Egypt's Sinai Peninsula: Fertile ground for discontent

Sarah El-Rashidi in Rafah, Sunday 2 Sep 2012

Experts examine the current geopolitical, demographic and socio-economic dynamics affecting sovereignty over Egypt's ever-restive Sinai Peninsula

checkpoint in Rafah
File photo: checkpoint on the way to Rafah by Ahmed Abu Deraa

The Sinai Peninsula, famed as a leading tourist destination given its natural landscape, dazzling coral reefs and biblical history, is witnessing increasing volatility in post-revolution Egypt.

A bloody attack on 5 August that killed 16 Egyptian border guards has led Egyptian security forces to carry out a security operation – 'Operation Eagle' – to restore security to the restive peninsula. Ongoing clashes between security forces and militants, as well as attacks on checkpoints, have since been reported.

A land bridge between two continents, Africa and Asia, the Sinai Peninsula is approximately 60,000 square kilometres in area and contains two of Egypt's 27 governorates. Sinai has a population of about 600,000 people.

"Sinai is three times the size of Israel; there are 30 major tribes in North and South Sinai. The North of Sinai is one of the poorest governorates, with a population of approximately 350,000," explained Said Sadek, a political sociologist at the American University of Cairo.

Geopolitical dynamics 

The peninsula's geographic positioning and size is often perceived by experts as a primary reason for the area's continued instability.

"Sinai is a borderland in which all types of illegal activities occur and is thus very difficult to control; this applies to all border areas around the world," asserted Egyptian activist and political sociologist Saadeddin Ibrahim.

"Geography is one of the main reasons it is difficult to exert control over Sinai; Bedouins know their land more than the authorities and have secret escape routes," said Mohamed Sabry, a local journalist from the northern town of Al-Arish.

"No one knows the desert better than us Bedouin," said Bedouin rights advocate Said Abdel-Hadi from the Sawairka tribe, the largest tribe in North Sinai. The young Bedouin recently founded a Bedouin rights NGO in the desert town of Sheikh Zuweid, located only a few kilometres from the border with the Gaza Strip.

Furthermore, international accords – such as the 1979 Camp David treaty with Israel – coupled with vested parties that benefit from Sinai's geo-strategic positioning, affect the area's stability.

Following the 5 August assault, it is the first time since 1973 that Egypt has launched an aerial and land offensive in the area, given the Camp David treaty’s restrictions. The treaty divides Sinai into three areas, and in each of these areas Egypt is allowed a limited deployment of troops and arms.

Such military measures are deemed of absolute necessity as experts continuously identify the numerous geographic and economic complexities that face any cleanup security operation. Above land, the eerie Halal Mountain – portrayed by analysts as a desert with many caves hiding criminals and powerful artillery – is only one of the obvious security impediments.

"Al-Halal Mountain, where most of Sinai’s criminals hide, is loaded with landmines. That’s why aerial support is now being used," said Sinai expert Mohamed Fadel Fahmy.

The desert also conceals lengthy tunnels believed to be in the thousands, creating a huge security hindrance. The tunnels facilitate illicit activity, including human trafficking and arms and drug smuggling, and permit close contact with Palestinians in the Gaza strip.

Experts and Bedouins blame profiteering parties for the continued instability created by the clandestine tunnel network.

"If authorities build a lake, it will destroy the tunnels facilitating illegal trade, but Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood do not want to," said Hussein, a local Bedouin journalist.

Demographic dynamics 

Other issues ensuring continued instability, by-products of the peninsula’s geographic location, include the demographic nature of Sinai’s people, given the many tribes and wars that have occurred. Mixed blood lines between Palestinians, Israelis and Egyptians related through intermarriage and work on the border further complicate security matters.

"We marry from each other; Palestinians and Egyptians are one," said Fathy, a Bedouin from Rafah whose home overlooks the Gaza skyline.

A lack of in-depth demographic studies on Sinai Bedouin contributes to the struggle for control, insist political sociologists. In order to re-instate and maintain dominance in any land it is necessary to understand the nature of the people and their land, Ibrahim stressed.

Esteemed Bedouin judge Abdel-Hadi from the Sawairka tribe and brother of Bedouin activist Said, maintains that authorities’ neglect and ignorance concerning the desert terrain and the Bedouin and their leaders are detrimental to security.

"The state needs to recognise the importance of consulting with the community, learning about the tribal judiciary system and ensuring the long-term equitable development of Sinai," the middle-aged tribal judge told Ahram Online from his remote desert villa in Shabana village just 4 kilometres from the Israeli border.

Socio-economic dynamics 

Inhabitants from North Sinai like local Bedouin Abu Deraa complain that development and government assistance is void, which explains the growth in the black market economy, instability and the rise of extremism.

