Edition 13 Volume 10 - March 29, 2012
Sinai: the paradox of security
The issues are both political and economic and need to be understood as such.
Challenges and opportunities
The dramatic events in Egypt and the change in its Gaza policy have had significant consequences for Israel's national security concept.
A country of walls
an interview with Talal Okal
The Sinai area has not been under control for a long time.
Sinai spring? Not really
Normand St. Pierre
When revolution broke out in Cairo, an opportunity for score-settling came to Sinai.
Sinai: the paradox of security
Amidst Egypt's troubled transition, news from Sinai is emerging again, albeit in its old familiar form. Lawlessness is the story of the arid peninsula, which is home to an intricate set of historic, political, social and economic conditions that have transformed it into a frontier where the state has ceased to exist.
A series of kidnappings of foreign tourists have become currency for Bedouin to express their dissent over the detention of their fellow tribesmen. These tribesmen are either in detention following the mass arrests that occurred after the terrorist attacks between 2004 and 2006 or are facing weapons and drug charges. More recently, some Bedouin were emboldened to besiege a military base of international peacekeepers to protest the detention of their relatives. In the background, the constant attacks (as many as 13 in 2011 and early 2012 combined) on the pipelines channeling gas to Israel act like a chorus to a song of lawlessness in the peninsula. And of course, the theatrics of a group of masked armed men raising black flags inscribed with "No God but Allah" in the North Sinai city of el-Arish, who battled with the police for hours last July, helped further raise fears of a rise in militancy in the peninsula.
For some time, Sinai has been perceived and dealt with as a state of exception in the Agamben sense, where mundane state performance is suspended. Pockets of dissent emerging in Sinai are only understood in the context of a security failure and, subsequently, the recent wave of lawlessness is incarcerated in this same security logic.
This security logic is portrayed in the international fears of a potential ascent of Islamic militancy in the desert of Sinai, an image reminiscent of South Yemen, or--not far away--the bordering Gaza Strip. Whether due to a spike in recent infiltrations from across the border or the current thriving of militant cells that previously had no visibility with the former regime's repression of Islamists, there are indeed indications of increased militant activity in Sinai. But how do we grapple with this alarming rise that at times has been blown out of proportion by the media? A pure security logic singles out the phenomenon, pushing to the sidelines the conditions that made Sinai a fertile territory for increasing militancy.
When this security logic is abandoned for a deeper approach to solving Sinai's problems, attempts are often fixated on economic solutions. Talk is mainly about the need to establish an economic development plan for the marginalized region, one that focuses on re-populating it and creating opportunities. A draft law has already been issued by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that would codify the state's obligation to develop Sinai. But the fact that SCAF feels pressed to push through a rather hasty development law for Sinai in the transition period at a time when the elected parliament hasn't passed any other legislation takes us back to the security paradigm, i.e., that Sinai needs to be developed for security reasons.
Many in Sinai articulate their issues along economic lines. In South Sinai, Bedouin communities often complain about how the tourism industry is designed to exclude them so they have to live on its margins (literally letting their animals herd on the waste that comes out of tourist resorts). In North Sinai, Bedouin communities speak of the blockade regime that has been sponsored by Israel and imposed by Egypt to stop any lifeline of support to the Hamas-led government in Gaza. For these communities, the economic opportunity of trade with Gaza has been jeopardized. In response, an underground insurgency manifested in the lucrative tunnel traffic between Sinai and Gaza thrives. Around this illegal activity, tribesmen have instituted an entire economic structure based on different forms of smuggling. Meanwhile, many cite a lack of interest in investing in an area that is ripe with potential and has the possibility of reducing its own unemployment. Official reports say that only about 13 percent of the some 400,000 inhabitants of Sinai are officially employed. This state of economic marginalization has become internalized in Sinai, increasingly reflected in political lines.
