61.000 square Kilometers, a population of roughly 6 or 7 hundred thousand Bedouins divided into a dozen nomad tribes, an inhospitable land without resources, an economy based on the traffic of drugs, arms and human beings, a business with a net worth of 3 to 5 million dollars per year. This was the Sinai yesterday. Today there are additional ingredients to the cocktail: the growing diffusion of the Salafite creed, Islamic extremism and terrorism.
All of this is a result of the explosive social context of Egypt, where we have seen - in just two years' time - the popular revolt, the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the rise to power of the Muslim Brothers, their successive ousting and the re-instauration of a military regime. During these years, the Sinai went from being a lawless territory in the framework of the preservation of a fragile peace with Israel (the Bedouins were left alone as they carried on their illegal activities) to becoming a frontier land where all those looking to feed disorder and war are provided with access to a 200 Km-long border with Israel and a 12-13 Km-long border with the Gaza strip.
The popular uprising of 2011 had initially forced the military authorities to release all the individuals that had been found guilty of crimes connected to Islamic fanaticism. These were followed by mass break-outs from prison of common criminals. The majority of these settled in the Sinai, where control by the central government had become weaker and where the possibility of moving freely allowed for both acts of terror and other illegal activities.
What happens today in the Sinai is not caused by the nomad and Bedouin populations that inhabit the territory. These have never cultivated Salafite ideals (Islamic extremism has never been a part of the Bedouin culture) or terrorist tendencies. The responsibility for the Sinai becoming a no man's land lies with the new professionals of terrorism that scour the world looking for a geographical collocation that will allow them to carry out their acts of terror. Today this opportunity is made available by the geographical location of the Sinai and by the weakness of Cairo's military authority. A situation that has progressively deteriorated after the ousting and arrest of Mohamed Morsi. Now even the Bedouins, whom had voted for Morsi during the last elections, have coloured their illegal activities with political meaning, sometimes even by joining the extremist fringes.
Mohamed al Zawahiri
In August 2011, after an attack against a police station in Al Arish, there were rumors about a group with a destructive name and agenda: "Al Qaeda in the Sinai peninsula". A tag that seemed similar to "Al Qaeda in the Arab peninsula", a group active in Yemen.
A few months after the attack, another group surfaced, the "Ansar al Jihad" (Partisans of the Jihad). The group announced its adhesion to the present leader of Al Qaeda, Ayman al Zawahiri whom, we should never forget, is an Egyptian national. From that moment on, groups and factions have proliferated in the entire country: "Gamaat Ansar al Sharia" (The organization of the partisans of the Shaaria), founded in October 2012, then "Al Taliah al Salafyah al Mujahedyah Ansar al Shaaria" (The fighting Salafite Avant-guard of the partisans of the Shaaria), founded in January 2013.
These last groups have the common "Ansar al Sharia" suffix in their name, the same that became widely used in every north African country and which symbolizes the affiliation to Al Qaeda and to the defunct Osama bin Laden. In Libya this organization has been responsible for the murder of the US ambassador in Benghazi. However, most of the Egyptian terrorist organizations have their origin in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group that has existed for several years in Egypt and which has gained strength from the recent internal political turmoil. It is not by chance that one of the rising stars of Egyptian Islamic extremism - which is slowly mutating into terrorism - is Mohamed al Zawahiri, brother of the more famous Ayman and who was released from Egyptian prisons in March 2012.
In addition to the Islamic Jihad, we have the same old names and brands: Tawhid wal Jihad (Unicity and Jihad) and Tafkir wal Hijra (Expiation and Pilgrimage, whose leader in the Sinai, Abdul Fattah Hassan Hussein, was recently arrested). These groups have historical ties to the Muslim Brothers. In addition to them, there are the various militias present in the Sinai, like that of Salem Abu Lafi, which is more like a gang of criminals rather than a group of terrorists. As with Algeria, Mali and other north African and sub-Saharan countries, the operative groups are called "Kataeb" (battalions), the various chieftains are self-proclaimed "Emirs" (a hybrid between a military and a religious leader) and the final goal is that of creating an independent Islamic emirate in the Sinai.
