Egypt Tackles Increased Sinai Militancy
Gunmen attacked an Egyptian security forces base in the El-Arish area of the Sinai Peninsula the morning of May 20. No casualties were reported in the incident, which followed demands by Sinai-based militants for the release of Bedouin "political activists." The attack follows the May 16 kidnapping of seven Egyptian security personnel by Sinai militants. The attacks reveal the failure of the Egyptian intelligence apparatus to maintain control in Sinai and the lack of political unity in Cairo necessary to contain the situation. They also have increased pressure on Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi to curb militant activity in Sinai. An increase in security personnel in the peninsula and harsh rhetoric from Morsi indicate Cairo is now preparing to use force to remedy the situation.
Initial reports May 16 indicated that Morsi was engaging in
dialogue with Bedouin tribal leaders and leaders of moderate jihadist groups to secure the
release of the security personnel. However, Morsi said May 19 that all options were on the
table and that the Egyptian government would not negotiate with "criminals."
Border crossings with the Gaza Strip have been closed since the kidnappings, and reports
have emerged of substantial increases in the Egyptian security presence in Sinai on May
20, including the deployment of armored vehicles and personnel carriers past the Suez
Canal into northern Sinai. On May 19-20, security forces and police stationed in Sinai
held protests demanding the release of the kidnapping victims, underscoring the need for
the military to enter the fray to help maintain security.
A Muslim Brotherhood-led Egypt is Hamas's most important ally, and it is important for the Palestinian group to maintain its close relationship with Cairo. Increased militant activity, including the smuggling of weapons and radicalized militants who have more in common with Gaza-based Salafist groups competing with Hamas for influence, threatens Hamas' dominance in the Gaza Strip. And the spread of jihadist activity into urban and tourist areas of Egypt from Gaza would likely create a major point of friction between Hamas and Cairo.
Increased militant activity in Sinai is concerning to Israel. In the most recent incident directly affecting Israel, Islamist militants fired two rockets toward the Israeli city of Eilat from the peninsula April 17. But Israel faces a dilemma. On one hand, it is uncomfortable with any remilitarization of its border with Egypt, especially as its relationships with both Egypt and Jordan -- the two Arab countries to which it closest -- increasingly are being tested. Members of Egypt's Shura Council demanded the withdrawal of Egypt's ambassador to Israel on May 14, while Jordan's parliament unanimously voted May 8 to recommend the withdrawal of its ambassador to Israel after unrest at the al-Aqsa Mosque on the Israeli national holiday of Jerusalem Day. Though neither demand has gained traction, the shift in public sentiment in both countries is notable.
On the other hand, Israel also needs Egypt to maintain a strong enough presence in Sinai to encourage security. Israel does not have the appetite for unilateral action in the Sinai Peninsula and the resulting diplomatic fallout considering the uncertainty on its northern border with Syria.
The problems Egypt is encountering in Sinai are not new. The region has long been known for its lawlessness, having historically served as a smuggling route for weapons and supplies. Security provisions in the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty of 1979 have institutionalized a diminished security presence in the area, enabling militants to operate with a freer hand. Moreover, the limited government-directed investment and development in Sinai has discriminated against the local Bedouin population, a population that values tribal allegiance over all else. The combination of Sinai's harsh terrain and lack of resources have kept the area poor -- and hence ripe for militancy.
Former President Hosni Mubarak maintained relative calm in Sinai. Though Sinai Bedouins have long worked with jihadist militants and Egyptian intelligence officials alike, in the past, the Egyptian intelligence apparatus was able to maintain strong enough relationships with the Bedouin living in Sinai to extract intelligence from them and keep track of jihadist movements in the area to contain the overall threat. Mubarak's removal from power in February 2011 and the subsequent social upheaval forced both the Egyptian military and Egyptian security forces to direct their attention to more pressing issues in mainland Egypt. The myriad challenges the military has faced since the fall of Mubarak have included everything from managing large-scale civil unrest to developing its relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Bedouin militants and Islamist groups have taken advantage of the resulting security vacuum, increasingly engaging in clashes with Egyptian security forces and kidnapping tourists for ransom in recent months. Sinai is home to some 200,000 Bedouin, who belong to more than 15 tribes. Those tribes are now seeking to strengthen their control over their respective fiefdoms. Meanwhile, Islamist militants -- whether with backing from foreign actors such as Iran or smaller regional nodes of extremist groups such as al Qaeda with more space to operate -- are taking advantage of Sinai as a potential base of operations.
So far, negotiations to free the hostages have been unsuccessful. In the past, the Morsi government's reaction to unrest in Sinai has been constrained by potential backlash against the government from Islamist groups and Salafist political groupings. The main Salafist political party, the Al-Nour Party, has already turned against the Muslim Brotherhood. While Al-Nour has stopped short of joining the official opposition alliance, in recent months it has begun supporting many of the National Salvation Front's demands, such as calls for the resignation of Prime Minister Hesham Kandil and the institution of a national unity government.
Whatever Morsi's government gained by treading softly in Sinai is now being outweighed by the boldness of the militants operating there. Insecurity in Sinai has now reached the point that the Egyptian government feels it must reassert its control, by force if necessary. The repercussions of being seen as weak after the kidnapping of the security forces are untenable. The military needs to demonstrate that the targeting of security and military forces by militants will not be tolerated. Opposition parties in Egypt can use the audacity of Sinai militant groups to criticize Morsi's government.
The May 20 movement of armored vehicles and personnel carriers into Sinai indicates that the government is planning to employ military force as it did in August 2012, the last time violence in Sinai peaked. Even so, the declining credibility of Egypt's security forces since Mubarak's ouster and an overall lack of political unity and trust in Cairo will continue to challenge Egypt's ability to manage emboldened militants in Sinai.
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