Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, envisioned by the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli treaty as a buffer zone to build trust and ensure peace, has become a haven for transnational crime and Islamist militancy. Poverty and political alienation among the region’s native Bedouins, combined with political dislocations since former president Hosni Mubarak’s government was toppled in 2011, have allowed nonstate armed groups to thrive, posing new threats to global trade and the peace on the Egypt-Israel border. After the Egyptian military reasserted its authority in July 2013 and cracked down on Islamists nationwide, militant groups escalated their attacks on peninsular security forces and expanded their reach to cities along the Suez Canal and even Cairo.
A Strategic Buffer
The Sinai Peninsula is a strategically significant triangle bounded by Gaza, Israel, and the Gulf of Aqaba to its east, the Mediterranean to its north, and the Suez Canal to its west. Some 8 percent of global trade transits through the canal, including 3 percent of global oil supplies. The Gulf of Aqaba gives Israel its only outlet to the Red Sea.
The area contains five of Egypt’s twenty-seven governorates. The sparsely populated North and South Sinai are home to 550,000 people, or 0.7 percent of Egypt’s population, on a landmass comprising 6 percent of Egyptian territory. Much of the North’s population is concentrated along the coast, while many inhabitants of the mountainous interior are nomadic. Three smaller, more densely populated governorates straddle the Suez Canal.
Though the peninsula is a land bridge connecting Africa and Asia, historically it has separated as much as joined them. The region’s majority Bedouin population shares closer historical and cultural ties to the Levant and Arabian Peninsula than the Egyptian mainland. The Bedouins were stigmatized as collaborators of Israel’s fifteen-year occupation of the peninsula after the 1967 war, and some complain that Cairo continues to view them as a "potential fifth column," wrote Economist reporter Nicolas Pelham. Palestinians and Egyptians from the Nile Valley make up smaller portions of the peninsula’s population.
Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai under the 1979 peace treaty codified its status as a buffer, leaving Cairo with only partial sovereignty over the territory. The treaty’s military annex restricts the personnel and matériel deployed there.
The peninsula’s native Bedouins bear long-standing grievances stemming from economic deprivation and political alienation. Since 1979, tribal chiefs have been appointed by the region’s governors, military officers chosen by the central government. But the capital’s drive to centralize control was never fully realized.
Bedouins were excluded from tourism and energy development projects championed by Hosni Mubarak, experts say. The North was starved of investment while Mubarak sought to establish a Red Sea Riviera in the more sparsely populated South, particularly in Sharm el-Sheikh, where he had his summer villa. Cairo encouraged labor migration to the Sinai from the Nile Valley, Pelham wrote, offering these internal migrants preferential access to land, irrigation, and jobs, while denying native Bedouins such basic services and rights as running water and property registration. They were blocked from jobs with the police, army, and the peninsular peacekeeping force, the Multinational Force & Observers (MFO), which is one of the region’s largest employers. In North Sinai, schools and hospitals were left unstaffed.
"The United States and Israel were telling Mubarak for years that neglect of the Sinai was going to come back to haunt them," says CFR Senior Fellow Steven Cook. High-profile bombings of resorts between 2004 and 2006, which had a combined death toll of about 130, as well as a spate of clashes between Bedouins and police, tourist kidnappings, and other smaller attacks occurred after two decades of what were seen as malign policies.
Under the three-decade–long emergency law that was in place until 2012, security forces under the Ministry of the Interior responded to the emerging terrorist threat with dragnet arrests, detaining and torturing thousands, human rights observers say. The indiscriminate state response fed a cycle of political violence and further alienated Sinai’s Bedouins from Cairo.
Black markets and transnational crime have flourished on the Sinai Peninsula since the late 1990s, Egyptian diplomat Amr Yossef wrote in Foreign Affairs, as Bedouins, excluded from the formal economy, found opportunities for economic survival in cannabis and narcotics production, gun running, and smuggling of goods as well as people. "Tracking skills, tight kinship bonds, and high mobility across the desert," abetted by corrupt police, allowed the Bedouins to skirt state efforts to eliminate illicit activity, Yossef wrote. The scale of human trafficking picked up in the mid-2000s as sub-Saharan refugees, facing increasing hostility in Egypt, began streaming across the Sinai en route to Israel. Migrants have been abducted, raped, and extorted under torture for ransom.
Hamas’s takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007 created more opportunities for Sinai’s illicit economy after Israel and Egypt effectively enforced a blockade. Traders smuggled staples such as food, fuel, and construction materials, as well as weapons and cars, through a burgeoning network of tunnels that contributed $230 million to the enclave’s economy each month, according to Hatem Owida, deputy economic minister for the Hamas government. Goods exchanged underground circumvented the restrictive, slow-moving Rafah border crossing and the steel barrier Egypt erected in 2009, providing income for Sinai’s Bedouins as well as revenue for Hamas, which regulates and taxes the tunnel trade.
Many Bedouins saw Mubarak’s regime as complicit with Israel in inhibiting smuggling, and Hamas was able to project power into the peninsula—a relationship solidified by economic interdependence, analysts say.
While tribal leaders have abjured violence, radicalized Bedouins make up the majority of the violent actors that have emerged in recent years and recruited local youth. They include Salafi jihadis opposed to Israel, the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, and the secular Egyptian state upholding it; and homegrown takfiris, who believe insufficiently pious Muslims are permissible targets of jihad. Palestinians and other foreign militants comprise a smaller portion of some fifteen groups Israeli intelligence has identified as affiliated with al-Qaeda, Haaretz reported; Ansar Beit al-Maqdis is predominant among them.
