Following the ousting of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi on 3 July 2013, attacks by Jihadist militias against the Egyptian army in the Sinai peninsula have risen dramatically. The international community and the EU have condemned these attacks. Military actions have intensified but democracy will need to be restored quickly in Egypt, in order to prevent Sinai from turning into a new battlefield for various forms of radical extremists.
The Sinai peninsula, which is under Egyptian sovereignty, was occupied by Israeli forces during the June 1967 Six-Day War. It was then one of the main battlefields of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The adoption, in 1973, of UN Security Council Resolution 338 and the signature, in September 1975, of the Sinai Interim Agreement, followed by the Camp David Accords, signed on 17 September 1978, paved the way to the conclusion of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty in 1979.
Sinai was returned to full Egyptian sovereignty in 1982. The region is, however, considered a demilitarised zone, with only a limited number of Egyptian troops deployed. Any further deployment of forces is subject to agreement between Egypt and Israel.
In addition, the Sinai peninsula is host to a multinational observer force (MFO) deployed to monitor the implementation of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. The MFO, however, has neither the mandate nor the military capacity to react in case of attack. Sinai, inhabited for the most part by indigenous Bedouin tribes, was never a priority for former Egyptian governments, so was left behind in terms of socio-economic and infrastructure development.
Rise in attacks
According to media reports, Sinai has become increasingly lawless since the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s rule in 2011. The area has seen kidnapping, human trafficking, smuggling of guns and explosives, bombing of the cross-Sinai gas pipeline, rockets fired at Israel and attacks on Egypt’s security forces all rising dramatically. According to an article in the Economist, these attacks seem to be being carried out by Bedouin groups with long-standing grievances against the central government. These groups also have support from Salafi jihadist militias from both inside and outside Egypt.
Furthermore, Hamas fighters from the Gaza Strip, allied to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, are said to have formed a vanguard in Sinai, with the aim of attacking the Egyptian army. Since the military overthrew Morsi, in July 2013, attacks against police and army targets by Jihadists in northern Sinai have intensified significantly. The attack on a police convoy near the Gaza border on 19 August 2013, followed by the murder of 25 police conscripts, was one of the deadliest on security forces for several years. Reuters reports that the attempt to kill Egypt’s Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim in Cairo on 5 September 2013 was also claimed by a Sinai-based Islamist militant group.
The response to insecurity in Sinai
The Egyptian government is trying to re-assert control over the peninsula. The Egyptian armed forces have pledged to “cleanse” Sinai of militants, by intensifying their actions in the region, the Financial Times reported. Security officials told the Associated Press agency that Adel Mohamed (also known as Adel Habara), a leading militant wanted for the police killings was arrested, along with 31 other suspects, in Sinai on 31 August 2013.
On 3 September, the Egyptian army launched a series of strikes, killing at least eight people and destroying houses and weapons caches, as well as targeting tunnels used by militants and smugglers under the border with Gaza, reported the BBC. The Egyptian army has doubled to one kilometre the width of the security zone between the Gaza Strip and Sinai.
Israel has been stepping up cooperation with the Egyptian military, to curb the extremist threat from Sinai, the Financial Times has reported. An alleged Israeli drone strike on Egyptian territory near the border with the Gaza Strip, in mid-August 2013, could be considered a sign of a new level of cooperation, some sources indicate. The Egyptian army has denied any Israeli involvement, while Israel has declined to comment. Reuters reports, however, that the Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister has recognised that the Egyptian campaign in Sinai is of the utmost importance for both countries, in terms of keeping the peninsula quiet and preserving the peace between Israel and Egypt.
There was widespread condemnation of the 19 August attack:
The US State Department’s spokesperson confirmed that the Sinai peninsula is an area of concern for them. The US will support and cooperate with Egypt in its ongoing efforts against terrorism and growing lawlessness in the Sinai.
The Russian Foreign Ministry condemned the attack in the Sinai, and described it as a provocative terrorist act.
The Arab League’s Secretary-General announced his support for the efforts made by Egyptian authorities in tracking down and prosecuting terrorist groups. He called for solidarity with Egypt, supporting it in facing terrorist acts.
The UN Secretary-General condemned the attack, and expressed the hope that the perpetrators will be identified and brought to justice.
At the extraordinary meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council of 21 August 2013, the EU strongly condemned the murder of the 25 policemen in the Sinai and considered it an act of terrorism. The EU reiterated its readiness to assist the people of Egypt in their quest for democracy, stability, inclusiveness and prosperity.
From 2006 to 2010, the European Union (EuropeAid) sought to assist the people of Sinai, contributing to the development of the local economy through the South Sinai Regional Development Programme (SSRDP).
As regards the European Parliament, the chair of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Elmar Brok, told the press that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was accountable for the current situation in Sinai, having supported terrorists groups in the region. In its most recent resolution (12 September) on Egypt, the EP takes note of the increase in acts of terrorism and violent attacks against security forces in the Sinai. The EP condemns all acts of terrorism and calls for a rapid return of the democratic process and for the necessary economic and governance reforms to be made.
Haim Malka, a Middle East expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, told the New York Times that a military solution alone will not solve Sinai’s security problems. The analyst Amr Nasr El-Din, argues in an article published in the Sada journal (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) that the opportunity to effectively combat violence in Sinai may slip away if more imaginative and adaptable responses other than military operations are not taken up.
In an article in the Economist on the situation in Sinai, the mayor of El Arish, a northern Sinai town, states that the peninsula can only be prevented from turning into a battlefield for Islamists if Egypt is put back on the path to democracy.