Egyptian authorities have cancelled the agreement to supply gas to Israel, which hasn''t been flowing in any event due to repeated sabotage of the pipeline running through the northern Sinai.
Various Israeli politicians have expressed the view that this is one more indication of worsening relations between the countries. One has said that Egypt is a greater problem than Iran. Another has said the cancellation threatens the peace agreement. Yet another has said that the United States should step in, on account of being a guarantor of that agreement.
Both the sabotage and the cancellation may reflect the end of the Mubarak regime, and the increase in assertions that the supply of gas is part of the illegitimate relations between Egypt and Israel.
The lack of Egyptian gas has been a serious inconvenience. It has led to the use of more expensive and more polluting fuel oil for generating electricity, and may produce some interruptions in service during the high use of air conditioning during the summer. It will take at least a year for the development of pipelines to Israel from its substantial gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean. Israel may become an energy exporter. Howerver, it will also have to protect its gas fields from Hezbollah and Palestinians working out of Lebanon.
Things seemed calmer the morning after the announcement of the cancellation. Officials of both Israeli and Egyptian governments assert that the issue is not one of political importance, but reflects a commercial decision concerned with a dispute about payments and other issues between Egyptian and Israeli companies, along with international investors, being adjudicated in court.
Not so fast.
The simple view is that Egypt''s control over the Sinai has weakened to the point of near zero, as part of a general weakness bordering on chaos since the popular demonstrations, the collapse of tourism, and the unraveling of government.
Egyptian rule in the Sinai is chronically problematic. The Bedouin residents of the peninsula view themselves as beyond the fringe of Egyptian services, except for sporadic but extreme modes of policing. Standard complaints concern a lack of health, education, clean water, and no economic opportunities other than tourism, smuggling, or other illegal activities. Bedouin individuals are likely to lack Egyptian documents required for services, feel themselves discriminated against in access to significant education or employment opportunities, and express greater loyalty to tribal leaders and traditional laws than to anything Egyptian.
Tourism has fallen significantly at Sharm el-Sheikh at the tip of the peninsula or along what Israelis call the Gulf of Eilat but most others label the Gulf of Aqaba. The Bedouin have contributed to the economic downturn by one of their anti-regime tactics of kidnapping tourists and holding them for ransom.
Another Bedouin business is smuggling migrants across the Sinai and into Israel. Those familiar with the US-Mexican border and its smuggling industry will grasp the nature of this activity. Clients paying for guide service into Israel include prostitutes, typically recruited and organized by Eastern Europeans, some of them Jews who made Aliyah and working in the trades that have historically attracted immigrants. More recently the greater flow has been comprised of African migrants seeking work.
Egyptian authorities have responded to Israeli demands that they stop the migration with the simplest routines imaginable. Their soldiers and police shoot to kill, apparently not concerned whether they aim at the migrants or the Bedouin guiding them.
Another Bedouin business is to select some migrants for involuntary organ donations, apparently performed by Egyptian physicians who sell the organs in an international market, with the donors left to die and buried in shallow graves.
Israel has undertaken the construction of a barrier along what had been a sketchily marked border with Egypt. There is no expectation that the Bedouin would take long to learn how to penetrate the barrier, but increased monitoring should help in the interdiction. Israel is also expanding prison facilities on its side of the border, and working its way through efforts to regularize the return of illegal immigrants to their countries of origin. As in the United States and European countries, the issue of illegal immigrants is not only a matter of law enforcement. Migrants routinely claim persecution at home, and ask for refuge. And there are employers who equate illegal immigrants with cheap labor, and do what they can to minimize enforcement.
Yet another Bedouin activity is to cooperate with Palestinians interested in attacking Israel. Some of this is commercial service in exchange for payment, and some reflects the signing on of individual Bedouin to campaigns against Israel. There has been Bedouin involvement in an attack on Israeli vehicles near the southern Egyptian border that took several lives, rocket attacks from the Sinai toward Eilat, and those explosions on the gas pipeline.
Among Israel''s quandaries is its reluctance to take direct action in the Sinai. A brief incursion after the roadside attack produced a diplomatic incident that took some effort to quell. Some military officers say that it is foolhardy to risk the strategically important peace treaty by sending the IDF into Egyptian territory after the Bedouin or Palestinians. Others say that incursion will have to occur, sooner or later. Things may change if a rocket lands on a crowded tourist site in Eilat rather than an empty field. Israel may already be increasing its intelligence activities in the Sinai, and pondering ways to take action against the Bedouin that will stay beneath the level of official Egyptian notice.
I may be wrong about all of this. For Tom Friedman and Barack Obama, Bedouin unrest is unlikely to be anything more than a glitch on the way to Egypt''s democracy.