Courtesy Reuters

Instability in Sinai has escalated to unprecedented levels in the last two months. Militants have committed attacks against government offices and infrastructure and used the territory to stage assaults against Israel. The latest incidents -- the August 18 terror attack in Eilat, in southern Israel, and the subsequent killing of Egyptian policemen on the Egyptian-Israeli border by Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers -- have brought Egypt and Israel to the lowest point in relations during their 30-year peace.

The most immediate cause of the heightened tensions in the Sinai is the collapse of the Egyptian police force as a result of the February revolution that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak. As Mubarak's rule was unraveling in January and February, Bedouin protesters battled the police in Sinai towns with machine guns and grenades, forcing them to withdraw. They have not returned. The resulting security vacuum has allowed smuggling and infiltration into and out of Gaza to thrive and created space for radical extremist groups.

The Egyptian government's response to the rising instability in the Sinai has been simply to send more military forces. In August, in coordination with Israel, Egypt moved thousands of troops to Sinai as part of a campaign called Operation Eagle. 

This approach is based on the assumption, widely accepted in Cairo, that the root cause of instability in Sinai is the lack of army troops, whose numbers are limited by the provisions of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. As many Egyptian policymakers and analysts see it, the solution is therefore to amend the treaty to allow greater military presence in the area.

But such a strategy is wrongheaded for several reasons. For starters, although Israel has agreed to allow additional Egyptian troops into Sinai (totaling about 3,500 soldiers), the Netanyahu government is unlikely to give its consent to a permanent surge when it fears the emergence of an Islamist-dominated government in Egypt.

On a deeper level, however, this approach misreads the violence in Sinai as some isolated attacks originating from Gaza and not as a grass-roots insurgency with particular and, in many cases, legitimate grievances. Ever since 1982, when Egypt restored its control over the Sinai Peninsula after 15 years of Israeli occupation, the Bedouin majority who live there have been framed by the government in Cairo as outlaws. They are culturally and ethnically apart from Egyptians of the Nile Valley and share largely nomadic and clan-based social connections that extend beyond national borders. Bedouins were also long suspected of being collaborators during the Israeli occupation, accused of taking jobs with Israeli companies and starting new businesses under Israeli control.

As a result, Sinai Bedouins have long faced state discrimination: Almost a fifth are refused Egyptian citizenship, and all are denied the right to own land for fear that they would resell it to Israelis. Bedouins are also excluded from Egypt's mandatory conscription, prohibited from joining police or military academies or from holding key positions in Sinai's two governorates.

These discriminatory policies have been compounded by economic marginalization. Only a tiny fraction of Bedouins were able to find work in Egypt's tourism industry, the country's largest economic sector. In fact, many Bedouins believe that they were better off in terms of employment, education, and medical services under Israeli administration. Traditional jobs in herding and farming could not cope with the growing and largely young Bedouin population in the arid expanse of Sinai. Egyptian government programs meant to revitalize the region's economy, such as the al-Salam Canal, a large irrigation plan proposed in 1997, never got off the ground.

In the late 1990s, facing bleak economic prospects, the Bedouins moved into the underground economy of drug cultivation, smuggling, and human trafficking. Drugs were and continue to be either transferred for local consumption in Egypt or smuggled to Israel. Later on, the Israeli blockade of Gaza led to a flourishing trade in smuggled weapons and commodities through an elaborate network of tunnels. Above ground, the Bedouins help refugees from eastern Africa to cross into Israel illegally in search of economic opportunity.

Attempts by Egyptian security forces to cut off the underground economy, such as eradicating drug crops, deploying border guard units to the Gaza border to stop smuggling, and erecting more checkpoints on the roads, were largely unsuccessful. A culture of corruption allowed smugglers to bribe police; meanwhile, many of the central characteristics of the Bedouin nomadic lifestyle -- tracking skills, tight kinship bonds, and high mobility across the desert -- helped Bedouin smugglers evade capture.

Unable to arrest and prosecute Bedouins in Sinai, Egyptian security forces turned to their infamous practices under Egypt's emergency law, which has been in place since 1981: arbitrary arrests, torture, and holding the wives and daughters of suspected militants hostage to coerce the wanted to turn themselves in.

Combined with economic misery, state brutality provided a fertile ground for radicalization and violence. The Islamist group al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad, was formed in 2000 by two locals from the northern Sinai port town of al-Arish who recruited mainly among Bedouins from northern and central Sinai. It carried out a series of terrorist attacks against tourist destinations in southern Sinai between 2004 and 2006, killing about 130 people. The Egyptian government blamed al Qaeda and its global aims of jihad, but the attacks were in fact a response to deep-seated local grievances rooted in economic marginalization and the government's discriminatory policies.

The attacks unleashed the full brutality of the Egyptian security forces, with thousands of people detained and tortured by the police, which only bred greater resentment toward the state. The insurgency persisted, with clashes erupting between militants and security forces and even the blockading by angry Bedouins of highway roads in Sinai. In a revealing letter to the editor published by the Egyptian paper al-Masry al-Youm in July 2010, a local community leader wrote: "Bedouins are compelled to use violence to show that the use of excessive force to quell us will not work." Also, the geopolitical situation in Sinai, neighboring Hamas-led Gaza and Israel, drew jihadist groups intent on harming Israeli interests, whether attacking the gas pipeline to Israel or firing Grad rockets from Sinai into Israel.

Yet there are significant divides between the Islamists and the Bedouin tribes. The Islamists, for example, defy customs of tribal law -- particularly clan loyalty and the rule of chiefs -- because they claim such practices conflict with sharia. What's more, their policy of targeting Israel -- most recently on August 18, when eight Israelis were killed in Eilat by unidentified assailants who probably infiltrated into Israel through Sinai -- is not in the Bedouins' interests, because it puts in jeopardy their cross-border smuggling trade.

Another example is the Al-Arish raid. On July 29, dozens of armed men -- a mix of Islamists, local thugs, and escaped criminals -- roamed the town on motorbikes. They proceeded to attack the police station, killing five people, before disappearing back into the desert. A previously unknown group calling itself al Qaeda in Sinai Peninsula took responsibility for the raid, which shows the blurred organizational boundaries between members of the jihadi conglomeration in the Sinai. Although these groups maintain no operational links with al Qaeda, they are influenced by its rhetoric, calling on their followers to target Arab governments, Israel, and the West. 

The response to this sort of threat is not simply to send in more soldiers, as Cairo has so far chosen to do, but rather to carry out a politically driven counterinsurgency campaign. But the Egyptian army has relegated asymmetrical, low-intensity conflict to the bottom of its priorities. Instead, Cairo has focused its military preparations on buying up tanks, fighter aircraft, and air-defense missiles. This procurement policy, as well as the permanent deployment of the majority of ground forces between Cairo and the Suez Canal, is grounded in the military's attachment to the kind of symmetrical, conventional invasion against which it has long been preparing.

The Egyptian military establishment is likely to resist any change in doctrine or readiness strategy. According to a WikiLeaks cable, which reported on the U.S.-Egyptian military dialogue in 2008, Egypt has long resisted U.S. pressure to expand its military's core mission beyond defending Sinai against the implicit but unspoken fear of Israeli invasion. But such stubbornness is misplaced. Adopting a counterinsurgency strategy and maintaining conventional readiness are not mutually exclusive.

Sinai is today under a different kind of threat:  becoming a safe haven for terrorist organizations. The Eilat attack demonstrated how the insurgency could spark an international incident; and in the future, such militant attacks against Israel could bring IDF counterstrikes and a severe escalation of hostilities along the border.

Changing military doctrines takes time and involves adjustments in training, equipment, and force structure. Counterinsurgency draws heavily on intelligence, communications, and special forces, and not on formations of armored divisions and bomber squadrons. This is all the more true in the mountainous terrain of central Sinai. Moreover, since the key to defeating an insurgency is the trust and faith of the local population, the direction of the overall campaign in Sinai should lie with the civilian political leadership. This would require a dramatic change in Cairo to guarantee the military's complete subordination to the civilian control of strategy.

A democratic Egypt should offer a window of opportunity. Most important, imposing the rule of law in Sinai would satisfy the immediate needs of the Bedouin community.  Beyond that, the government must stop dictating development from above and instead work with the priorities of the local community, starting with land ownership, the development of villages, and the integration of young Bedouins in the national and local job market. If Cairo fails to implement such policies, it risks turning the Sinai into the country's Wild East, where lawlessness and jihadism could ultimately drag Egypt into a conflict with Israel that neither side wants.

  • AMR YOSSEF is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Taub Center for Israel Studies at New York University.
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