Analysis: To oust Sinai terror, don't neglect the Beduins

Monday's suicide bombing in Eilat was but one in a series of failures by the Egyptian authorities to effectively secure the Sinai Peninsula.

Sinai blast 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Sinai blast 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Monday's suicide bombing in Eilat was but one in a series of failures by the Egyptian authorities to effectively secure the Sinai Peninsula, and points to a wider problem of Islamist extremists operating out of the area. Indeed, the string of terrorist attacks the Sinai Peninsula has witnessed since 2004, which culminated in the April 2006 attacks in Sharm e-Sheikh, raised the Egyptian regime's fear of an alliance between radical Islamic elements attached to al-Qaida and Beduin tribes. These tribes, increasingly affected by radical Islamic fervor, act autonomously throughout the peninsula. Publicly, however, the Egyptian regime insists that the Sinai attacks do not attest to an Islamic insurgence similar to the wave of terrorist attacks that plagued Egypt throughout the 1980s and the 1990s. Despite Egyptian efforts to counter terrorism in the Sinai, especially after the April 2006 attack, the peninsula, and especially its northern part, suffers from several security problems. The Israeli-Egyptian border is easily penetrated and not well guarded, enabling the continuous smuggling of weapons, explosives and anti-tank missiles through tunnels, while Egyptian security personnel often turn a blind eye in return for a bribe. The main problem in securing the Egyptian side of the border is that those who are entrusted with guarding it are from the Central Security forces (al-Amn al-Markazi), which are subordinate to the Interior Ministry and are considered weaker than the Egyptian armed forces. Egypt cannot use army units to secure the area because the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty forbids them from deploying near the border. The Philadelphi Protocol (August 2005), signed after Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, altered this situation somewhat by allowing the deployment of 750 Border Police forces (Haras al-Hudud), thus giving a partial solution to the problem, but certainly not a sufficient or a satisfactory one. The Egyptian forces near the border are still far too weak and too dependent upon cooperation with the local tribes, and are therefore drawn into a balance of terror vis- -vis this local tribal leadership and its differing interests. Also essential to understanding the spread of terrorism in the Sinai, is the intensifying friction between the Egyptian authorities and the Beduin tribes. The Sinai Beduins, specifically in the underdeveloped north, represent an impoverished, oppressed segment of Egyptian society. These tribes claim that the state has not done enough to improve their economic situation by increasing their share of the tourism industry flourishing along Sinai's coasts for several years now. The regime's policy of divide et impera among the various tribes (by, for example, giving incentives to a certain tribe over another) has only intensified the Beduin animosity towards the state. There is a definite preference for and attachment to the tribal identity over loyalty to the Egyptian state. Egypt has certainly failed in its attempts (or lack thereof) to integrate the Sinai region, socially, economically and politically. The Beduins themselves can hardly be considered radical Islamists per se. They hold a rather low level of religious faith and are better understood as uncontrollable mercenaries willing to work for al-Qaida or any other elements willing to obtain their services in return for money and other dividends. Another key issue is that, as opposed to the Jordanian security apparatus which is basically anti-Islamic, among the Egyptian security forces there is a certain level of sympathy for the radical Islamic movements - mainly the Muslim Brotherhood. Thus, while the Jordanians have been quite effective in their counter-terrorism efforts, the Egyptian security forces have proven less successful. The impression one gets is that the Egyptians act more out of a sort of politically correctness than due to an utter revulsion for radical Islamic trends. That said, there has been a discernible change in recent months because the Egyptian regime perceives the establishment of global jihad elements in Sinai as a potential threat to its survival. This development might lead to improved cooperation between Israelis and Egyptians stemming from both countries' mutual interests in the face of Islamic terror. The Egyptians should, nevertheless, be doing more inside the parts of Sinai where the peace treaty allows them to deploy more significant military forces. The recent move towards a more intense involvement of state security intelligence units (Mabahith Amn al-Dawla) in the Sinai arena might help in the attempts to eradicate terror. However, the Egyptian regime must also work harder in order to improve the lot of the northern tribesmen, who feel underprivileged compared to the southern tribes. Just as the government has invested immensely in developing the tourism infrastructure in the south, it should be doing a lot more to narrow the economic gap in northern Sinai, thus giving the tribesmen more leverage and opportunities. Otherwise, a local tribal Islam might indeed take control of the area, and "Afghanize" the peninsula. Egypt, however, is not alone in its failings. Israel also must be doing much more against the smuggling and infiltration activity along its border with Egypt, and not just in the Gaza Strip area. There needs to be a serious campaign initiated against Beduin smugglers who unceasingly import drugs and weapons along the border. Moreover, Israel is entitled to demand from Egypt to act in accordance with Article 3 of the Peace Treaty and help in preventing any deeds that might threaten or jeopardize Israel's own security. Both sides should consider enabling the Americans to send their officers and counter-terrorism experts to the border area to help in controlling and supervising it. Though this may seem on the surface to be wishful thinking, the US has a significant national interest in making such areas inhospitable to al-Qaida and its associates. Shmuel Bachar is a research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya.