Immediately after the military coup in Egypt, the Egyptian army began a large-scale campaign to impose control by the army and the security services over Sinai.
The army also carried out an unprecedented campaign to destroy tunnels that link the Sinai to the Gaza Strip (GS), in parallel with the closure of the Rafah crossing for most of the time, causing immense suffering for the people of the GS.
The campaign comes in the context of the “war on terror” declared by the Egyptian authorities, as well as the quest to impose security and stability in the Sinai. However, this campaign coincided with the crippling blockade on GS, and a broad campaign of incitement against Hamas and the government it leads in the Strip.
It also coincided with the re-launching of peace talks between the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah and Israel; with attempts to reestablish the “Arab Axis of Moderation”; and with a crackdown on political Islam in the region.
Although there are several possible scenarios for how the course of events in the Sinai and GS could proceed, the unstable internal situation in Egypt, the special nature of Sinai and its people, and the structure of the administration in GS based on resistance and which is accustomed to the pressures of blockades and facing aggression, and which has broad Arab and Islamic popular sympathy, will make it difficult for the Egyptian regime to press ahead with military- and security-based solutions, and the same-old policy of imposing a crippling siege on GS.
This might push the regime ultimately to seek reasonable compromises that guarantee the regime’s control and prestige in Sinai, while seeking to find development-based solutions there, in addition to the gradual easing of the blockade on GS.
The Egyptian military campaign in the Sinai Peninsula is taking place in the context of an eventful year full of unrest and political and strategic changes. This context is pulled in different directions by the interests of a number of regional and international powers, which may sometimes agree and sometimes collide. Furthermore, Sinai itself has a strategically crucial location, being the point where the borders of Egypt, Israel, and GS meet, and also being the closest Egyptian border point to the Jordanian and Saudi borders. In addition, what happens in Sinai has direct repercussions on the internal situation in Egypt and the artery of world trade (the Suez Canal), and also impacts on the Israeli situation and the United States (US) interests…
The Egyptian Situation
The current Egyptian situation is most complex: In addition to the January 25 revolution and the military coup on 3/7/2013, and the ensuing instability in the political, economic, and social situations, there is a number of regional and international players who are greatly concerned by what is happening in Egypt, and are interested in influencing the course of events to serve their interests.
Under Mubarak and prior to the revolution of 25/1/2011, Sinai did not receive adequate care and attention from the Egyptian government, and suffered from a chronic shortage in basic services such as water and electricity… Sinai has been dealt with from an exclusive security-based approach, especially given Egypt’s subject to Israeli dictates and special security arrangements in accordance with the Camp David Accords since 1979. Since Israel stepped up its blockade on GS since mid-2007, and since Egypt (through Sinai) has been the only Arab outlet for GS, the people of Sinai, for patriotic, religious, and economic reasons, took part in efforts to ease the blockade on GS. This took place through a wide variety of goods including weapons, and by digging tunnels from the Egyptian side toward GS.
This took place on the back of the fact that the regime of Hosni Mubarak was to some degree or another, a partner in the siege of GS. Thus, “illicit” trade and smuggling operations became an urgent necessity, in addition to being a profitable business. This would not have happened if a number of Egyptian security officials had not accepted bribes to overlook smuggling operations. For this reason, a trade worth tens of millions of dollars emerged in Sinai, but at the same time, this left a negative impression among some parties (especially those opposed to Hamas’s rule in GS) vis-à-vis the people of Sinai, in what concerns smuggling and arms dealing.
After the revolution of January 25, the security services withdrew from Sinai, leaving a state of vacuum that aggravated the security chaos. Sinai subsequently became a breeding ground for Salafi jihadist groups affiliated to al-Qaeda, and which are equally hostile to the US and Israel. President Morsi tried to deal with this with a mixture of security measures, negotiations, and mediation with tribes, political factions, and jihadist groups. Morsi also sought to improve economic conditions in Sinai. However, Morsi’s approach was met with resentment by the Egyptian army, which is used to military-based solutions. This has widened the rift between President Morsi and the army, and perhaps contributed to pushing the latter to inch closer to Morsi’s political opponents.
Thus, as soon as the military coup in Egypt was underway, the army sent two additional battalions to the Sinai region on 3/7/2013, launching a broad military campaign with US support and Israeli consent. Although the Egyptian regime announced that it is targeting militants who threaten security in Sinai and who back “armed attacks” against Israel, disarming the residents of Sinai has always been a goal sought after by the Egyptian military.
Consequently, the people of Sinai were exposed to a harsh campaign by the army, and the entire area was subjected to collective punishment through detentions and military tribunals. However, what could make matters worse and inflame angry sentiment is the tribal nature of the people of Sinai, many of whom considering owning weapons part of their culture and heritage.
On 13/9/2013, the Egyptian army stepped up its campaign by deploying 22 thousand troops in Sinai, to “cleanse” the entire area, and declared the campaign would continue for a period of six months.
The tribes have tried to establish a tribal council to communicate citizens’ issues to official bodies and work on solving them. Moreover, the army has admitted that what is happening in Sinai is the result of the government’s neglect, claiming that the interim government has a development plan that will help restore security in Sinai. In addition, the interim president Adli Mansur, on 23/9/2013 isited Sinai’s tribes to discuss local problems, and how to deal with “errorism” and eliminate it. But on the next day the home of Sheikh Ibrahim al-Monai‘y, head of the Union of the Tribes of Sinai, was demolished, along with the home of his son, Ashraf. His private Diwan was also destroyed, signaling that the security crackdown continues.
Restrictions on GS and the role of the Palestinian Authority
As concerns the GS, the Egyptian forces considered Hamas responsible for the increasing violence in Sinai, arguing that their campaign to close the tunnels and border crossings was part of their effort to combat terrorism threatening Egypt, and regional and international security. Consequently, the Egyptian army closed down the Rafah crossing and destroyed the tunnels, and proceeded to establish a 500-meter buffer zone along the border, evicting and destroying homes in the area. This has aggravated the economic crisis in Sinai, and increased restrictions placed on the besieged GS.
Tightening the stranglehold on GS comes in the context of the military coup’s extreme hostility to the Hamas government, given its close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Meanwhile, the pro-coup media in Egypt initiated a large incitement campaign against Hamas, accusing the Palestinian group of being involved in the acts of violence that took place across Egypt, to justify any subsequent actions by the Egyptian army against Hamas and its government in GS.
The rapid and unprecedented Egyptian measures coincided with a new round of peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, beginning in July 2013. This prompts questions whether there is a regional-international agreement, especially after the coup in Egypt, to recreate and reactivate the “Arab moderation axis,” and to make arrangements to topple Hamas’s government in GS and restore Fatah and the Palestinian Authority’s (PA’s) control over the Strip, and subsequently, give a strong push to the peace process. Furthermore, the severity of the military campaign in Sinai and along the border with GS, and the swiftness with which it has been implemented, has sparked questions in some circles over whether this would lead to direct Egyptian military intervention in GS.
For its part, the Hamas government denied responsibility for what is happening in the Sinai. On 30/7/2013, Hamas disclosed documents proving the involvement of PA security services in fabricating allegations against Hamas and its alleged role in Sinai. Egyptian television itself aired confessions by members of the PA Preventive Security Forces, who had been apprehended in Sinai for their involvement in attacks against the Egyptian army.
Several Hamas leaders have stressed their policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of Egypt, and praised Egypt’s strong support for the Palestinian issue. They also stressed that Egypt’s security was a red line, but called on the Egyptian authorities to reopen the Rafah crossing, and allow trade and the flow of goods into GS to continue, if they want to demolish the tunnels, so that they do not act as partners in the blockade.
On the other hand, the PA ambassador in Cairo Barakat al-Farra, called for reopening the Rafah crossing. Farra said this was in the interests of Egypt as well, but denied the authenticity of the documents presented by the government in GS.
Israeli Anxiety and US Concerns
The situation in Egypt and Sinai after the January 25 revolution has not been convenient for Israel. In addition to the fate of the peace treaty between the two countries, Israel was also concerned about what was happening in Sinai. Indeed, Salafi-Jihadist groups and al-Qaeda affiliates benefited from the security vacuum there, which also was taken advantage of in supporting the GS and the tunnel trade.
The military presence of the Jihadist groups was responsible for launching multiple attacks along the Egyptian-Israeli border, becoming a source of constant threat to Israel, especially to the Eilat region, in addition to facilitating or participating in smuggling weapons—some say from Libya and Sudan—to Sinai and then GS.
These developments and others prompted Israel to approve Egyptian army reinforcements and campaigns in Sinai, while beefing up its own units along the border, and commissioning a 242-km border fence with Egypt at a cost of $430 million, to hinder infiltration to the Israeli interior (Palestinian territory occupied in 1948). Israel even sent drones into Sinai, to assassinate a number of Islamists who plan or stage attacks against it.
Meanwhile, the US, which practically supported the military coup in Egypt, sees Egypt as a strong and crucial ally, especially with regard to maintaining security in the Sinai, a staple clause in the Camp David Accords. Moreover, Israel and its security is the cornerstone of American policy in the Middle East. Since the new regime in Egypt and the US have in common the so-called “war on terror” policy, then the US moved to fully support the Egyptian crackdown in Sinai, with a strong emphasis on the need for coordination with Israel.
Possible Scenarios for the Situation in the Sinai Peninsula:
1. Comprehensive security solution scenario: This scenario assumes that the regime will adopt a harsh military-security policy to settle matters completely in its favor in Sinai. This policy might succeed in light of some past experiences. However, insisting on this policy without achieving rapid successes might end up exhausting the army. Furthermore, a military-security approach against a tribal society that has its unique culture and customs, without any economic stimulus plan for the region, could spur violent reactions against the overall conditions in Sinai. This would put Sinai on the tip of a volcano that could explode at any time in the foreseeable future. The above can act as an additional factor weakening the ability of the military junta to control the situation in Egypt.
