Don't count on Egypt to stop weapons smuggling

Cairo gains domestically by aiding Hamas and is mostly incapable of stopping Sinai Beduin.

survey.gaza.war.2009.results (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Conventional wisdom posits that Egypt must and will play a central role in halting the smuggling of weapons from Sinai to Gaza. Yet this is extraordinarily unlikely - for strategic, political and Egyptian domestic reasons. Egypt does not mind if Hamas bleeds Israel a little; it gains domestically by indirectly aiding Hamas, gains internationally by playing a mediating role (in a conflict which it helps maintain on a "low flame") and is anyway mostly incapable of stopping the Sinai Beduin from continuing as the main weapons smugglers. Thus, this country would be foolish to expect that the Egyptians will act decisively and significantly to end weapons smuggling. At the strategic level, Egypt sees us as a competitor in the quest for hegemony in the Middle East, and has for years turned a blind eye to the arming of Hamas via the tunnels. Simply put, it had, and still has, an interest in bleeding us. In contrast to its rhetoric, Egypt is not interested in a resolution of the Arab-Israel conflict that will free us from an immense security burden and will allow the Jewish state to become even stronger than it is. Power politics and balance-of-power is the prism through which the Egyptian leadership views the region. The continuation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on a "low flame" serves best the Egyptian interest of keeping us not-too-strong. Moreover, the "low flames" in Gaza and elsewhere in the Palestinian arena maintain an important role for Egypt as a "moderate leader" in the eyes of the international community, particularly in Washington. The game Egypt is playing also serves a useful purpose in domestic Egyptian politics. In contrast to Europeans, Egyptians easily understand the double game being played by Cairo. Turning a blind eye to the tunnels weakens the arguments of the Islamic opposition that the government is cooperating with the Zionists. Everybody in Cairo understands that the government is facilitating the arming of Hamas. FINALLY, EGYPT'S double game is also the result of a complex reality in the Sinai Peninsula. As with other Third World states, the Egyptian government is not fully in control of its territory. Thus, an international agreement on ending arms smuggling from Sinai into Gaza will face considerable problems of implementation, even if the Egyptian regime wants it to happen. Notably, most of the smuggling is led by Egyptian Beduin who live in the northern Sinai. These tribes do not speak Egyptian Arabic, they are not really an integral part of Egyptian culture, and they do not subscribe to Egyptian political ethos. They make a living by smuggling women and drugs to Israel, as well as arms, ammunition and missiles to the Gaza Strip. Egyptian attempts to extend law and order to Beduin areas has met armed resistance. Every time the Egyptian regime attempts to curtail the Beduin smuggling activities, they carry out a terrorist attack on a Sinai beach, as has happened in Taba, Sharm e-Sheikh, Nueiba and Ras al-Satan. Such attacks negatively influence tourism to Egypt, an important source of income, and seem to be an effective way of "convincing" the Cairo authorities to live and let live. BRIBERY, AN important element in the Egyptian ways of doing business, also facilitates the smuggling of weapons. The low-paid Egyptian officials in Sinai can hardly resist hefty bribes. A $100 bill does wonders in the case of an Egyptian police officer at a Sinai roadblock who intercepts a truck packed with "pipes." The likelihood that a policeman at Egyptian checkpoints would stop taking bribes from trucks transferring arms to Gaza is even lower - unless the Egyptian government was to decide to heavily punish such behavior. Such an Egyptian government decision is also unlikely. Another hindering factor in any attempt to stop smuggling is the bureaucratic culture of Egypt. The cumbersome Egyptian bureaucracy is hardly effective. Even presidential decisions are watered down as they pass through the ranks of the administration. The chance that a presidential decision on a total curb in smuggling would be fully implemented at Sinai checkpoints is slim. This is Egypt. To illustrate the point: Several weeks ago, the Palestinians published a report that the Egyptians had started to seriously combat the smuggling tunnels between the Egyptian and Palestinian sides of Rafah. The Egyptians initiated an inquiry to discover "who" suddenly became so motivated, and discovered that it was an Egyptian official who did not receive a big enough reward from of the tunnel operators and decided to teach them a lesson. The Egyptians immediately found a different posting for this hyperactive official. In sum, Israel would be foolish to expect that the Egyptians will act decisively and significantly to end weapons smuggling. An important implication of this reality is that we must maintain freedom of action to bomb tunnels along the Philadelphi Corridor, or to recapture it, as needed. Efraim Inbar is director of and Mordechai Kedar a research associate at the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.