Egypt’s Sinai Problem Long Predates Morsi

Mohammed Morsi and Field Marshal Tantawi

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has responded to the August 5 Sinai raid, in which militants killed sixteen Egyptian border guards, by sacking Director of Intelligence Murad Mouwafi, North Sinai Governor Abdel Wahab Mabrouk (provincial governors are presidential appointees), and replacing several other senior security officials.

Egyptian military sources also are reporting that they are carrying out extensive raids in Sinai, involving the use of aircraft and heavy weaponry, and claimed that they killed as many as twenty militants on August 8, but there has been little corroboration from eyewitnesses in the Sinai.

While the security and intelligence housecleaning might be welcome and the raids a required show of force, they will not begin to solve Sinai’s problems, which predate by years not only Morsi’s inauguration but also former president Hosni Mubarak’s removal. The ugly truth is that the Egyptian government has neglected the Sinai politically, economically, and in security terms for many years, milking the cash cow of beach tourism along the Red Sea coast and leaving the rest of the peninsula woefully underdeveloped and with few government services. Bedouin inhabitants do not consider themselves Egyptian citizens and were often not treated as such; many do not serve in the military or even have national identity cards.

Militants have been operating in the Sinai for years, carrying out major bombings of hotels in 2004 and 2005, to which the government responded with mass arrests and human rights abuses that have left deep scars of resentment among the population. Intelligence and internal security forces ran the Sinai—although they never fully controlled it—while the army maintained a light presence by agreement with Israel in the 1978 Camp David accords.

A new phase of trouble started in 2007, when a limited Palestinian civil war left Gaza in the hands of a Hamas government that faced an international boycott. Smuggling has gone on in Sinai forever, but it increased enormously under the pressure of the Gaza blockade, bringing more criminal and militant elements into the Sinai than ever as tunnels into Rafah proliferated. Although the traffic was primarily from Sinai into Gaza, there was some in the other direction as well and rumors spread of Islamist militants settling into the mountains and towns of Sinai.

Then came the Egyptian revolution in January-February 2011 and a cataclysmic change: the internal security forces and uniformed police, pilloried for their decades of brutality, retreated and left their posts untended and prisons unguarded. In the rest of Egypt uniformed police have gradually returned to their posts but apparently this is not the case in Sinai, where an increasingly lawless atmosphere has prevailed. Salafis set up unofficial Islamic courts in northern Sinai towns—even going so far as to claim they are setting up an Islamic Republic—while Bedouin in the south resorted to kidnapping tourists and surrounding the camps of foreign military observers in order to get government attention to their demands, mainly the release of fellow tribesmen arrested in the security sweeps of years past. Since then, there have been at least two significant militant attacks from Sinai into Israel, many smaller militant attacks against Egyptian forces in Sinai, and more than a dozen bombings of the gas pipeline from Egypt to Israel.

Morsi’s list of pink slips provided a rare moment of clarity in what has otherwise been a confused response to the August 5 attack by the military and state media. But it is also unlikely that the changes in top positions responsible for the Sinai will be adequate, particularly if the new appointees continue the philosophy of their predecessors in managing Sinai and security challenges generally.

Several steps are needed now to address the crisis in Sinai, as well as a more general sense of rising public anger and instability in Egypt:

Morsi should begin a thorough reform and redeployment of internal security and police forces, so that they return to their duties in Sinai and elsewhere, but not to their old modes of operation—mass arrests, torture, and repression of peaceful dissent. Security sector reform is a well worn path trod by many other countries in past years and more recently by Tunisia. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) missed the first and best opportunity to start such reforms in the first few months after Mubarak was ousted in February 2011, when Egyptians were eager for broad changes and internal security forces were on the defensive. Morsi should not miss the current opportunity but will need SCAF support to take on the wounded but still dangerous Interior Ministry.

The military should take better advantage of changes Israel has already agreed to in order to step up deployments in the Sinai, but send the special forces and intelligence units required to address insurgents rather than the few battalions of conscripts sent so far. Israel should agree to whatever changes, such as the deployment of more aircraft, might be necessary to deal with the threat.

It is not yet clear to what extent the militants in Sinai are Egyptian, Palestinian, or other nationalities and to what extent they are linked to al-Qaeda or other international terrorist networks. Egyptians will need to put aside preconceptions and a propensity to deny reality—surely Palestinians would not kill Egyptians; surely Muslims would not kill coreligionists who were breaking the Ramadan feast—and address more honestly and transparently the nature of the terrorism problem in Sinai.

Morsi’s government should consult with Sinai Bedouin and other residents to formulate a strategy to improve government services and opportunities for economic development beyond tourism. This will be a project of some years, but an expression of seriousness and good will is needed now if the government is to enlist their cooperation against militants.

Finally, the Egyptian government should press Israel, the Palestinian leadership, and the United States to find a more viable arrangement for Gaza. Even if a political solution to the Palestinian issue is not on the horizon, the massive smuggling through tunnels is a cancer that has harmed Sinai as well as Gaza profoundly. In fact, it is difficult to imagine Sinai being stabilized if the current blockade of Gaza continues much longer.

Michele Dunne is the director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Photo Credit: AP Photo

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