There is no certain data available on the numbers of members in these armed groups. The Egyptian authorities say that they are roughly 1 thousand, but in reality they are probably twice that many, even though it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the criminal activity from the claims of the Bedouin and from the actual terrorist activity. The data on their weaponry are more punctual: GRAD missiles, anti-tank weapons, mortars and anti-aircraft machine guns.
The return to power of the army in Cairo - yes, it's a fact, they are in power - has produced an escalation of terrorist attacks in the Sinai, both against the Egyptian army, the police (the last being a car-bomb that killed 10 soldiers and wounded another 35 in Al Arish on November 20, 2013. In August of the same year, 28 soldiers had been kidnapped and beheaded in Rafah), against the UN and of course against Israel (suffices to remember the penetration and attack of August 2011 that caused the death of 6 civilians and 2 soldiers). The Sinai is presently a full-blown battlefield. The Israelis use drones, incursions and targeted attacks in the area while the Egyptian army also carries out raids and anti-terror operations - sometimes alone and sometimes with the help of the Bedouin - as a response to the terrorist attacks.
First problem: The Gaza strip.
The border between the Sinai and the Gaza strip was a hot spot in the past and is even hotter today. Some tribes that inhabit the area near Gaza (especially the Tarabin and the Sawarka) have recently announced the formation of a "Council of War" together with a number of Jihad militias. Under the rule of Hosni Mubarak, the relationships and commerce with Gaza were always subordinated to the control of the army. Some traffics were unofficially allowed thanks to the high level of corruption of the police forces, but there was the clear will to keep the minimum social and sanitary assistance within acceptable levels in Gaza. With the advent of Hamas in 2007, Cairo's supervision had become more stringent. Then, Morsi's election turned the tables, due to the strong tie between Hamas and the Muslim Brothers, traffics and contraband to and from the Palestinian enclave had begun growing again. Morsi's downfall and the resurgence of the military regime are, commercially speaking, a negative event for the Bedouin.
One of the first initiatives by General Mohamed Fareed Al Tohami, sworn enemy of the Muslim Brothers (he was accused of corruption by Morsi) and now leader of the General Intelligence Service (Gihaz al-Mukhabarat al Amma), was that of shutting down a good part of the tunnels that connect Egypt to Gaza. Some were inundated with mud, others were destroyed and others yet were left operative to provide the Palestinians with medicines, car fuel and foodstuffs. The traffic in arms, including the Iranian missiles, was blocked. The Egyptian military is especially afraid of an alliance between the Palestinian extremist groups and the Egyptian Islamic ones.
Second problem: The Suez canal
The control of the Sinai put the Cairo authorities face to face with an ulterior problem: that of providing security for navigation of the Suez canal. In August 2013 a Chinese ship was targeted by a rocket from the shore that fortunately left the ship and crew unscathed. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by a group that called itself "Kataeb al Forqan". This organization had announced that they would follow up with further destruction. According to their statement, their targets were the "aircraft carriers of the crusaders that strike our Muslim brothers" that navigated the Suez canal, which they described as a "commercial route of the infidels". After Morsi's ousting, more attacks have followed: one against the oil installations in Suez (with anti-tank rockets) and another against the free-commerce area at the entrance of the canal.
The Suez canal is one of the most important sources of income for Egypt: roughly 5 billion dollars are raked in from the over 17 thousand (in 2012) ships that cross the canal every year. Losing control of the canal would mean losing huge amounts of money and international shine. Yet without proper control of the shore on the peninsular side of the canal, the Egyptian military have a hard time ensuring safe passage to ships transiting through. The canal is 193 Km long, with a maximum width of 250 meters, and ships must travel trough it slowly, making for easy target practice.
Without security along the canal, there is also a decrease in the international tourism that has concentrated its resources in the area for many years: the second largest source of income for the Egyptian state. Tourism makes/made up for 10% of the country's economic activity. Today hotels have closed down and the presence of foreign tourists is risible. All of this happens in a country with a strong balance deficit, where over half of the population lives with less than 2 dollars per day, with the very concrete risk that any loss of resources or labour could cause serious social repercussions.
