, Morsi had managed to use the frequent Sinai flare-ups to his advantage. Last summer, in the early months of his administration, Morsi used the killing of 16 Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai last summer as a pretext to launch a shakeup of the military and oust several of his leading Army rivals.

In this latest crisis, he emerged looking relatively capable and was able to move on quickly without too many inconvenient questions about what actually happened. But while Morsi has managed so far to not be dragged down by the Sinai question, actually fixing the issues that plague the peninsula will require more than just damage control. Experts like Akl and Hamzawy both stress the need for a years-long Sinai-centric development and integration campaign. They call on the government to prioritize bringing the residents of Sinai into the national fold via massive investments in infrastructure, economic integration and opening the doors of employment and advancement to Bedouin residents.

But that strategy will require diverting significant national resources to something that Egyptians elsewhere simply don’t regard as a priority. In surviving the latest Sinai debacle, Morsi was aided by the stark fact that the vast majority of his constituency likewise regards Sinai as a fringe issue and only really pay attention when something blows up.

Akl, the political analyst, summed up the attitude of the average citizen: “If you’re asking me what’s going to mobilize me into the streets, honestly it’s not Sinai. It’s going to be the price of gas or bread or something else,” he said. Not Sinai.

Khalil is a Cairo-based journalist and author of Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation.