There was a happy ending for the six policemen and the soldier kidnapped last
week in the Sinai Peninsula. They were released unhurt after marathon
negotiations that lasted until dawn Wednesday between a representative of
military intelligence, a Salafi sheikh and a representative of the Swarka tribe,
one of the largest in the peninsula.
No one will guarantee it will be the
last kidnapping. The official version is that no deal was struck, and it
may be nothing more than a lull in the storm.
The kidnappers understood
that Egypt was not going to give an inch; a large scale military operation was
in the wings, with helicopters, armored vehicles and special forces at the
ready. It had also been made clear that the kidnapping had united all political
forces in Egypt against the jihadist perpetrators.
by the attack on their comrades, policemen had closed the Rafah border point,
leaving thousands of Palestinians stranded. Even Hamas felt the pinch and
hastened to proclaim it had nothing to do with the kidnapping.
yet to be an official announcement concerning the identity of the organization
responsible for the kidnapping.
It had demanded the release of jihadist
terrorists jailed following the terror attacks on Taba and Sharm e- Sheikh in
2004 and in northern Sinai in 2011. Some were sentenced to death, but the
sentence has not been carried out yet.
According to Salafist sources
quoted in the media, the Tawhid wal-Jihad group – to which the jailed terrorists
belong, – is behind the kidnapping.
It is affiliated to al-Qaida and
comprises veteran Egyptian jihadists, Salafists from Gaza and local Beduin who
know the lie of the land and are traditionally hostile to the central
It belongs to the most extreme Islamic school, the Takfiri,
which sees present-day Muslims as infidels and therefore has no problem killing
them until an authentic Islamic regime is set up.
The original “Takfir
and Hijra” organization was founded in Egypt in the Seventies by Muslim Brothers
who had been released from jail by Sadat.
Sheikh Nabil Naim, one of the
leaders of the jihad movement in Egypt, told the London daily Asharq al-Awsat
that the Muslim Brotherhood ruling Egypt today maintains close links with
jihadist organizations in Sinai and treats them with kid gloves for two reasons:
they share the same ideology and strive for the establishment of a new
caliphate, and they may need their help to crush the opposition inside
This explains why Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi resisted until
the last minute all attempts by the army to subdue the kidnappers by
Army commanders consider Sinai terror a very real threat to the
country; they have not forgotten the slaughter of 16 soldiers last August by
Unfortunately the vast operation launched at the
time to cleanse the area was unsuccessful. The army concentrated tanks and
infantrymen in northern Sinai – in violation of the military annex to the Camp
David Accords – and later withdrew them, having come to the conclusion that
tanks are ill-suited to pursue small bands of terrorists across mountainous
Israel did agree to increased ground forces. However, nearly a
year later, some 2,000 terrorists belonging to a number of small jihadi
organizations comprised of Egyptians and Palestinians working with local Beduin
are still very active in northern Sinai.
It is not easy to find them over
such a vast territory. The terrorists feel confident enough to conduct daring
raids against police stations, roadblocks and even army patrols, inflicting
small but painful losses to the security forces.
The army is vainly
trying to get the full support of the regime for an all-out effort to eliminate
From the start of the kidnapping to the release of the captives,
Morsi neither attacked nor condemned the kidnappers and simply kept on calling
for the release of the men. Only when it became apparent that the situation was
deadlocked did the president reluctantly agree to a military
operation. At that point the kidnappers decided to free their
It is true that the disastrous state of affairs in the
peninsula is the result of years of neglect. Local Beduin, with no
economic prospect and no decent infrastructure, were easy prey for Islamist
organizations seeking to establish themselves in the region.
the help of Iran, set up networks to smuggle weapons into Gaza through Sudan and
Sinai and dug tunnels to facilitate the penetration of the jihadists into
It was to northern Sinai that many of the Islamist terrorists fled
following the attacks on Egyptian jails in late January 2011. Those attacks were
carried out by Hamas militants and Beduin armed with state-of-the art weapons
The Brotherhood is in a quandary. It perceives the need to
restore order in Sinai.
However, it feels close to the terrorists and
does not want to open a new front while it is desperately trying to defuse the
massive opposition coalescing against it inside Egypt. It would like to see a
measure of calm returning, without getting into a confrontation with Hamas, a
member of the world movement of the Muslim Brothers, and one that furthermore
helped them to topple Mubarak and is their ally against
Therefore, Sinai presents a very real danger for them at a time
when they need to focus all their energy on the disastrous economic situation
and the political chaos. Egyptians are angry at what they perceive as attacks on
their army and their dignity; they don’t like to see a large part of their
territory given to lawlessness.
Israel is keeping a careful watch on
There have been missiles launched, attacks carried
out against its southern border, and of course the worrying flow of arms to Gaza
and to the peninsula.
As a rule, Egypt is reluctant to admit all this is
happening, yet Israel does its utmost not to infringe upon the sovereignty of
its neighbor. No need to add fuel to the growing hostility of the
Behind the scenes, there is a measure of cooperation between
the armies of both countries. Hopefully, it will last.
There are some
voices in Egypt calling for a review of the military annex of the peace treaty
which puts some limitations on the Egyptian army in Sinai. Such a move might
endanger the treaty.
The Muslim Brothers don’t seem to understand that
what is needed in Sinai is not a military buildup but a new integrated policy of
development and security benefiting the Beduin population.
The writer, a
fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to
Romania, Egypt and Sweden.