Egypt Invades Itself: Unrest in Sinai

The Egyptian army sends troops into Sinai after an outbreak of religious unrest.

As Egypt’s ruling military council deals with an ongoing revolution by thousands of frustrated citizens, resources and manpower are being diverted from other areas of the country, some of which have deteriorated into lawlessness. While the Sinai Peninsula to the east of mainland Egypt has never exactly been a glowing model for Egyptian governance, the large desert area is shaping up to be the most troubling spot for Egypt’s post-Mubarak authority.

To the modern eye, the Sinai is not much too look at. Located hundreds of miles from the capital and hundreds more from Egypt’s historical Nile Valley, the peninsula is a hot, dry, arid and tribal land whose people have never been truly integrated into Egyptian society. The Sinai bedouin tribes have resisted the writ of the Egyptian government ever since the nation state concept was first introduced. The mighty Ottoman Empire, which ruled Egypt briefly, was never sure how to run the area.

State security, the Egyptian military and Egypt’s intelligence corps are hated in this neck of the woods. During the Mubarak era, hundreds of tribesmen were rounded up by Egyptian police officers and detained without charge and held without trial. It is not uncommon for a bedouin family to have at least one relative imprisoned by the central government, even if suspicion was the only motive for the arrest. Sinai residents have long been the poorest citizens in Egypt, with the province of North Sinai the most economically destitute.

The Sinai has also been the victim of contemporary history. During the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars, bedouin tribes were suspected of helping the Israelis defeat the Egyptian army, whether through intelligence tips or showing kindness to Jewish soldiers. Mainland Egyptians, including many in the Egyptian government itself, view the people of the peninsula not only as traitorous but uncivilized.

Now, with Mubarak out of the picture, the Egyptian government has a very real opportunity to set its relationship with the bedouin — and the entire Sinai — on a firmer track. Unfortunately, this opportunity is being squandered by all of the parties. With the exception of a recent military offensive in the northern Sinai town of el-Arīsh, there has been no police presence in the peninsula, forcing the bedouin to administer the only law that keep the region from tipping into anarchy.

Centuries of mistrust and hatred between Cairo and the Sinai tribes will not disappear overnight but it can be reconciled, albeit gradually. The fact that Sinai residents look at their own government with disdain demonstrates that this work will not be easy and may be put off for years to come. Yet the alternative for the region — remaining poor, underdeveloped and politically marginalized — is more dangerous and more challenging for the chance of a unified, peaceful and prosperous Egypt.

In case Egypt’s military rulers need an example of what that alternative future holds, take reports by Sinai natives that Islamist extremism is seeping to their cities. Late last month, a police station in el-Arīsh was attacked by a convoy of armed masked men dressed in black. Five people, including two security officers, were killed in the violence. But worse than the actual attack was the celebratory fervor by the men afterwards.

A witness told Time that the men carried black flags with the words “There is no God but God” written on one side and “Revenge” written on the other. CNN also reported that Takfiris (the group responsible for the assault) had distributed fliers, demanding Islamic law, in the city earlier that day.

While not entirely accurate, this picture is in some ways similar to the way Islamists in Iraq operated during the heyday of the insurgency in 2006. Men strapped with assault rifles and parading their way through neighborhoods accomplishes a psychological objective that the physical attack on the police station does not have — overt displays like these frighten locals into submission and feed into the jihadist narrative.

Even with this attack, it is too soon to sound the terrorism alarm in the Sinai. Despite claims that the militants were from Al Qaeda (which may not be true; Egypt is home to a number of small militant factions), an Al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula” scenario is still far off. Bedouin tribes, who pride their autonomy, courage and independence in the area, are far too astute in defending their power to be overtaken by a few hundred Salafists with guns and scary clothing. Many of the same bedouin families have been living on the land for centuries. They consider the Sinai to be their historical homeland; a connection that any terrorist group will find difficult to overcome in such short notice.

What can the Egyptian government do to stabilize the situation? Right now, Cairo has stressed military force as an option, deploying police officers and army personnel to flush out criminals and terrorists (and if the past is any indication, bedouin as well). Yet military incursions will only delay further violence rather than solve the problem.

The violence in the Sinai should be an incentive for Egypt’s generals to ensure that the parliamentary elections scheduled for this November go as smooth as possible. Only then will Egypt’s new leaders start the difficult task of bridging the political and social divide between the Nile Valley and the Sinai desert. Without such an effort, militant groups will seem an increasingly appealing option to the next generation of Sinai residents.