2. Hit and run scenario: This scenario assumes that no matter how much the Egyptian army succeeds in reining in the tribes in the Sinai; no matter how much the strongholds of the jihadists were hit and their weapons caches seized; and no matter how many smuggling tunnels are destroyed, experience has demonstrated that it cannot be in full control of the Sinai.
Most likely, many will not bow down to the security-based approach, and will consider that they had been repressed and their livelihoods hurt, without seeing any economic improvement or real care for living conditions in the area. Subsequently, this scenario assumes that those will not hesitate in collaborating with various parties, whether to dig new tunnels with GS, carry out attacks against the Israeli army or the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), or even stage attacks on Egyptian security and military services. Thus, we would see Sinai in a situation of prolonged instability marked by sporadic clashes here and there, with the possibility of military operations or rocket attacks targeting Israel from time to time.
3. The compromise and development scenario: All parties would come to realize that the continuation of the explosive situation hurts everyone, with many adverse effects. The Egyptian army might find itself under various pressures to reach certain accords with the tribes that would satisfy both sides, on the basis of imposing the prestige of the state and spurring economic development in Sinai, while easing the blockade on GS, for example by showing leniency towards smuggling by Sinai residents to supply the basic needs of the GS.
However, the issue of jihadist groups remains a thorn in the sides of all parties, and hence, the campaign to eliminate them will continue. Perhaps the US might try to bolster the MFO in Sinai to better safeguard Israel’s security.
The realization of any of the above scenarios is linked to a number of factors, including:
– The internal situation in Egypt: That is, the extent at which the new political administration can achieve a state of stability, and the ability of the Egyptian economy to recover or restore its previous balance at the least, in addition to the effect of media campaigns, whether in escalation or de-escalation.
– The extent of the success of the measures being taken in Sinai, in a way that either tempts the army to press ahead more forcefully, or back down and scale back all or some of its measures.
– The extent of external pressures: Whether by “moderate” Arab regimes, Israel, or the US, and how the regime in Egypt will deal with these pressures.
Possible scenarios for repercussions on GS
1. Tightening the blockade: This scenario assumes that the continuation of the siege on GS might weaken the Hamas government’s ability to control the situation in GS. This could encourage opposition forces to move to topple Hamas in GS, with Fatah and the PA in Ramallah taking control of the Strip. However, indications show that Hamas is still strong in GS, and still able to control matters. The cost remains too high for those wanting to circumvent Palestinian reconciliation to venture to topple Hamas.
2. Easing of the blockade: This scenario assumes that the Egyptian military government might find itself in an awkward position by continuing to besiege GS, causing all sorts of humanitarian, economic, environmental, and health crises, and also because measures as such might anger wide segments of the Egyptian people. This means that the Egyptian army, sooner or later, will have to move towards rearranging and pacifying its internal situation, and ending the transitional phase. For this reason, the military government might move to ease the blockade on GS and overlook the presence of tunnels to some degree or another, and implement the same policies and methods used by the Mubarak regime.
3. Consensus: This scenario assumes that national Palestinian consensus would emerge over the administration of GS border crossings, especially as regards the border with Egypt, in coordination with the Egyptian authorities. This scenario requires both sides of the Palestinian divide, in the West Bank and GS, to reach the conviction that no party is able to topple the other, and therefore, that mutual concessions are necessary for the higher Palestinian interest.
4. Intervention in GS: This scenario assumes that the growing exhaustion in the GS as a result of the blockade might tempt the Egyptians to intervene militarily to topple the Hamas government in the Strip. This could be enabled by the presence of a favorable regional-international climate. Indeed, there is an international desire to reach a final resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the coming months, and a regional desire to get rid of political Islam, by repeating the experience of repressing the Muslim Brotherhood in other places.
But on the other hand, there are no real indications that the military government in Egypt has a desire to become implicated in such an adventure. Indeed, the situation in Egypt is unstable, and hence, a decision to escalate like this could turn the Egyptian and Arab streets against the regime. Moreover, there is no consensus among the allies of the regime to take such action, in addition to the fact that the Israeli army had tried before the military solution to topple Hamas but failed.
1. Emphasizing Egypt’s national and pan-Arab role towards the Palestinian issue, towards lifting the blockade on GS, in a framework that respects Egyptian sovereignty and laws.
2. Expediting Palestinian reconciliation, and making necessary arrangements to lift the siege, and manage the Rafah crossing within the Palestinian national consensus.
3. Focusing Egyptian measures against outlaws, without responding to incitements in the media by parties that are not interested in Egyptian supreme interests or the Palestinian issue; and ensuring that the measures do not turn into collective punishment against those who are keen on preserving Egypt’s security and who respect its sovereignty.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Ms. Rana Sa‘adah for authoring the original text on which this Assessment was based.