The third time I went to the Sinai Peninsula was in July 2005. At one of the Gulf of Aqaba Bedouin-run camps, a man offered to take me fishing. In a creaking dingy we paddled out into the sea. Across the way was Saudi Arabia.
The two Bedouin men on the boat, one driving, one trying to fish, smiled, joked and smoked. They weren’t very good fishermen, but it was a nice day.
Those were the days when the Sinai was popular with tourists from Israel. This was especially true along the road that leaves Taba on the border with Eilat and heads to Sharm e-Sheikh. It is a 200-km. stretch of road that leads along the blue waters and dead-dry hills of Sinai.
It was a more innocent time then. In 2005, Taba Heights, a new development along the road from Taba to Nueiba, developed its marina and began developing into a major tourist destination. It now has six major hotels and a golf resort.
Sinai was in transition – from the period following Israeli rule, in the 1980s and 1990s – becoming a major world tourist destination with more modern facilities. Guidebooks still treated part of southern Sinai near the Israeli border as if it was a place for Israelis.
They complained that locals spoke Hebrew, a legacy of Israeli rule in Sinai from 1967 to 1982. In fact, Israel left the last few hundred meters near Taba only in 1989.
In the early 2000s, security didn’t seem like a major issue in the Sinai. Crossing the border was a bit of a hassle, with Egyptian security looking through books and luggage. But once in the Sinai, one didn’t get a feeling of pervasive and heavy-handed security.
That began to change in 2004, after bombings targeted the Taba Hilton and Ras al-Shitan. Thirty-four were killed, including 13 Israelis.
More attacks followed in Sharm e-Sheikh in 2005 and Dahab in 2006. These came, at least in part, in the context of the 2005 Disengagement, in which the last Israeli soldiers, along with thousands of Jewish residents, were withdrawn from Gaza in August and September of that year.
That set off a competition for power in the Gaza Strip, and concerns about the ability of Egypt and international monitors to prevent weapons trafficking into Gaza via Rafah in Northern Sinai. In June 2007 Hamas seized the Fatah headquarters in Gaza. This had reverberations in Sinai.
It wasn’t entirely clear at the time, but there was a growing feeling of insecurity. Tensions between the local Bedouin and the Egyptian central government were increasing. This had a variety of reasons. Some Bedouin tribes were involved in smuggling, and others perhaps felt supplanted by the investment in resorts and infrastructure that bypassed them. There were protests and complaints.
Terrorist networks also set down roots in Sinai. Some of these were linked to Palestinians groups, and others to global jihadist networks such as al-Qaeda.
As if Sinai and Egypt didn’t have enough issues to contend with back in 2005 and 2006, an increasing wave of African migrants began to make their way to Sinai. They were lured often with promises of getting to Europe. Instead, they were kidnapped and sold to Bedouin traffickers who kept them in camps and tortured them in the Sinai.
They would torture the men and rape the woman and often make them call relatives while they were in agony, to beg for money. Once the money was transferred, the traffickers would dump the destitute people on the border with Israel. From 2006 to 2011, more than 40,000 arrived in Israel, peaking at some 1,300 a month in 2011.
To respond not only to the migrant influx but also to the terrorist threats from Sinai, Israel began construction on a five-meter-high border fence. Announced in January 2010, by 2013 it was completed. Israel raised the height of the fence in 2017. It is 242 km. long and now rises to up to eight meters in some areas.
Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, a jihadi group affiliated with al-Qaeda, set down roots in Sinai in this period, at the same time as the Egyptian revolution overthrew Hosni Mubarak. It was under Mubarak’s ossifying rule that Sinai had become ripe for more chaos. It wasn’t because Mubarak’s security forces were inept, it was because Sinai was changing and Egypt was changing. Decades of rule by the same person and changes in the region were percolating into parts of Egypt.
Ansar Bait al-Maqdis sought to fill the void as security deteriorated. It benefited from weapons trafficking that went all the way to Libya. The fall of Muammar Gaddafi made weapons readily available across North Africa, and there were other weapons traffickers with an interest in Sinai. Iran, which supports Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, wanted to help Hamas improve its rockets. We have to recall here that Israel had fought a war with Hamas in 2009, mauling the terrorist group but not destroying it. Another war would come in 2012.
In August 2011, several groups of terrorists attacked Israel across the Sinai border near Eilat. They fired on a bus and used an antitank missile against another bus and a car. They also attacked Egyptian security forces, eventually killing five Egyptians and eight Israelis. It was a serious incident, one of the worst of its kind. At the same time, Ansar Bait al-Maqdis planned a cross- border raid into Israel, which it launched in September 2012. Three jihadists with RPGs and AK-47s attacked Israeli soldiers, killing one. It proved how critical the border fence had become.
Rocket attacks from the Sinai also became more frequent from 2010 to 2017. In at least a dozen incidents, rockets, including Grad rockets, were fired at areas near Eilat. In February 2017 the Iron Dome defense system intercepted three rockets fired from the Sinai. The attacks were related to the growing insurgency in the Sinai against the Egyptian government.
The Sinai insurgency morphed from an al-Qaeda operation using local networks to a group called Wilayat Sinai that pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2014.
It is believed that the insurgency in Sinai, which began to grow in 2011 and 2012, helped convince current Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of the need to bring security to the country. In 2012 he was the commander in chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces under the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of Mohamed Morsi. Morsi had come to power in the wake of the Egyptian revolution in 2011, but he was blamed for the growing chaos in Egypt. There were fears in Egypt that the country might sink into the kind of civil conflict affecting Libya, Iraq, Yemen and Syria.
“The hand that harms any Egyptian must be cut,” al-Sisi said during celebrations of Sinai Liberation Day, which commemorates the 1982 handover from Israel to Egypt. But al-Sisi’s reference to cutting the hands that harm Egypt was not directed at Israel. Just over two months later, the Morsi government was overthrown, as the al-Sisi-led army joined civilian protests and removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power.
In July 2005, I visited Saint Catherine’s Monastery near the mountain reputed to have been climbed by Moses. With a friend, I paid a local Egyptian to drive us all night from the desert Bedouin camp to the mountain. It was creepy on the lonely roads.
One felt that insurgents could pop out at any time at a fake road checkpoint and drag us from the car. Instead, we found ourselves in the cold desert near the looming walls of the sixth-century monastery.
Saint Catherine’s looks like a kid assembled it with ill-fitting Lego blocks. With its giant old walls, the interior courtyard is made up of a hodgepodge of buildings that might be good for the set of a spaghetti western.
We didn’t go into the monastery, but instead decided to climb the mountain. Fumbling, Moses-like, we chose the wrong mountain by mistake and never even got to the place where the burning bush or Ten Commandments were handed down. It was a fitting end to my Sinai endeavors.
ALMOST 12 years after leaving the Sinai, I returned to Egypt in February of 2017. I didn’t know what to expect. Egypt from afar strikes one as the land of clichés – the land of Pharaohs, pyramids, the Nile, etc. It doesn’t seem real.
When I left Cairo International Airport, however, it was more real than imagined. The roads were clogged with traffic and the expanses of Cairo seemed to never end. Cairo is a city of 20 million; it has dusty air and reminds one a bit more of India than a Middle Eastern country.
It’s so large that one could fit the population of several small countries in it. And it is a young city. Maybe it will have 40 million people soon.
al-Sisi is set on constructing an administrative capital for Egypt 45 km. from Cairo. In 2017 he inaugurated the first phase, and in 2019 he welcomed the foundation of a mosque and cathedral.
When I was in Egypt in 2017, that capital was only in its foundations, and we stayed near the pyramids at the Marriott Mena House Hotel.
Security in Cairo was ever-present. Egypt takes the protection of tourists seriously – so seriously that one feels that there is always security, in plain clothes and in uniform, around.
Egypt has also changed significantly since the Arab Spring revolution. In Tahrir Square, where the protesters once gathered, things have grown quiet. This is the motto of the government. Quiet. Security.
It’s difficult to gauge how popular these methods are. Abroad, people point to human rights violations and detentions. But Egyptians whom I met had a more complex view.
They spoke with genuine fears of the feeling in 2012 that the country was heading in the wrong direction, that it was heading toward a religious-run government that would unleash more chaos and terrorism by increasing social cleavages. They said they supported the “second revolution” in 2013 to remove Morsi, arguing that the sacrifices made in terms of personal freedoms were important to secure the country, but that they will be relaxed eventually. Since 2017 that relaxation has not appeared to happen.
Egypt is a close ally of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain. It is also closely allied to Jordan and views itself as part of the anchor of stability between Africa and the Middle East, a kind of hinge on which the region will either remain stable or not.
It is an important choke point also for terrorists and extremists who operate in the Sahel and Libya, a band of instability that stretches from the Egyptian border to Senegal. Terrorists exploit this and have laid siege to countries like Nigeria or Kenya, killing thousands.
This is an important battleground. Egypt is training troops to confront terrorism in the Sahel, including troops from Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Sudan. Egypt also has to confront its own terrorist threat in the Sinai and from Libya. Terrorists have struck at Christians, attacking them while they were traveling on a bus to a monastery in November 2018.
With these challenges, Egypt will continue to play a key role in the region and also in facing off against local terrorist networks.
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