"Investments of around $100 billion in Southern Sinai's tourist areas have been pumped in, ignoring the rest of the peninsula," said Ibrahim.

Moreover, the issue of land ownership in Sinai contributes to the population’s frustration since no local resident can own the land their family has resided on for centuries. Consequently, based on their geographic location Sinai, inhabitants complain they do not have equal rights and believe that the residents of the Nile Valley do not view them as Egyptians.

"We don't feel like Egyptian citizens; the government views us as traitors due to past Israeli occupation and is thus punishing us," Mona Abdo, political activist who ran for parliament under Mubarak, told Ahram Online from her home in Rafah.

"I am more Egyptian than other Egyptians living in Cairo or elsewhere, as I reside on the turbulent borders," she said.

Political sociologists stress that this feeling of marginalisation has become a self-fulfilling prophecy causing a grave identity crisis.

"Injustice and lack of socio-economic development create extremism. The North of Sinai is one of the poorest governorates," Sadek emphasised, suggesting that Mubarak-era neglect explained the Bedouin desire for revenge. A government report in 2010 said a quarter of the entire population of Sinai did not carry national ID cards and were therefore not allowed to obtain deeds to their land, serve in the army or benefit from local tourism.

"Extremist ideology of radical groups adds to the volatility of Sinai," Oxford University Professor Walter Armbrust told Ahram Online.

Takfir Wal Hijra and Salafist jihadism have been identified by experts as the principal jihadi security threats in Sinai.

Takfir Wal Hijra is one of the initial radical Islamist groups in Egypt, founded by Shukri Mustafa in the 1960s as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. According to its radical ideology, even Muslims that do not share its beliefs are infidels. Observers maintain that most of the group’s activities take place in the desert and near Al-Halal Mountain.

Nevertheless, several experts try to quell fears.

"These jihadist groups are too small and too few in number to represent a real threat," said Saber Taalab, director of the Islamic Research Centre in Nasr City.

Domestic security dynamics 

The former regime’s short-sighted approach towards domestic security in Sinai's turbulent terrain is another geopolitical dynamic that has exacerbated security matters, according to experts.

"Maintaining security in the short term, without reflective consideration of the long-term implications on national security, became a key feature of the regime's thinking," Tarek Osman wrote in his book 'Egypt on the Brink.'

Ill-treatment of Bedouins in the border lands by Egyptian security forces is continuously cited as a pivotal factor. Ibrahim told Ahram Online that the clumsiness of security institutions which, contrary to law, treat everyone as a suspect until proven otherwise, has added to the Bedouin-government vendetta.

"I offered to take part in 'Operation Eagle' but they refused. I know my land better than anyone," said Moustafa El-Atrash of the Tawabeen tribe.

Moreover, false promises put forward by the former El-Ganzouri government related to socio-economic development and releasing accused terrorists have increased tensions, claim analysts.

Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi is now trying to enlist their support in the current security operation as was done in 1967 and 1973. Some Bedouin have agreed to cooperate, yet remain sceptical regarding the government’s intensions towards them given their past disappointments.

"Dialogue and amicable cooperation between the state and people of Sinai is a necessary measure to re-instate security," confirmed judge Abdel-Hadi.

The need for cooperation comes at a vital time, suggest spectators, given President Mohamed Morsi’s recent removal of General Intelligence chief Murad Muwafi, which is likely going to hinder communication between Israel and Egypt.

Sadek, along with other analysts and military sources, contends that the US and Israel are trying to help contain and control the situation, but concedes that internal weakness will always be used as an excuse for foreign intervention.

"'Operation Eagle' was well coordinated with both the US and Israel," according to a military source.

Imminent resolutions 

Considering all the geopolitical complexities facing the restoration of Egyptian sovereignty over Sinai, the main solutions tabled by experts and members of the 25 January movement in Arish, like Hussein Gelabana, start with the immediate clean-up of the area.

Short-term goals should be strong economic policy fostering socio-economic and cultural development that will provide citizenship, the right to land ownership and employment, along with increased cooperation, cultural understanding and respect.

"We want respect in the new constitution for our traditions, culture and customs, because without this basic right, how can we respect the state?" asked Abdel-Hadi.

Other solutions proposed by experts and Sinai residents include the re-trying of Bedouin accused of terrorist acts, as well as increased cooperation between Bedouin and external forces – namely Israel, the US and the Palestinians – which will involve revisiting existing security agreements.

"Morsi needs to urgently rethink Egypt's security architecture vis-à-vis Israel and the United States," London School of Economics professor Fawaz Gerges wrote in a recent paper.

An avowed realist, Sadek acknowledged: "Patience will be paramount, as all this will involve a 'no-man's land' beyond the control of the central government."

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