As protesters flooded Tahrir Square and other urban centers in January 2011, the security state dissolved. Police withdrew from their postings in Sinai, and the military focused on maintaining order in the Nile Valley. Tourism industry revenues declined rapidly while Gaza tunnel owners, unimpeded, invested newfound profits in upgrades.
Fearing an eventual return of the security forces, many Bedouins began stockpiling the weapons that had become ubiquitous since the start of the Arab uprisings. Libyan arms supplemented already plentiful Sudanese supplies, as caches left unguarded after the 2011 NATO Libyan bombing campaign made their way to the peninsula, according to Egyptian security officials. Some military-grade weapons were trafficked into Gaza, posing new threats to Israeli surveillance aircraft in Gaza.
The trans-Sinai natural-gas pipeline, which carried gas to Israel and Jordan, was repeatedly attacked by militants who saw it as a vestige of Mubarak-era corruption, as were police and border guards. The military bargained with Bedouin leaders in a bid to assert control over the territory.
Separatist group Takfir wal-Hijra declared the establishment of a sharia-governed emirate in August 2011, when the military deployed with Israel’s acquiescence more than one thousand troops. Operation Eagle was the first large-scale operation on the peninsula since the Camp David Accords were signed in 1978.
A cross-border incursion that month left six Egyptian border guards dead after Israeli troops pursued the militants back into Egyptian territory, stoking nationalist fervor in Cairo. The military cited the renewed violence in the Sinai to restore nationwide the emergency law that was a hallmark of Mubarak’s rule and a chief objection of the Tahrir Square protesters.
After his election to the presidency in June 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi took a conciliatory approach to Sinai. He held out the promise of a new start in Sinai’s relations with the central government, taking the unprecedented step of visiting North Sinai and encouraging its development.
After Islamist militants killed sixteen Egyptian soldiers near the Rafah border crossing in August 2012, Morsi purged the military’s leadership. He replaced Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi with General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in an attempt to assert his civilian government’s authority over the military, which was largely filled with Mubarak-era holdovers. Morsi pledged to "impose full control" over the peninsula, and Egyptian authorities cracked down on the tunnels.
Morsi was reluctant to authorize the use of force, however, despite deploying troops with heavy weaponry. In this climate of insecurity, the kidnapping of seven soldiers in the Sinai in May 2013 helped catalyze the following month’s protests in the rest of the country and the coup that returned the military, headed by Sisi, to power.
Violence escalated further as some of the Sinai’s armed groups rejected the military’s ouster of Egypt’s first Brotherhood president and subsequent crackdown on Islamist opponents of the new regime, while others sought to exploit the security vacuum. Scores of police and soldiers have been killed in near-daily attacks in the Sinai since Morsi’s government was toppled in July 2013.
Egypt’s military responded by waging what it calls its "war on terrorism," launching Operation Desert Storm after Morsi’s ouster. Many reporters and analysts describe the offensive as a scorched-earth campaign with echoes of Mubarak-era heavy-handedness. The military also shut down all but a handful of tunnels, which has raised the price of goods in neighboring Gaza and exacerbated electricity shortages there.
Curfews and an army-enforced media blackout have made independent verification of official reports of terrorist attacks and counterterrorism operations difficult; for example, Ahmed Abu Deraa, a reporter for the daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, faced charges after publishing an account of airstrikes in September at odds with the military’s own account. Some journalists suggest that security forces have exaggerated threats in the Sinai for political ends.
Securing the Peninsula
Violence from the Sinai has expanded from the periphery inward. The al-Qaeda–inspired Ansar Beit el-Maqdis claimed responsibility for an assassination attempt on Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim in September 2013—the first car bombing in Cairo in years—as well as the assassination of a senior counterterrorism official in November. Analysts say militants have not cohered into a unified insurgency, however.
Some militants in the peninsula who see the Egyptian regime as illegitimate seek to provoke a clash between Israeli and Egyptian forces. But military-to-military cooperation by late 2013 was stronger than ever, CFR’s Cook says. Over the course of a week in August 2013, Israeli officials briefly shut down the Eilat airport based on Egyptian intelligence, and five suspected militants were killed in North Sinai, reportedly by an Israeli drone operating with Egyptian permission.
Some analysts say that the Israeli-Egyptian treaty created the space for crime and terrorism to flourish and is too brittle to adapt to the contemporary reality of nonstate threats. But Israel has shown flexibility with respect to force restrictions in recent years, the Century Foundation’s Michael Wahid Hanna notes, though he adds that amending the treaty could buy Israel goodwill with the Egyptian public. A more pressing concern is that the Egyptian military is oriented toward conventional fighting and ill-prepared to wage a counterinsurgency, Hanna says.
The Multinational Force & Observers (MFO), the treaty’s guarantors, has come under insurgents’ fire, but the 1,700-strong force—which includes nearly 700 American troops—has neither the mandate nor the resources to address militants. States that contribute troops, experts say, would oppose any expansion of the peacekeepers’ mission that exposes them to increased risk.
To stave off a budding insurgency, the Economist’s Pelham wrote that Cairo must distribute resources and power more equitably, and integrate the Bedouin into all aspects of public life: the security services, bureaucracy, provincial councils, and the private sector. Adding Gaza to the pipeline, he said, would give Hamas incentive to further rein in militants.
"The developmental side of this has been neglected," Hanna says. "This is in the military’s hands. Until there’s some semblance of stability, it’s unlikely we’ll see movement in this area."