Today, many in Sinai articulate a political malaise associated with marginalization. For example, the reported exclusion of many young Bedouin from army conscription has become an index of mistrust in the community and is seen as an attempt to oust them from the Egyptian social fabric. Those who have been detained for various reasons resent the "outlaw" nomenclature bestowed upon them by the outgoing regime of Hosni Mubarak and its interim inheritors, the generals of SCAF, that categorized the region as the bastion of criminals.
These are only facets of what is stirring the Sinai cauldron of wrath. The issues are both political and economic and need to be understood as such. In a way, understanding the plea of the people of Sinai is a reflection of the entire revolutionary movement that caught Egypt off guard last year in a political upheaval that encompassed a host of economic, social and cultural pleas. Only when its political aspect is understood and unpacked by the state can there be a more perceptive engagement with the Sinai region and a more reasonable assessment of risk. -Published 29/3/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org
Lina Attalah is the managing editor of Egypt Independent.
Challenges and opportunities
Developments in the Sinai Peninsula during the past year clearly reflect dramatic changes in Egypt and highlight the delicate situation at the Israeli-Gazan-Egyptian border junction.
Egypt is passing through a transition stage characterized by political power struggles, unprecedented deterioration in domestic security and a worsening economic plight. Most of the forces operating in the public sphere (led by the Islamic parties and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) support continuation of Egypt's foreign, security and economic policies. SCAF spokesmen and Muslim Brotherhood senior figures have declared that Egypt would honor its international commitments, including the peace treaty with Israel.
At the same time, there is a growing demand in the Egyptian political arena to reopen parts of this treaty, in particular the military annex in which Egypt agreed to demilitarize most of the Sinai Peninsula and limit deployment there of army and police forces. In parallel, Cairo's policy regarding the Palestinian arena has changed significantly, particularly regarding Hamas and the border with Gaza.
In recent years, Sinai has witnessed increased criminal activity involving smuggling of African labor migrants to Israel and of arms to the Gaza Strip. More recently, militant and criminal groups have exploited the chaos generated by the fall of the Mubarak regime to increase their activities in a territory exceeding 60,000 square kilometers where rough topographic conditions render it difficult for meager security forces to control the region.
Cairo's decision-makers consider the increased terrorist activity and arms smuggling in Sinai to be an Egyptian national-security issue. In an effort to combat this activity, army and intelligence reinforcements have been introduced, with Israeli agreement. While these forces have registered some success, this has not affected the motivation of criminal and militant gangs to continue operating in Sinai. The struggle against smuggling and sabotage operations--foremost among them repeated attacks on the gas transport pipeline to Jordan and Israel--has led to widespread arrests of Bedouin suspects and restriction of Bedouin freedom of movement. Against this backdrop, the already fragile relations between the regime in Cairo and the Bedouin population have deteriorated yet further, along with a worsening economic situation caused by the past year's blow to the Sinai tourist industry--a source of income for thousands of Bedouin families.
Security in Sinai depends more than any other factor on developments in the Gaza Strip and the ongoing confrontation between Israel and Hamas. In this context, Sinai in general and the triple border junction between Egypt, Israel and the Strip in particular have taken on a special sensitivity that threatens to plunge all three sides into a critical crisis.
This was clearly illustrated in the aftermath of the terrorist attack near Eilat on August 18, 2011. Israel blamed Hamas, attacked targets in the Gaza Strip and assassinated leaders of the Popular Resistance Committees there. Hamas responded by firing dozens of rockets at Israeli cities, towns and villages. Israeli analysts and politicians placed a major portion of responsibility for the incident on Egypt, arguing that Sinai had become a no-man's land and the Egyptian army had lost control there.
The death of four Egyptian border policemen in the incident enraged the Egyptian public. There were calls for cancellation of the Camp David agreements, and angry demonstrators took over the Israeli embassy in Cairo. The Egyptian government recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv, the Israel-Hamas ceasefire was on the verge of collapse and Israeli-Egyptian relations experienced their first serious crisis since the fall of the Mubarak regime. A comprehensive international effort eventually put out the fire, but the causes that instigated it are still around.