Third problem: the border with Isreal
Aside from the difficulty of exercising control over a large and arid strip of land where only the local population has the capacity to travel, the other problem of the Sinai is that its fate is regulated by the 1978 Camp David accords. The Sinai was first occupied by Israel in 1967 during the six-day war and returned to Egypt in 1978. Since 1982 the peace accord with Israel dictates that a UN contingent will be deployed along the common border. The Multinational Force of Observers (MFO), with a contingent of 1600 men (among these are US soldiers) are tasked with the creation of a demilitarized pillow zone. The rest of the Sinai is regulated and administered as follows:
- "A" zone, (distant from the border and along the canal) where the presence of an Egyptian mechanized division of 22 thousand men was authorized.
- "B" zone, (Intermediate) where only 4 border battalions operate with up to 3 thousand men.
- "C" zone, (closer to the border with Israel) where, next-to the UN troops, only the Egyptian police can station, not the army.
- "D" zone regulates Israel's military presence on the other side of the border.
There exist limitations with regards to military air planes and other similar circumstances, but what really makes the difference is the fact that for 30 years the Sinai was administered by the Egyptian Interior Ministry, not its Armed Forces. The army has always been kept distant from the illicit activities of the Bedouin, without being able to prevent or contrast them. That is why today the army doesn't know how to stop such activities. Their role is merely to assist police forces in their task.
Now that the situation has changed for the worse there is an urgent need for the army to really control the territories of the Sinai. Lately Israel has authorized a waiver of the Camp David accords in order to allow for a more consistent Egyptian military presence in the area. The deployment of another mechanized division has been authorized (about 3 thousand men and 20 tanks), as has the deployment of Apache helicopters from the air-base of Al Arish. As of today there are not enough informations to confirm the efficiency of this increase in troops. The aim of the terrorists is visibly that of boycotting the peace accord between Egypt and Israel, to which the Islamic extremists are strongly opposed. As long as the military will rule in Cairo, the accord will stand. In fact, the latest incidents have produced the opposite result, that of reinforcing the ties between the Egyptian and Israeli intelligence agencies.
On the backdrop of all this is the recurrent discussion on the usefulness of the UN contingents stationed in the Sinai, which act solely as witnesses of what happens, as is the case of the MFO. Their task is one of peacekeeping (observed and guaranteed only if the two parties permit it) and not of peace enforcement (what the circumstances really call for). This to say that the security of the border with Israel is not guaranteed by the UN forces (or by the scanty Egyptian police forces) and acts of terrorism can easily be carried out there. That is why Israel is currently building a 5 meter tall wall along the entire length of the border with the Sinai.
Another important factor that influences the relationship with Israel is the gas-duct (Arab Gas Pipeline) that crosses the Sinai and provides Jerusalem with 1.7 billion cubic meters of gas every year. The commercial value of such gas supply is rather limited but has an enormous psychological impact because it provides for over half of Israel's energetic needs. It is one of the main triggers for sabotage and terrorist attacks.
Uncertainty for the future
After Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia, the Sinai runs the risk of becoming a land of conflict and a starting base for Islamic terrorism. The ingredients are all there already: The nearness to Israel, the connections with the Palestinian resistance (Hamas), the fight against a central military regime that has subverted the popular will, the impervious terrain that allows freedom of movement to those who inhabit it, the connection between terrorism and criminality, where the interests of one coincide with the economic convenience of the other. Many emblems for many conflicts.
The Beduin of the Sinai have always kept their identity and their lifestyle without borders or imposed regulations. Their tribal bonds have always won over the sense of belonging to a central state. The situation of peril regarding the Sinai is something that Cairo authorities are familiar with, so much that the defunct President Anwar Sadat was planning the urbanization of the Sinai with the transfer into the peninsula by 2018 (within a 20 year span) of 3 million Egyptians that would have put an end to the independence claims of the Bedouin. The violent death of Sadat (eliminated after the Accords of Camp David) has put an end to such project.
Today the virus of terrorism threatens to bond with the traditional interdependence claims of the Bedouin in a no man's land that has escaped the control of the central government. International Islamic terrorism operates on a long term basis. It settles in areas where it can operate undisturbed, it is happy with feeding local conflicts for tactical means and with strategic aims. It takes advantage of every social opportunity to reaffirm the legitimacy of its actions. Such opportunities are not hard to come by in a Middle East that is scarred by rebellions and social conflicts.