Anarchy in Sinai

There is, unfortunately, very little Israel can do to remedy the chaotic situation in the peninsula.

Sinai border fence 370 (photo credit: Reuters/ BAZ RATNER)
Sinai border fence 370
(photo credit: Reuters/ BAZ RATNER)
The attack Monday morning along our border with Egypt near Kadesh Barnea that left one Defense Ministry construction worker and at least two terrorists dead is yet another reminder of the lawlessness that has become the status quo in the Sinai Peninsula.
Just this weekend a terrorist cell operating in Sinai fired two Grad rockets that hit near Ovda and Mitzpe Ramon.
The recent conflagrations coincide with the second round of Egypt’s presidential elections. But attacks emanating from Sinai directed at Israel are part of a broader strategy on the part of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, al-Qaida and other Islamist terrorist organizations to ramp up tension between the Jewish state and post- Mubarak Egypt.
In May, in a rare case in which Egypt asserted its authority over an area that is usually only nominally under its control, security forces operating in Sinai managed to intercept a convoy of three trucks carrying more than 40 surface-to-surface missiles, 17 rocket- propelled grenades, 120 mm. mortar shell launchers, seven assault rifles along with 10,000 rounds of ammunition, and surveillance equipment. By keeping tensions high between the countries, the Islamists hope at the very least to drain Israeli resources by forcing the IDF to redirect resources to the once quiet southern border. And their strategy is working.
As long as the Mubarak regime was in power, the Beduin tribes that inhabit Sinai were kept relatively in order. But in the wake of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster and the disarray into which Egypt’s politics was thrown as a result, its military forces have quickly lost control. Sinai has gradually become what Yoram Schweitzer, senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, cynically refers to as “a playground” for the Beduin and an array of terrorist groups, include Islamist action-seekers from Somalia, Sudan and elsewhere.
Perhaps the most positive recent development – from Israel and the West’s perspective – was the decision last week by the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court to dissolve the newly elected parliament, 75 percent of whose members were Islamists.
Ostensibly, the court’s rationale was that established party lists illegally took the one-third of the seats that had been set aside for independent candidates.
But large swathes of the Egyptian population – not just the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis but many “liberals” as well – perceive the move as an attempt by the military junta to reassert itself, in the process reversing the results of the revolution – and rightly so. These are judges appointed by Mubarak looking out for the interests of the military.
With the junta maintaining a strong grip on power – at least for the next few months until new parliamentary elections can be called – relations between Egypt and Israel are more likely to remain stable than in a scenario where both the parliament and the presidential seat are controlled by Islamists. (According to early presidential election results, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsy has won the race against military junta-affiliated Ahmed Shafik.) The military junta is more likely to respect the peace treaty with Israel and take concrete steps to reinstate a modicum of order in Sinai, which is also an Egyptian interest.
True, there is a real danger that the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis and others will reject the court ruling and spearhead demonstrations that could lead to bloodshed and even civil war. Indeed, the situation in Egypt is somewhat reminiscent of Algeria at the beginning of 1992, when the military there stopped the election process to prevent the democratically elected Islamic Salvation Front from taking control of the country. Over the two decades since then tens of thousands of Algerians have been killed.
As long as the political situation in Egypt remains unstable, little will be done to end the anarchy in Sinai. Besides completing the security fence along the Egyptian border and avoiding direct confrontations with Egyptian military forces, there is, unfortunately, very little Israel can do to remedy the chaotic situation in the peninsula.