The dramatic events in Egypt and the change in its Gaza policy have had significant consequences for Israel's national security concept. Rapid completion of a Negev-Sinai security fence and changes in force deployment along the border are but one link in a chain of substantial adjustments in Israel's approach to its relations with Egypt and toward developments in Sinai.
Still, commitment to the peace treaty and dedication to combating hostile elements active in Sinai reflect a common Egyptian-Israeli interest. In parallel, concern for these critical interests in the current fragile reality requires the two countries' leaders to address Egyptian-Israeli relations in a very broad context. Thus, serious escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation is liable to escalate Israel's already sensitive relations with Egypt to the point of endangering the peace treaty. On the other hand, Hamas' growing dependency on Egypt could, paradoxically, enable Cairo to play an instrumental role in maintaining the "calm" between Israel and the Gaza Strip and in thwarting hostile activities in the Sinai Peninsula.-Published 29/3/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org
Yoram Meital is chairman, The Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies & Diplomacy, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
A country of walls
an interview with Talal Okal
BI: What do the conditions in the Sinai peninsula have to do with you and others in the Gaza Strip?
Okal: The border that separates Sinai in Egypt and the Gaza Strip is the only border that is open for our use. The town of Rafah [where the main crossing is located] is actually split across the border between the two sides and many of Egyptian Rafah's residents are relatives of those who live on the Gaza side of the town. The connections there are extensive. Moreover, the tunnel network operating out of Gaza opens onto the Sinai.
In general, one can say that the Sinai area has not been under control for a long time. Recently, there have been additional security officers allowed into the area to police it [on the Egyptian side] but this has not really made a difference. Egypt has still not been able to control the area and conditions there appear to be worsening.
The region is vast and the trade that takes place there is largely elicit. The Bedouin tribes that live in the Sinai are mostly armed and have played a role in the worsening situation. Even a wide security operation in the area would likely not be able to bring the area under control.
BI: How has the situation changed since the fall of the regime of Hosni Mubarak?
Okal: Actually, there hasn't been a great change. The new government hasn't been able to bring the area under its control and this is apparent through the 13 different explosions that have taken place on pipelines supplying fuel to Israel and to Jordan from Egypt.
BI: Israel is building a barrier along the Israel-Egypt border. How do you think this will affect the situation, both for Israel and in general?
Okal: This is one of Israel's security misconceptions. Through its concentration on security answers, Israel has become a country of walls. But the truth is that walls don't create security.
Israel is building the wall in part to try to stop the flow of immigrants from Sudan and Somalia, which is really a civilian issue. It might be successful at doing this. But then what? The wall will not solve the general security problem. Using security methods to control any other field, whether it is economic or otherwise, is doomed to fail.
BI: In your view, is the problem in the Sinai a security problem or a human rights problem?
Okal: It is difficult to sort this out, but in this situation, I would say that the security perspective has totally failed.
BI: What is the relationship between the Sinai area and the power outages that Gaza is facing at this time?
Okal: The relationship is extensive. The tunnels open onto the Sinai, where the Egyptian government is not the main party in control. The entire region is built on the illicit trade connected to the tunnels.
The Egyptian authorities--although we should say that they are not the party that is really backing this policy--want to close these tunnels. They want to create a formal, legal relationship where the goods that flow through the tunnels [including fuel] are trafficked legally.
The problem is that those materials that are trafficked through the tunnels are essential to the daily lives of Gazans, who need them to build, to cook, to run their power plant.-published 29/3/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org
Talal Okal is a commentator based in the Gaza Strip.
Sinai spring? Not really
Normand St. Pierre
The Sinai Peninsula is beautiful, blessed by wonderful beaches, high-reaching mountains, a desert that changes color with the moving sun, and natural resources aplenty. It is also a land on which warriors have moved back and forth, leaving behind all manner of munitions and mines. Enjoying the beauty and enduring the conflicts are the Bedouin, occupants of this wonderful area.
