Middle East

Sinai problem resurfaces for Egypt

Egyptian soldiers carry the coffins of their comrades killed in an attack in Sinai during their funeral in Cairo on August 7, 2012.
Image caption An attack in the Sinai peninsula on Sunday left 16 Egyptian soldiers dead

This month's violence in the far north of the Sinai Peninsula is an uncomfortable reminder of the security concerns that persist there, decades after Egypt and Israel signed the Camp David peace treaty.

This barren, partly mountainous triangle wedged between Africa and Asia has always been harder to police than the heavily populated Nile Valley and Delta of mainland Egypt.

Amongst its estimated 400,000 inhabitants the scattered tribes that live in the Sinai are Bedouin (or "Badu", Arabic for desert dwellers), ethnically different from mainland Egyptians.

Many of them feel marginalised from the government's programmes of investment and economic development applied to the mainland.

They see the massive development of tourist infrastructure along the Gulf of Aqaba coast in resorts like Sharm El Sheikh, Dahab and Nuwaiba but complain of little benefit to them.

The once deserted coastline where tribes like the Bani M'zaina grazed their sheep, goats and camels has effectively been colonised since the 1980s by Cairenes, Alexandrines and other mainland Egyptians, employed in an industry that has seen millions of package tourists jetting in on direct flights from Europe.

So instead, some of the Bedouin have turned their talents to an ancient skill: smuggling.

Whether it is drugs, guns, explosives or cigarettes, no-one knows the hidden wadis and mountain passes of south Sinai like they do, nor the undulating dunes of north Sinai that border the Gaza Strip and Israel.

For the Egyptian security forces sent to police these remote outposts this is almost a punishment posting, a banishment to an alien land where they can quickly lose their way beyond the gates of their bases.

When it comes to security in the Sinai there are a number of overlapping factors which help explain why the area remains a problem today for both Egypt and Israel.

Proximity to Israel and Gaza

In November 1982, Israel handed over the final tranche of eastern Sinai that it had captured from Egypt during the 1967 Middle East war.

As a student at the time I watched the Egyptian Army move in as the Israelis left behind abandoned trenches, security wells for disposing of suspicious objects and tourist signs in Hebrew.

The sleepy, one-hotel resort that Israelis called Ofira grew into the mega development that Sharm El Sheikh is today.

Image caption Many tribes in the Sinai complain of marginalisation and discrimination

Under the terms of the Camp David peace treaty of 1979 two bases were also set up, in north and south Sinai, to house mostly US troops from the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) whose job was primarily to stop Egyptian and Israeli forces from clashing.

But neither the presence of those peacekeepers nor the spectacular success of Sharm El Sheikh as a resort has kept the Sinai out of trouble.

In 2005 over 80 people were killed in bomb attacks in Sharm, something which the governor of South Sinai assured me the following year could never happen again after improvements to security.

But in the north there have been countless attacks in the past two years on the gas pipelines running between Egypt and Israel.

The perpetrators are believed to be a mix of those who do not approve of the cold peace between the two countries and local Bedouin with a grudge against their government.

Secret subterranean tunnels have long been burrowed beneath the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, a key smuggling route for Palestinians unable to leave their territory.

But after Sunday's attack by militants on an Egyptian border port, Egypt's military now says it is determined to close the tunnels down.


Whatever takes place along the borders of the Gaza Strip, smuggling through the Sinai is not about to stop.

With the Gulf of Suez on one side and the Gulf of Aqaba on the other, the business is simply too lucrative for too many people, some quite possibly in official positions.

With smuggling come other forms of crime and wherever it exists there will always be a potential security vacuum, especially when economic opportunities are so limited for local inhabitants.

I have known Bedouin tribesmen, masters of courtesy and hospitality when I have stayed with them, to boast proudly of arms caches hidden in desert valleys they say "the police will never find in a thousand years".

With their proximity to Israel, the sparsely governed deserts of the Sinai Peninsula are a tempting location for jihadists stung by criticisms that al-Qaeda has largely failed to score an attack on Israel.

Some may well look wistfully at the map and decide this could join southern Yemen and Pakistan's tribal territories as a convenient rear base in which to train, arm and plan attacks.

The tourist resorts along the coast, with their scantily clad Russians, Scandinavians and other European holidaymakers were previously seen as a "soft target" for jihadists, although their attacks of 2005-2006 killed more Egyptian Muslims than foreigners.

Since then, though, there is no question that security around the resorts has improved dramatically.

The domestic backlash in Egypt this week over the killing by militants of Egyptian border guards on Sunday has clearly goaded the Cairo government into a firm response while possibly making it harder for jihadists to find local support in the Sinai.

On Wednesday Egypt's military read out a statement on national television that was both a direct appeal and something of an admission of its own shortcomings: "We call on the tribes and residents of Sinai to cooperate," it said, "to regain security control of Sinai".

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