Analysis: Sinai is becoming a major threat to Egypt

Morsi wary of fighting terror while trying to defuse opposition; Brothers don’t understand what is needed is not military buildup.

Mohamed Morsi (photo credit: Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters)
Mohamed Morsi
(photo credit: Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters)
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.
Furthermore, incensed 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.
There is 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 government.
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 Egypt.
This explains why Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi resisted until the last minute all attempts by the army to subdue the kidnappers by force.
Army commanders consider Sinai terror a very real threat to the country; they have not forgotten the slaughter of 16 soldiers last August by jihadist terrorists.
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 areas.
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 them.
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 hostages.
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.
Hamas, with 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 Sinai.
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 and vehicles.
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 Israel.
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 these developments.
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 Egyptians.
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.