Until the late 1980s, economic development of Sinai was minimal except for oil fields in the Gulf of Suez. Coal, manganese, turquoise, the occasional pilgrimage to St. Catherine's Monastery and a few hotels along the Gulf of Aqaba generated some revenue but had little impact on Bedouin livelihood.
By the early 1990s, however, investment along the Gulf of Aqaba coast created hotels, casinos, and golf courses and pushed tribes further inland. Bedouin who had occupied the land for hundreds of years expected compensation or some benefit, but received little. The Egyptian government continued to treat Sinai as a remote border area, a military zone, and invested only marginally in infrastructure, schools, and business development. Additionally, Bedouin were not allowed to own land or to receive the privileges of other Egyptians--from proper identification documents to government services.
By the turn of the century, however, a breed of Sinai Bedouin, returning from schools in the Egyptian mainland and from Saudi Arabia, became more politically active--raising questions about economic disparity, pressing Cairo to speak out forcefully in support of the Palestinian intifada, and promoting religious activism. Aided by improving social media, they were able to share their message broadly across Sinai.
Their activism, however, was somewhat disruptive. Despite complaining about government control and pressure, Bedouin had hitherto been able to maintain their identity as well as their social and judicial culture, while practicing religion in a very low-key, personal way. Problems within the tribes were settled domestically. Issues outside the tribes were worked out principally with the army.
This balance changed in 2004 with the first of three major terrorist acts inspired in part by religious fervor, political activism, and economic gain. The principal outcome of these events was the addition of a large police presence to augment the military, particularly in areas where the military could not operate under the conditions of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.
Many of these new policemen were from Cairo and were not familiar with Bedouin tradition and culture. Thousands of Bedouin were incarcerated; for Bedouin who still carry the nomadic spirit and whose judicial system does not include prison time, this was particularly troubling.
A period of calm followed after 2006, in part because Cairo announced that a grand design would be launched to create business opportunities and jobs in Sinai. As expected, not much materialized. In the meantime, Bedouin sought on several occasions, through demonstrations and protests, to create a schism between police and the military. The strong message was that the military understood the Bedouin and was much more of a kindred spirit.
The siege of Gaza raised Bedouin concern for Gaza Palestinians but also created an opportunity for large-scale and profitable illicit border trade. Government intervention in smuggling was focused primarily on items that might negatively impact the security of Egypt. A whole new class of young men, on motorcycles or riding new pick-up trucks, armed with AK-47s and RPGs and sporting Ray Bans, made their money escorting goods of all sorts through Sinai for safe passage at the Rafah-Gaza tunnels. Once again, and because much of the illicit activity occurred in areas not patrolled by the military, it was the police that engaged most directly with transgressors.
As a result, when revolution broke out in Cairo an opportunity for score-settling came to Sinai. Police and their facilities were the principal targets; many incarcerated Bedouin prisoners were forcibly released; and sensitive facilities were attacked to coerce the government to make concessions and restitution and to redress familiar complaints. That said, and given the uncertainty regarding the shape, platform, and priorities of the central government, it seems unlikely that the Bedouin will get all they ask for.
In the meantime, the army is the main and trusted broker. The Bedouin concede that the military has a role and that there is a need for its presence in Sinai. They also want a government that is responsive: few Bedouin actually want to run Sinai, its infrastructure and its businesses. As long as the military holds power in Egypt we can expect compromises and concessions; however, no significant and meaningful financial investment in Sinai can be expected until there is a new central government that is financially sound.
While the "Arab spring" has changed Egyptian life on the mainland, the "Sinai spring" has raised hopes in Sinai but has not altered the character and culture of the Bedouin.-Published 29/3/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org
Normand St. Pierre served with the Multinational Force and Observers as the director general's representative in Cairo from 2004 to 2010, capping more than 30 years specializing in Middle East issues at the Pentagon and State Department and in business. This article represents his personal views and not those of any former employer.