Who will rule Sinai?

Nothing can be accomplished in Sinai before order is restored, the efforts of which are hindered by ongoing power struggles in Cairo.

remains of the Sheikh Zewaid shrine in Sinai_370 (photo credit: Reuters)
remains of the Sheikh Zewaid shrine in Sinai_370
(photo credit: Reuters)
Cancelling the sale of Egyptian gas to Israel has not made much difference to the security situation in the Sinai peninsula. According to reports in the daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, there have been more than 50 attacks against police installations since the beginning of the revolution – as well as 14 successful sabotage operations against the pipeline bringing Egyptian gas to Israel and an assault on the command post controlling the pipeline carried out a few days before the cancellation.
The government is trying to put together a master plan to improve the lot of the mostly Beduin population. However many years will be needed to implement these worthy goals. Palestinian terrorist organizations – some affiliated with al- Qaida – are not waiting. They are busy infiltrating Beduin society, setting up local cells to smuggle arms to the Gaza strip and attack Egyptian security forces. So far the response of the Cairo authorities has been muted, leaving army and police helpless against the relentless onslaught.
Egyptian media reported that seven police station in central and northern Sinai were closed last week because they could not be defended; only four are left, all in the El Arish area. In the past few days security forces have arrested a group of Libyans – including an army officer – and two terrorists of the Izzadin Kassam organization who had crossed illegally from Gaza through the tunnels.
During the same week two policemen were killed and three wounded west of El Arish; in Rafah masked men opened fire on policemen, killing one and wounding two. Over the weekend two soldiers were killed and half a dozen captured (they were later released). General Abdel Wahab Mabrouk, governor of northern Sinai, announced the formation of a special unit to impose order. His official car was stolen and a dozen civilian cars were taken at gun point in his governorate.
On a more positive note, security forces managed to repel attempts to sabotage the monument to Israeli dead erected in Sheikh Zweid. Last year there were talks on setting up special Beduin units, drawing on their intimate knowledge of the area. Their salaries would be a welcome addition and they would have the added incentive of protecting their villages and their families.
However it was apparently dropped; creating armed groups of Beduin with no adequate army supervision being deemed too risky. People in the El Arish area are complaining that police forces are merely protecting their own installations and the roads leading to them, while other roads are left at the mercy of marauding terrorists.
Al-Masry Al-Youm quotes a security source as saying that Sinai is out of control though strenuous efforts are made to restore order “particularly since Israel is saying that Egypt is more dangerous than Iran,” adding that they were deeply worried by the growing strength of Islamic terror groups. Another source complained that they were still waiting for the go-ahead for a comprehensive assault on the jihadists. Instead, he said, the government turned to Hamas and asked the organization to better control the tunnels!
While the SCAF appears reluctant to act, there is growing political interest in the peninsula. A delegation from the defense and national security commission of the parliament toured northern Sinai to study security and economic issues as well as the smuggling tunnels and attacks on the gas pipeline. They held talks with Beduin chiefs who expressed a wish to see the peace treaty with Israel re-opened.
Apparently what they wanted was to limit the demilitarization of eastern Sinai in order to bring a great number of troops and to set up armed Beduin units (as seen above) – both measures being forbidden under the treaty. The committee is yet to publish its report though there can be no doubt that its members understood very well that this a situation which threatens the security of the whole of Egypt.
Since most of them belong to the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafist parties, they will have to reconcile their hatred toward Israel with the need to restore order in the peninsula, put an end to smuggling and improve economic conditions.
Several presidential candidates also visited the region, among them Amr Moussa and Mohammed Morsi (the Brotherhood candidate). Both promised to improve the lot of the Beduin. Morsi also declared in Sharm e-Sheikh that Egypt under his leadership would strive to conquer Jerusalem (meaning destroying Israel).
Hamdeein Sabahi, candidate for the neo-Nasserite party Karame which calls for ending the peace treaty, also came, though he had received death threats. His car was met by angry protesters in northern Sinai and he had to turn back. Sabahi is a known opponent of an Islamic takeover and that – and not his stance towards Israel – was probably the reason for the hostile reception.
PRIME MINISTER Kamal Ganzouri, worried about the deteriorating situation, held a special meeting on April 15 attended by the ministers of planning, construction, and transportation as well as the governors of northern and southern Sinai.
The minister for planning subsequently gave a press conference to detail the comprehensive program aimed at giving better living conditions to the Beduin: halving the debts incurred by the farmers, setting up an authority for the development of Sinai, distributing lands to the farmers, reclaiming them and ensuring the water supply; creating an industrial zone, developing the port and the airport of El Arish, developing the Taba marina, building railways, creating a university in northern Sinai, increasing electricity supply.
More recently the minister for transportation added that in view of the strategic importance of the region, the government was planning to build two new points of land transit between the peninsula and the Nile valley: a tunnel for motor vehicles south of Port Said and one for the railway under the Suez canal. The cost for these two projects alone, according to the minister, will be $5 billion, which he hopes to raise through international and Arab organizations.
At the same time the government promised to amend land regulations so that Beduin could register some of their lands in their names, provided they undertook not to sell them to foreigners – meaning Israelis, Egyptians being convinced that Israel intends to take over the region.
Prisoners condemned for their participation in the terrorist attacks on Taba and Sharm e-Sheikh having already served half of their sentence would be set free; new trials would be awarded to those condemned to life imprisonment or to death. That, at least, can be done fairly quickly.
Egypt cannot finance the staggering amounts needed to implement its ambitious program. Therefore the above is more a declaration of intent to keep the Beduin happy than something which will be happening soon. However, the army announced on April 25, which commemorates the return of Sinai to Egyptian sovereignty under the peace treaty, that it would contribute 400 million Egyptian pounds (some $56m. at the present rate) to the realization of some of the projects to demonstrate its commitment to the region.
Nothing can be accomplished before order is restored but given the ongoing power struggles in Cairo, no progress can be made in that direction until there is a new constitution, a new president and the army is back in its barracks. Israel is all for an accelerated development of the region which would strengthen Beduin society and help it resist the encroachment of elements of radical Islam.
The writer is a former ambassador to Egypt.