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Sinai: A war zone in waiting

Developments in Egypt since the revolution began have moved at a dizzying, unpredictable pace.

The village of al-Massoura is a huddle of squat, cinderblock huts, set amid grazing sheep, peach orchards and piles of garbage in the sandy hills of the North Sinai region in Egypt. On 5 August, as many as two dozen unidentified militants attacked security forces guarding Egypt’s border with Israel and Gaza there. Sixteen soldiers, who were sitting down to break the Ramadan fast, were killed before the militants stole two armoured cars and raced them toward the Israeli border.

Fighting between security forces and militants has continued since but even before the latest attack, North Sinai felt like a war zone in waiting. Military checkpoints break up the main road along the coast at regular intervals. In the central market in Arish, the provincial capital, tanks guard the police station and major banks. An armoured personnel carrier sits in Arish’s central market, manned by hulking men in balaclavas toting machine guns. In a nearby town, police on motorbikes suspiciously eye men with long beards.

In Egypt, North Sinai has become synonymous with lawlessness. No one has been apprehended for the 15 bombings of a pipeline carrying natural gas to Israel since the January uprising last year. Shoot-outs at police and military checkpoints take place on a near-weekly basis. The focus of Cairo, Israel and the west has been on the Islamist militants but their ability to survive, to whatever extent they do, is largely thanks to the peninsula’s isolation and alienation from the state.

“Poverty is fertile soil for dangerous thoughts,” said Said Ataiq, a Bedouin rights activist, as we drove through the hills around al-Massoura. “The absence of the state here for the past 30 years . . . made Sinai fall prey to Islamists and terror groups.” The Bedouin, semi-nomadic tribesmen indigenous to the Sinai with a different dialect and culture to mainland Egyptians, account for about 250,000 of the peninsula’s 400,000-strong population and are widely viewed as untrustworthy outsiders. The area has long been neglected in terms of economic development. It has one of Egypt’s highest unemployment rates. Locals estimate that less than 50 per cent of people are formally employed. Because of the area’s location on the border, land development in Sinai requires the approval of the intelligence agencies.

The Bedouins’ list of grievances is long, from not being allowed to own land to a lack of fresh water to how the local radio station is in the dialect of mainland Egypt. After a series of bombings at tourist resorts in South Sinai in 2004, hundreds of Bedouin were arbitrarily arrested, according to Human Rights Watch. Many of them remain in prison to this day.

“The previous regime was brutal but now it’s gone, so the people it imprisoned should be freed,” said Aref Abu Aker, the sheikh of the Akroura tribe in North Sinai, as he sat in the hut where he holds tribal reconciliation sessions. According to Abu Aker and other North Sinai sheikhs, it was in prison that many members of the Bedouin community were radicalised and joined the jihadi groups now operating in the desert’s hills. “I want to start a new page with the government. A revolution is supposed to wipe the slate clean,” he said. It hasn’t. The response to the problems in North Sinai has been the same, security-centered logic that prevailed under Hosni Mubarak.

What comes next

The fallout from the 5 August attack has thrown the Egypt- Israel peace treaty into question and led to the Muslim Brotherhood’s President Mohamed Morsi sacking the governor of North Sinai and the head of the intelligence services. It may also have provided the political cover for the forced retirement of Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the military junta that ruled Egypt for 15 months after Mubarak stepped down.

Developments in Egypt since the revolution began have moved at a dizzying, unpredictable pace. What comes next in Sinai is equally murky. The peace treaty with Israel, which places limitations on the number of Egyptian military forces close to the border, may be formally renegotiated to give Egypt a stronger role in the area. Security forces have already begun making sweeping arrests in the peninsula. But if the officials in Cairo are seeking long-term solutions, they will do well to encourage economic development, such as providing water to villages.

A few weeks before the border attack, Ashraf Mahmoud, a senior security official in North Sinai, said that there were no security problems in the area and relations with the Bedouin were fine. Mahmoud, sitting behind a large desk in his lush office at the North Sinai security directorate, had just arranged the release of a pair of American tourists kidnapped by a disgruntled Bedouin man with an uncle in prison. Mahmoud was feeling quite satisfied. “We have control of 70 per cent of North Sinai now,” he told me. “Look around Arish,” he said. “Do you see any problems?”

Max Strasser is news editor of Egypt Independent


This article first appeared in the 20 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Back To Reality