Battle for the Sinai

Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula has seen a surge of violence since a coup deposed President Mohamed Morsi. Sophia Jones on why Cairo can’t afford to ignore the strategic yet unstable region.

07.15.13 8:45 AM ET

When Khaled Saad answers his phone there is often a voice on the other end threatening to behead him. “It’s the jihadis, I assume,” he says calmly, but his exhaustion is palpable.

Saad is an activist fighting for the rights of the Bedouin in the Sinai Peninsula, but that long struggle in a largely lawless region has grown ever more complicated and dangerous. Now a spate of killings, apparently unleashed by the tumultuous overthrow of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s government, has made things still worse in this strategically critical region on the border with Israel.

Over the last few years, violent jihadists have tried to fill a power vacuum in the Sinai. This is standard operating procedure for groups sympathetic to the goals of al Qaeda; they move in wherever state control is weak and local resentments are high. But the Sinai holds a geographically key position: it is next to Gaza. Its smugglers are a vital lifeline between that Hamas-ruled enclave and the outside world. The other end of the border is next to the Israeli resort town of Eilat, where authorities found an unexploded rocket last week.

Saad says the ideals of the peninsula’s militant groups are not native to the Sinai. The jihadists have come to Egypt with outside money and weapons, he says, and their numbers are relatively small. But the people of Sinai can only wait so long for the military to crack down on the jihadists, which it seemed reluctant to do under Morsi’s Islamist government. In the end, says Saad, it might be up to the people—not the army or the state—to crush these terrorist groups.

But it would be best if they could work together with forces from Cairo.

“The longer an interim government is ruling Egypt, the more likely it is that terrorism will not subside,” says Omar Ashoura, a fellow at the Brookings Center in Doha who specializes in jihadism. Strong leadership is required, he says, and a balance of civilian and military action to quell the extremist violence. If not, he warned, the Sinai could well become a battleground affecting the whole country and the region.

What any government in Cairo is going to have to recognize is that urgent attention needs to be paid to the Sinai. On July 5, masked gunmen fired rocket-propelled grenades at the airport in the North Sinai town of Arish and attacked government checkpoints, killing at least six police officers and soldiers. Since then there have been nearly daily attacks. Dozens more police officers, soldiers, and civilians have died, a natural-gas pipeline to Jordan was bombed, and on July 6, gunmen murdered a Coptic Christian priest and kidnapped another Copt whose body turned up last week, bound and beheaded. Just this morning, suspected militants in North Sinai fired an RPG at a civilian bus as they screamed "Allahu akbar!," killing three people and injuring at least 17.

The Bedouin who are native to this region famous as the “wilderness” of the Old Testament have their tribal laws and their own way of life. But rather than understand that and work with them, Cairo has tended to treat them as incorrigible renegades to be oppressed, ignored, or, worse still, exploited by politicians for their own purposes.

When Morsi was elected last year, Abu Ashraf, a powerful Bedouin leader in the Sawakra tribe who often serves as a mediating voice with the jihadists, says he had hope for a new chapter in Sinai.

“We faced 30 years of inhumane treatment, marginalization, and imprisonment, until the election,” he says. “Morsi promised to develop Sinai, but then there was no actual development on the ground.” Abu Ashraf blames state institutions for most of the former president’s failures. In his opinion, they worked against Morsi, not with him, and if the army doesn’t handle the current transition carefully, he says, it could make things dramatically worse. Right now he sees no credible path forward.

“There has never been a political party that understands Sinai,” says Abu Ashraf. “The liberals, the Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood], Salafis, they always come with the same approach to the Sinai. Whoever is in power, they have a fear of the Bedouins and don’t want to incorporate them into the state.”

Abu Ashraf noted that because of the lax security in the Sinai, jihadists and locals have, at times, joined forces to fight the central government, especially families who have members facing arrest in absentia. Young, unemployed men have also joined jihadi groups. While most of the attacks have not been directly linked to Islamist militants opposed to Morsi’s ousting, Abu Ashraf said there is an obvious anger among jihadists who feel the army is attacking Islam. There is also a rising level of resentment among the local population who are more willing now to fight government-sponsored injustice. He maintains that the army often instigates aggression in Sinai. Asked about the recent attacks by extremists, he replies: “Violence creates violence.”

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Mossad Abu Fajr, a Bedouin writer who was imprisoned for nearly three years under the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, said he imagines the majority of Bedouins would back the military in its fight against terrorism. He thinks the results could be surprisingly positive. “The fight against terrorism would develop the relationship between Sinai and the Egyptian state,” he stressed.

As Egypt begins yet another political transition, and the politicians in Cairo debate over how to lead the country out of turmoil, the people of Sinai hope they won’t be forgotten. But, following decades of what they see as betrayal and false promises, they aren’t holding their breath for any real change.

“The Bedouins want security,” says Saad. “They want water, new roads. They want to eat, to live. They don’t care who is in the palace.”