By William Tucker
Attacks against the Egyptian military and Interior Ministry security forces in the Sinai have increased recently due to the political uncertainty in Cairo and the region as a whole. Though there has been an uptick in violence over the past few years emanating from terrorist groups and local Bedouin tribes the increase in security forces as a response from the government has only exacerbated the situation. It certainly doesn’t help that the existing Interior Ministry forces have a bad reputation among the locals. There was hope that the military presence that was recently established in the Sinai would help to impose discipline on the Interior Ministry’s security forces. Unfortunately, that has not occurred. As if to underscore the problem, Ehud Yaari of the Washington Institute of Near East policy recently wrote, “Bedouin groups — mainly from the Sawarka, Tarabin, and Breikat tribes, and led by Salafi jihadist militias — have also announced the formation of a “War Council” aimed at responding with force to any countermeasures taken by the Egyptian authorities.” An example of this “response to Egyptian countermeasures” occurred two days ago when Second Army chief Ahmed Wasfi’s car came under attack. Wasfi’s Second Army is responsible for security in the North Sinai.
When it comes to the Sinai peninsula there isn’t a single movement or issue that is responsible for all of the terrorist attacks or criminal activity that occurs. Local Bedouins were driven to create an underground economy built on smuggling since government development plans for the peninsula just didn’t materialize. Given the status of Gaza, and the general disregard of the Sinai, the smuggling enterprise was a natural fit. This enterprise came under attack as the smuggling in the Sinai was often used to supply Hamas in Gaza. As Egypt moved to shut down the tunnels the Bedouins began to lose revenue. Couple that with the lack of opportunities and political instability and you get a bad mix that can lead to violence. Instead of any moves to offset the criminal economy by injecting capital into the Peninsula, Cairo was forced to respond with an increase in their security presence. It’s difficult to blame Cairo for this initial response as the entire Egyptian economy is in bad shape and terrorist groups were exploiting the situation. Frankly, there just isn’t enough revenue available to shore up the Sinai – a permanent problem that has ultimately created a terrible dynamic.
With the military removing Morsi from power many Egyptians have taken to the streets in support of the deposed president, while others are demonstrating in support of the military’s decision to remove the government. The security situation across mainland Egypt has deteriorated to the point that the military and police forces are likely to be stretched too thin to properly deal with the Sinai. Groups such as Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, and some Palestinian militants have used this to their advantage. As such, we can expect the terror threat in the Sinai to markedly increase. Though this has been going on for some time, the response to the situation will be something to watch. Israel has consistently allowed Egypt to move its military into the Siani to deal with the problem even though the Sinai is a demilitarized zone. Naturally, this can go both ways. If Egypt is unable to cope, then it becomes more conceivable that Israel will respond to threats directly as they materialize. The political repercussions of such a move would be rather taxing. Either way, the Sinai problems are likely to get worse as Egyptians battle each other in Cairo.