Eye on Sinai

What is happening in Sinai is nothing less than pivotal for the region – even if it does not generate headlines.

Egyptian military tanks, flags in Sinai (photo credit: REUTERS)
Egyptian military tanks, flags in Sinai
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It is only natural that the Egyptian military’s crackdown on northern Sinai’s terrorists and Islamic fanatics has flown under the radar of international media.
There are, after all, bigger stories to focus on – such as the Syrian cliffhanger.
But what is happening in Sinai is nothing less than pivotal for the region – even if it does not generate headlines.
The hot pursuit of the extremist Ansar Bayt al- Maqdis is a dramatic development, whether Western opinion deems it so or not.
The organization admitted culpability for last week’s suicide bombing that targeted Egyptian Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim. It further served notice on Cairo’s new rulers that it will wreak vengeance for the toppling of Mohamed Morsi and the offensive against the assorted jihadist groups. These had ensconced themselves in the no-man’s land where Sinai borders Israel and, crucially, the Gaza Strip – a source of manpower, munitions and infrastructure for Sinai’s terrorists.
Such confrontation might well not be containable and might spread to other parts of Egypt. It is for this reason that Cairo has significantly stepped up security at crossing points between the peninsula and mainland Egypt.
And Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (the original Arabic appellation for Jerusalem, ironically a mispronunciation of the Hebrew name for the Temple, Beit Hamikdash) is not alone. Far larger still is the Salafiya Jihadiya (Salafist Jihad) which also operates in Sinai. To boot, Beduin marauders run their own outlaw operations, in conjunction with the terrorists or alongside.
The sad fact of Egyptian reality is that Sinai is only nominally Egyptian and Cairo’s rule barely extends to it.
It was always nearly extraterritorial, an anarchic expanse whose Beduin tribes feel exempt from the jurisdiction of any central government. Their insubordination went chronically unchecked, under all Egyptian regimes. Any attempt to control them was met by violence.
Sinai’s disorderly domains irresistibly beckon jihadist militias including al-Qaida and its allies, to say nothing of Hamas across the line in Gaza. Egypt’s internal strife had opened new vistas for the forces of obdurate Islam and enhanced existing ones. Foreign firebrands, whose strings are pulled from Gazan control centers, flock in.
In collusion with armed, lawless Beduin bands, they engage in assorted jihadist extravaganzas – from attacking Egyptian officers and rocketing Israel to blowing up gas pipelines and taking tourists hostage.
All manner of depredation proliferate in Sinai’s opportune setting.
The Islamist insurgents aim to destabilize Egypt, the Arab world’s largest state. Some groups see chaos as their goal while others seek the restoration of Muslim Brotherhood hegemony.
In this context, Cairo’s new powers-that-be perforce oppose Hamas, which is a Brotherhood offshoot. This is not done for the love of Israel. Cairo suspects that Hamas actively aids pro-Brotherhood subversion and sabotage in Sinai and beyond.
The upshot is that Egypt has largely destroyed Gaza’s vast system of tunnels, which besides being a smuggling conduit, was also a Hamas money-maker. Fatah, Hamas’s rival in the Palestinian arena, is reportedly buoyed and even mulling attempts to wrest Gaza from Hamas control. The question is whether Egypt’s new regime would facilitate such challenges. This of course is no more than a hypothetical now, but Hamas is in great distress.
Much of the Strip’s socioeconomic infrastructure is crumbling and this time world opinion cannot remotely point an accusing finger at Israel. The commonest misrepresentation of the situation in Gaza is the contention that it is under Israeli siege. Gaza, however, is not surrounded by Israel. The border with Egypt is often tendentiously overlooked, even when truly momentous events are afoot there.
The No. 1 existential danger to Israel doubtless comes from Iran and its nuclear ambitions.
Internecine Syrian warfare is probably second on the danger list for the immediate future. Yet, although ignored at the moment, the power vacuum in the Sinai should rank right up there as well.
Cairo’s campaign against the Sinai-based terror mongers could be a game-changer or at least the harbinger of one. The implications for Israel are profound.