Before the US administration announced it would suspend most of its military aid to Cairo last week because of deteriorating security, political and rights conditions in Egypt, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel had assured his Egyptian counterpart General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi that the US will continue assistance on issues that serve vital security goals of both countries, including fighting terrorism, non-proliferation of weapons, guarding borders and security in Sinai.
Thus, suspended aid did not include assistance to secure Sinai and its borders. Washington believes Sinai is the cornerstone of the US vision of regional security in the entire Middle East, and therefore strongly supports efforts to secure Sinai and control of the Egyptian government there. Washington also understands that Sinai and its 250km-border with Israel is a key factor in Arab war or peace with Israel.
A report by Congress at the end of last year noted that the US provides assistance to Egypt as a contribution to securing Sinai. The report noted that Washington “supports Egypt in securing Sinai by providing it with intelligence reports, including telephone conversations and messages via radio among suspected terrorists.” It added that “Washington shares with Egypt photos taken by satellite and US spy planes.” The document additionally revealed the US is also monitoring movements by Egyptian forces inside Sinai.
The report highlights the importance of the Sinai Peninsula in US strategy because Sinai has been a battleground in all the wars between Egypt and Israel since 1948 until 1973. Sinai’s geographic isolation and its location linking key states such as Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Israel and Saudi Arabia is yet another significant factor. The arrival of Hamas to power in the Gaza Strip in 2006 further underscored the pivotal role of neighbouring Sinai.
Washington understands its relationship with Egypt vanished when Egypt lost Sinai and US-Egyptian ties were restored once Sinai returned to Egypt. It also knows that the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel is the greatest achievement in US diplomatic history in the Middle East. The treaty, which returned Sinai sovereignty to Egypt, has prevented wide-scale Arab-Israeli military confrontations for more than 30 years.
At the same time, Washington believes the power vacuum in Sinai, which became more apparent after the overthrow of former president Hosni Mubarak, was quickly filled by extremists from inside and outside Egypt who joined local Bedouins – of whom many feel mistreated by the central government in Cairo. Washington believes that Sinai residents for the first time are realising how much their youth are influenced by radical Salafist ideology, and their close cooperation with Hamas and other Palestinian groups (classified as terrorist by Washington) in the Gaza Strip.
Washington believes Egyptian authorities lost their traditional control over large swathes of Sinai, making the peninsula a region shrouded in mystery. Since the ouster of Mubarak, armed groups have attacked dozens of police stations, checkpoints and government offices. At the same time, the gas pipeline between Egypt and Israel in North Sinai has been attacked 15 times.
Washington is disturbed by daily news of deaths among the military, police, civilians or terrorists, and is seriously concerned about attacks on the multinational forces and international observers responsible for monitoring adherence to security arrangements in Sinai contained in the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. These forces are composed of nearly 17,000 soldiers who are mostly from the US. According to their general commander, his troops were targeted in 187 shooting incidents between January and May this year alone.
Since the full return of Sinai – an area of 61,000 square kilometres, or three times the area of Israel – to Egyptian sovereignty in 1982, Cairo has neglected Sinai for unjustifiable reasons. In recent years, Egyptian governments disregarded media reports that the number of extremists in Sinai is on the rise. They also discounted the declaration establishing the Emirate of the Sinai Peninsula, even as these flyers were being distributed on the streets of Al-Arish in August 2011.
The Egyptian government also took lightly news that Bedouin tribes in central and northern Sinai have become armed militias involved in drug smuggling and human trafficking. Also, that there are widespread arms smuggling operations, especially after the overthrow of Gaddafi’s regime in Libya. The issue is further complicated by the fact that Sinai residents do not recognise international sovereign border demarcations.
It is a fact that the security vacuum is not a result of what happened to the Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi because Sinai was already the site of terrorist attacks in Taba, Sharm El-Sheikh and Dahab in 2004-2006.
Stabilising Sinai could serve Washington’s interests, but the security or military option to secure Sinai will never succeed in serving Egyptian interests. El-Sisi offered assurances that “The Armed Forces will never allow any threats against Sinai, and its sons are ready to sacrifice their lives in order for Sinai to remain part of Egypt and never depart from it.” Yes, sacrificing their lives for Sinai is a noble cause, but it will not change the painful and frightening reality of the Sinai Peninsula, which should begin by giving the people of Sinai their rights on their land and the land of their forefathers.
There is no alternative to a “strategy to populate Sinai” and no other way than to move millions of Egyptians – who overcrowd our cities and villages with random housing, work and life – into Sinai if we want to secure Sinai. This would not be for the purpose of serving US interests but in order for Sinai to remain Egyptian.