Foreign Policy Blogs

Struggle for the Sinai

by Max Reibman 

Struggle for the Sinai

Photo Credit: stewartmorris, from Flickr

Muhammad Moursi’s exploitation of recent events in the Sinai to shuffle the leadership of the Egyptian military is only the most recent manifestation of the disproportionate influence of the Sinai on Egyptian politics. Events in the Sinai have long dictated politics in Cairo. For decades, they shaped the fortunes of powerbrokers in the capital, solidifying their popular support or ruining their once impenetrable networks of informants and allies in the police and army. Both Nasser, Sadat and the British before them, struggled to tame the Sinai. They sought to exploit its political significance but remained exposed to its strategic vulnerabilities and confounding internal disorder. In the Sinai, the successes and failures of Moursi’s predecessors remain instructive.

The British used successive Turkish invasions of the Peninsula in the First World War as a pretext to tighten censorship and ruthlessly pursue nationalist opponents in Cairo. Their policies soon backfired, and by March 1919, colonial authorities faced an open revolt that destabilized the British presence in the country for much of the year. Nasser, for his part, consolidated widespread sympathy for his regime after restoring the Peninsula to Egypt in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis. It was the Sinai, however, that unmasked the weakness of his government when Israeli fighter jets penetrated Peninsula air space and paved the way for a sustained armored assault of the Suez Canal in early June 1967. Sadat, too, could never fully profit from the Peninsula. His effort to return the Sinai to Egypt and subsequent negotiations with Israel emboldened Islamist opponents and Jihadi agitators, who assassinated Sadat and continued to harass the security apparatus of his successor, Hosni Mubarak.

Although the security services expanded vigorously under Mubarak and took on a new set of priorities in the Peninsula as the South Sinai was transformed into a crucial pillar of Egypt’s once-thriving tourist sector, instability and violence in the Sinai periphery were not easily subdued. Violence in the Sinai, in fact, exemplified the paradox of power in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. On the one hand, through an increased police presence and widened system of checkpoints leading into Sharm al-Sheikh, Dahab and the other highly frequented tourist centers, the government initiated a broad-sweeping campaign to counter armed bands of Bedouins and cells of al-Qaeda affiliates. Conversely, systemic corruption in the ranks of the Sinai security services allowed for a lucrative trade in weapons and narcotics smuggling, as well as human trafficking, all of which compounded the already vexing security issues and rendered the larger effort to guarantee safety in the tourist districts a fragile proposition.

Terror attacks throughout the Sinai in the mid-2000s underscored the inadequacy of security in the region. Worse, the government’s disproportionate response, including the wholesale arrests of young Bedouin men from surrounding villages, did little to win the sympathy of local communities. Even in the absence of outright terrorism, the politics of the Sinai were viewed increasingly with scorn and ridicule. When shark attacks devastated the tourist season in Sharm al-Sheikh in the winter of 2010, the Governor of the South Sinai district blamed Israel, claiming Mossad had dispatched the sharks to harm Egyptian tourism. The charge stood out even amidst the breadth of outlandish conspiracy theories so pronounced in Egypt’s political psyche.

The demise of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 created a new set of security complications for his replacement government of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). In the army’s effort to secure Cairo, Alexandria, the Canal Zone and the major population centers in the Delta and along the Nile, the Sinai was left exposed. Police units disengaged from routine patrols across the Peninsula and the army reluctantly moved in to secure communications and the larger highways along the coasts. With few resources and its energies diverted elsewhere, the new setup constrained the army in the Sinai while political deadlock in Cairo confused its command.

The steady proliferation of violence in the Sinai paralyzed SCAF and their two civilian appointed cabinets. The second, headed by Kamal Ganzouri, was appointed in the aftermath of the pre-election violence of November 2011, and tasked precisely with enforcing law and order. Immediately, traffic moving in and out of Cairo, including vehicles heading into the center of the city from Road 90, near the American University in the eastern suburbs, were forced to pass through new checkpoints and roadblocks staffed by special units of military police. Cairo stabilized for a time but little changed in the Sinai.

While periodic cycles of violence threatened to unhinge the nascent political process in Cairo, prolonged instability in the Sinai informed growing fears throughout the country of widespread chaos, lawlessness, and the government’s failure to keep the peace. From the downfall of Mubarak until the end of last month, fifteen bombings of the now defunct gas pipeline to Israel rocked the Sinai’s security apparatus and highlighted Egypt’s inability to honor its international strategic and commercial agreements; the Arish-Rafah checkpoint on the border of Gaza faced 29 attacks before the beginning of August; and indiscriminate kidnappings became a mainstay of the Peninsula tourist season since the beginning of the year.

This was the context to the gruesome attacks across the Sinai at the beginning of the month that killed 16 border guards in Rafah and plunged Egypt into a period of national mourning. It was the most deadly of the recent spate of assaults on security checkpoints in the Sinai, shocking the nation and overturning its administrative machinery. Moursi, Egypt’s newly elected President and long-time stalwart of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, missed the funeral procession of flag-draped coffins in the Medinat Nasr section of northeast Cairo. At the time, commentators suggested that Moursi was shunned from the proceedings. The election of Moursi, they claimed, encouraged militants and Hamas sympathizers in the Sinai, who see Moursi as soft on Islamist violence and an opponent of tight restrictions regulating the border between Egypt and Gaza.

If Moursi was absent from the funeral proceedings, however, he was preoccupied with orchestrating the most radical purge of senior SCAF officials since February 2011. It was again the Sinai that formed the backdrop to serious political change in Cairo. Although few grasp the complex nuances of the legal wrangling between the Brotherhood, the military, and the country’s Supreme Constitutional Court, no Egyptian escaped the uncertainty that followed the attacks at the beginning of the month, and the cumulative effect of violence and bloodshed that has become near commonplace in the Sinai since the 25 January Revolution. It was the military’s own shortcomings in the Sinai — its failure to control the borders and protect its troops — and not its corruption or arbitrary legal maneuvering in Cairo, that ultimately forced the departure of its most prominent officers and remnants, or falool, of the Mubarak regime.

Now, despite Moursi’s initiatives, at least for the moment, controlling the country’s media cycle and defining personnel changes at crucial positions in the country’s defense establishment, the security pressure points and their political liabilities are still manifold. If Moursi fails to secure the Sinai, he will remain vulnerable from defense hawks and the same constituencies who promoted Ahmad Shafiq, the former Air Force commander and close Mubarak associate, who challenged Moursi in the presidential runoff election of last June. To preserve his own prestige and to stabilize the country, Moursi must now work with a new cohort of midlevel officers and replacement administrators, both in the Sinai and throughout the country. At the same time, he must avoid opaque political entanglements with the senior remnants of the Mubarak regime, still hovering above the new corps of officers charged with enforcing law and order. If not, the Sinai and continued concessions to an ineffectual military leadership might yet prove his undoing.

Max Reibman is currently a PhD candidate in modern Middle Eastern History at the University of Cambridge. His doctoral research is funded by the Gates Cambridge Trust. His main research interests are Egypt and the Middle East in the era of the First World War. He speaks fluent Egyptian colloquial Arabic and spent this past year in Egypt conducting field research and archival work as an affiliated fellow at the American University in Cairo.