Watchman Newsletter

Sinai Spins Out of Control

Bridges For Peace (Link) - The Media Line - David E. Miller (June 2, 2011)

Blocking ports, hit-and-run attacks on Egyptian forces and storming military headquarters with little opposition are just a series of events that have driven the Sinai into unprecedented chaos as Cairo�s authority wanes before disgruntled Bedouin residents. �The situation here is very tense,� an American aid worker living in the northern Sinai city of Al-Arish told The Media Line on condition on anonymity, as he was not authorized to talk to the media. �The Bedouin in northern Sinai took the Egyptian revolution as an opportunity to take revenge on the Egyptian security forces, which they believe have persecuted them for years.�

Just this weekend, masked men driving a truck plowed into an Egyptian military checkpoint in the southern Sinai region of Abu-Zanima, critically injuring a 20-year-old soldier before escaping.

The same day as the attack on the Egyptian army checkpoint, dozens of armed Bedouins stormed the Red Sea port of Nuweiba in south-eastern Sinai, blocking all incoming and outgoing maritime traffic. The men were protesting the confiscation of a car whose driver used false papers, security forces said.

On Saturday night, hundreds of civilians forcefully entered the security headquarters in the city of Al-Tur, the administrative capital of southern Sinai. They complained that unknown gunmen had attacked a local jewelry shop, with no opposition by local security forces.

The aid worker revealed that three of the four police stations in the area have been shut down following attacks by machine-gun toting Bedouins, some armed with rocket propelled grenades. The attackers stole weapons from the buildings and released prisoners held inside, he said.

A security crackdown against the Bedouins in northern Sinai began following a chain of terrorist attacks targeting tourists in the resort towns Taba, Sharm Al-Sheikh and Dahab in 2004 and 2006. Members of the Tarabin tribe of northern Sinai were implicated by Egyptian security for involvement in the attacks, and mass arrests ensued.

In April, police forces were re-deployed to the northern Sinai following the Egyptian revolution which ousted President Hosni Mubarak in February 11, the aid worker said, adding that military forces that never left the area had little interest in quelling street violence. �Recently, a gun fight in Al-Arish lasted for 2-3 hours before the army decided to intervene,� he said.

�Government control has weakened somewhat in that area, causing people with destructive agendas to take advantage of the situation,� Muhammad Kadri Sa�id, a retired major general and head of Security Studies at Al-Ahram Center in Cairo, told The Media Line. �Things in Egypt are problematic, and whatever happens in Cairo affects Sinai.�

Pipelines leading natural gas from Egypt to Israel and Jordan through Sinai were bombed twice, in February and April, cutting essential supplies to both countries.

On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu referred to the security deterioration in Sinai, putting the blame on international terror organizations.

�Egypt is struggling to impose its sovereignty over Sinai, as we have witnessed in the two explosions that recently occurred there,� Netanyahu told the Knesset�s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday [May 30]. �Global terror organizations are meddling there, and it�s only getting worse because of Sinai�s connection to Gaza.� Netanyahu added that Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian organization ruling the Gaza Strip, has also increased its presence in Egypt as a result of the political instability suffered by its patron, Syria.

Some 400 Al-Qa�ida operatives, including Palestinians and local Bedouins, were being pursued by Egyptian forces in Sinai ahead of planned attacks, a senior Egyptian security source told the Al-Hayat Egyptian television station on Sunday [May 29]. But the governor of northern Sinai, Abdul Wahab Mabrouk, denied the claims in an interview with Al-Ahram daily, saying that the massive Egyptian security presence in Sinai ruled out the possibility of such activity.

Clashes between Egypt�s security apparatus and indigenous Bedouins was nothing new, but Major General Sa�id admitted that the recent opening of the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Sinai created new and ominous security realities for Egypt. �We were always worried about the entry of people from the Gaza Strip with extremist views,� he said. �The opening of the Rafah crossing has created new security problems.�

But security wasn�t the only cause of destabilization for Sinai. The tourism industry, Sinai�s main source of income, has taken a hard blow since the popular unrest began in Egypt in late January. �The area relies heavily on tourists, and now the situation is terrible,� Sa�id said, adding that media often exaggerated the actual security threat, scaring tourists away.

A retired Israeli security official, who served in Sinai during the Israeli rule of the peninsula between 1967 and 1982, said that the local Bedouin inhabitants were never legally or morally bound to Egypt�s sovereignty.

�We [the Israelis] realized that they were capable of giving us information just as they gave the Egyptians,� said the official, who agreed to speak to The Media Line only on condition of anonymity. �If today an Al-Qaeda arms boat reaches the shores of Sinai, requesting to smuggle weapons inland, the Bedouins may ask a few questions, but they will immediately start negotiating the price.� �