A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Sinai's Growing Anarchy: A Challenge for Both Egypt and Israel

On Sunday, person or persons unknown blew up the natural gas pipeline in northern Sinai that carries Egyptian gas to Israel and Jordan. If that news sounds familiar, it's because this is the 12th time the same pipeline has been blown up since the fall of Husni Mubarak a year ago.

The supply of natural gas to Israel is controversial of course, though the attacks also disrupt Jordan's gas supply.

Also in the past month, we have seen Sinai bedouins take over a resort complex south of Taba, Aqua Sun,  (though there were no tourists present at the time) in a dispute over land: the Egyptian military,citing restrictions placed on the militarization of the border area in the peace treaty with Israel, did not act. Other bedouin groups kidnapped 25 Chinese workers, though they were released after a day; and two American tourists were briefly held, though they praised their captors' politeness and hospitality.

And that's just the past month. You may recall the serious border incident last August when raiders inside Egyptian Sinai attacked a bus inside Israel en route to Eilat; in an Israeli counterstroke Israel mistakenly killed several Egyptian policemen.

Israel, increasingly concerned about instability and lack of order in Sinai, has begun building a border fence along the border from the Gaza border to the Gulf of Aqaba, something never considered necessary before.

Some of the more heated commentary has tended to portray Sinai as increasingly anarchic, with Israelis worrying it could become a Gaza writ large, a sanctuary from which Hamas or other enemies could target Israel, then fade back into the Sinai desert. Egypt is also concerned of course, but also has a lot on its plate at the moment.

Some background may be in order here: smuggling has been an endemic problem, both smuggling of goods (including automobiles) and human trafficking, especially of African refugees trying to enter Israel. But while nuisances, those did not pose the kind of security challenges we are seeing now.

Many Sinai residents, especially the bedouin tribes, have long complained of neglect from Cairo. Outside of two tourist zones — Saint Catherine's Monastery/Mount Sinai and the strip of beach resorts from Taba to Sharm al-Sheikh — the peninsula is underdeveloped, and the bedouin claim they are mistreated. (The occupation of the Aqua Sun resort was based on a claim that the land on which the resort was built was illegally taken from the tribe.) The restrictions on military deployments in the peace treaty have further weakened security in the eastern strip of Sinai.

Add to this already explosive mix the disappearance of local police throughout much of Egypt during the revolution, including the release of many prisoners. That scandalous release is now generally seen as a last-gasp attempt of the Mubarak regime to create a sense of insecurity; it's believed that at least some of the escaped prisoners faded into Sinai. In addition, police forces have never come back to full strength, adding to the sense that Sinai is increasingly an almost unpoliced area. Although, except for the Aqua Sun occupation, this round of instability has not targeted the "Sinai Riviera" resort strip, it's likely to have an impact on Egypt's already-suffering tourist trade, especially since many Sinai tourists come from Israel, though not in such numbers as was once the case.

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