An article in last week’s edition of the US magazine Foreign Policy (3 June, 2022) by David Schenker, a former diplomat and the Taube Senior Fellow at The Washington Institute and director of the Program on Arab Politics, entitled “Egypt’s Remilitarised Sinai Is a Future Powder Keg” argues that the current deployment of Egyptian forces in the Peninsula undermines the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty.
Yet, as various sources will agree, cooperation between Egypt and Israel within the scope of the treaty has not declined. Indeed, the two sides have amended its security annex to permit an increase in the number of their forces. Most likely, the number of military assets has increased as well. They have certainly been upgraded and, more importantly, they are commensurate with the Egyptian army’s dual mission of protecting security and safeguarding the development that has entirely changed the face of Sinai.
At the same time, the amendment to the treaty’s security annex has not engendered mutual threats or distorted the agreed-upon balance of forces. Moreover, had it not been for the mutual trust between the two sides on this matter, Egypt would not have been able without outside help to reverse the instability in Sinai and restore civilian life to normal. It goes without saying that this process does not require more military assets than are consistent with this aim and with the government’s development approach.
There has been no reversal in policy or decline in the scale of development efforts in Sinai. Egypt is unlikely to abandon its achievements there and instead remains determined to continue to build on them. Egypt continues to cooperate with the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) as usual, and at no point have its efforts posed a threat to neighbours. On the contrary, Egypt, proceeding from considerations of national security, has played a crucial role in reducing the tensions in Gaza. Indeed, it would benefit all concerned if the Egyptian development model were emulated there.
Despite the two recent terrorist attacks that have taken place in Sinai, it is impossible to deny that the situation there remains largely stable – unprecedentedly so – both in terms of security and development operations. It is therefore absurd to describe the situation in Sinai today as a “powder keg.” That was the condition to which it was reduced after a year of Islamist rule in Egypt and after the mounting terrorism in the region had infiltrated it.
Conditions in Gaza also contributed to aggravating the phenomenon due to the thousands of border tunnels that enabled extremists to pass back and forth during the years of chaos after the Arab Spring. True, the tunnels had existed before this and had begun to accumulate when Hamas seized control of Gaza. During the rule of former president Hosni Mubarak, Hamas thwarted numerous Egyptian attempts to tighten security at the border. In 2009 for example, Egypt constructed a 10 km steel wall in order to close off the tunnels that extended many metres below ground and, at 50 cm thick, were also dynamite resistant. However, Hamas managed to cut through the wall and even sent a piece of it to Egyptian security officials.
After the 25 January Revolution in Egypt and during the period of Muslim Brotherhood rule, Hamas created the equivalent of a ministry to administer the tunnels and levy taxes on their activities. It reaped around $7 billion a year from the tunnel trade, according to an Egyptian official who served as a security officer at the time.
Not only did the tunnels proliferate in these years of chaos, but Sinai also became a destination for international terrorist organisations from Al-Qaeda to the Islamic State (IS) group. Yet, there is no denying that the government had been absent from Sinai for decades. Observers had frequently advised Mubarak to address the situation there and to work out an understanding with Israel to alter the security annex of the Peace Treaty in order to facilitate this. On one occasion, Israel responded favourably to such suggestions, allowing an increase in the deployment of Central Security Forces in Sinai for the purposes of a relatively limited development project, namely the Peace Bridge and Peace Canal.
True, terrorism in Sinai at that time was nowhere near the magnitude it reached after 2011, but some major incidents did occur, impacting on tourism in South Sinai. Counterterrorist actions were taken, but the process was not comprehensive, and it did not attempt to remedy the root causes of the phenomenon. Later, when the terrorism soared, the government could not find the foundations it would normally rely on to counter the phenomenon. The fabric of the local tribal leadership had virtually collapsed, the informal economy prevailed, and tunnels and armed extremism had become the norm.
Such was the bitter fruit of decades of the government’s lack of attention to developing Sinai.
After the June 2013 Revolution, the army launched one operation after another against terrorist forces that had benefited from the minimal military deployment as it stood under the previous terms of that Peace Treaty. As military correspondent for Al-Ahram Weekly at the time, I visited Sinai during many of these operations, the most important of which was the Comprehensive Operation Sinai launched in 2018 (COS 2018).
I had the opportunity to experience that campaign first hand for two weeks, listening to the men in the forces and appreciating their immense drive and dedication. It was reminiscent of the stories we had heard from the soldiers who had taken part in the October 1973 War. But I have since come to believe that what has been described as the “second struggle” to liberate Sinai was in fact more difficult than the first because we were now up against an unconventional enemy. With time, effort, patience, and great sacrifice, our forces have gained remarkable expertise and grown more and more adept at confronting and beating this enemy.
During my next visit to Sinai, another battle was in progress even as the counterterrorist campaign continued. Operation Sinai Development was now in full swing. It is difficult in this small space to relate the magnitude of this effort. Suffice it to say that more than LE700 billion has been allocated to it to date. The process has rebuilt trust between the government and the people of Sinai. Soldiers and citizens are working shoulder to shoulder in the dual battle of counterterrorism and development. One of the cardinal features of the development process is the condition that 90 per cent of the civilian firms involved, and there are approximately 400 of them, and their workforces must be from Sinai.
Last month, Sinai experienced two terrorist attacks after over a year of calm. As we know, it is difficult to eliminate the phenomenon entirely. There will remain a likelihood of some limited attacks. But these cannot destroy, reduce, or minimise the importance of the development efforts underway.
According to sources in Sinai, a combing operation is in progress. Its first phase in the north of Sinai in Al-Arish, Rafah, and Sheikh Zuweid has been completed, and its second phase in the southern desert area has begun. Sweeping operations to discover explosive devices are ongoing. No additional forces have been brought in to assist in these operations. In fact, the number of troops have been reduced from their levels during the main phases of the counterterrorist operations, and signs of a return to normalcy are everywhere: agricultural and manufacturing activities are up and running, and schools, hospitals, and other public services are working normally.
Security barriers and checkpoints have been removed, and the civil police have resumed their functions. In villages such as Mahdiya, Muqataa, Goz Abu Riyad and Toma, people have begun to build new homes to replace the ones the terrorists had boobytrapped.
In sum, the Peace Agreement between Egypt and Israel has grown more solid over the course of the last four decades. There is no need to shake that trust. Rather, it is crucial to build on it, especially in the light of the fact that the Sinai model is being emulated elsewhere in the region.
A so-called “powder keg” scenario in Sinai would only occur if the peninsula were to revert to its former state. That is difficult to conceive today, and no one could reasonably want it. As a result, the idea of Sinai as a “powder keg” is today a thing of the past.
A version of this article appears in print in the 16 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.