History shows us that disorder in Sinai spells trouble.
A few days have passed since an armed group targeted the Rafah border crossing and so far Egyptian security authorities have failed to announce any clear information about the group that undertook this operation, or the motives behind it. Some might say that it is too early to announce the results of an investigation, but on the other hand Israeli statements were published a few days before the operation indicating that an attack was imminent in Sinai, and the Israeli authorities even publicly warned their citizens against travelling to the region. Furthermore, according to the Haaretz newspaper, the internal Israeli security agency (Shin Bet) had informed the Israeli Ministry of Defense in advance of an imminent terrorist attack on the Egyptian border. If Israel was aware of the incident before it occurred, why did Egypt’s general and military intelligence not take notice of this warning?
According to reports, the attack took place during Iftar, the hour upon which Muslims break their fast during Ramadan. The attackers were supported by mortar fire launched from the Gaza Strip—a region under the control of Hamas—and were able to seize armored vehicles and head towards the Israeli border. If this account is correct, we are looking at government and security incompetence. It is true that security breaches in Sinai have become more common since 2007—when Hamas took over the border crossings—and there is a flourishing illicit trade via the notorious tunnels, but for border guards to be subjected to such organized attacks indicates that there are serious security flaws in the area. The central government in Cairo has become incapable of controlling the disorder, and this may expose Sinai to external interventions.
Some may think this is an exaggeration, but the fact is that Sinai has gradually started to get out of Cairo’s control. What else explains the bombings carried out by unidentified gunmen, who have targeted a gas pipeline in Sinai over 15 times in less than two years, without the authorities announcing the arrest of anyone? In his recent visit to Egypt, Khaled Mishal, head of the Hamas political bureau, promised President Mohammed Mursi his cooperation in border control, but the latest operation reveals that either Hamas is not serious about respecting the border crossing agreements which govern the Egyptian border with Israel, or it is unable to control security in the Gaza Strip—which has transformed into a shelter for extremist groups and a play-ground for external intelligence agencies.
It is surprising that the official statement issued by the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo accuses the Israeli intelligence apparatus, Mossad, of being involved in the operation. The statement absolves Hamas of responsibility by claiming that it was an attempt to “split the ranks,” without calling on the Hamas government to open an investigation as to why mortar shells were fired from within the Gaza Strip. Moreover, the Brotherhood statement ignores the fact that extremist, armed religious groups have been active within the Strip for several years. Hamas officials have admitted on more than one occasion to the presence of these extremist elements. Only last month, for example, Hamas arrested Abu Hafs al-Maqdisi, leader of the Jaysh al-Umma in Gaza, after confiscating weapons and equipment belonging to the jihadist group.
Attempting to link the incident to Mossad does not distract from the shortcomings of the Muslim Brotherhood in dealing with the incident on the Rafah crossing, and it seems that the group is yet to emerge from its opposition guise. There is a real security challenge here, and to deal with it the Brotherhood must take responsibility because a significant decline in security in Sinai really could open the door to foreign intervention. Many countries will not accept the Suez Canal coming under threat from extremist groups, or a decline in Egypt’s ability to control border crossings and sea ports.
The Brotherhood could learn a lesson from Egypt’s post-1956 military experience. On January 17th 1957, in her speech before the UN General Assembly, Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Golda Meir said that Israel’s stance on Sinai depended mainly on the protection of its right to access sea ports through the Suez Canal, the Gulf of Aqaba and the Strait of Tiran. At the same time Meir warned that the transformation of Sinai into a military threat would not only affect Israel’s security, but that many countries would be affected by the closure of straits and sea crossings. Unfortunately, President Nasser did not appreciate this warning, and his slogan-filled ideological discourse prompted him to reject all international treaties, and repeat threats to close the Suez Canal to all ships belonging to Israel and the states allied with it—opening the door for the armed operations of Palestinian groups within Sinai. In May 1967, after encouragement from the Ba’athist leaders in Syria, Nasser undertook a military mobilization in Sinai after expelling UN peacekeepers, and threatened the closure of the Gulf of Aqaba and the Strait of Tiran. In response, Israel implemented its threats by occupying Sinai a few weeks later.
At the present time there is an international peacekeeping force, the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), tasked with monitoring the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. It consists of 1,656 civil and military personnel from 14 countries. Since 2006 these forces have been targeted by unidentified gunmen and an MFO annual report—published in November 201—warned of the increased smuggling of arms through Gaza tunnels, and the emergence of armed extremist forces aiming to undermine security on the border. But, unfortunately, the Egyptian authorities have been preoccupied since the January 25th uprising and are still unable to pay attention to the deterioration of security in Sinai.
There are extremist groups in every country, but what has been happening in Sinai in recent years could not have been achieved without the intervention of intelligence services and foreign powers—not necessarily Israel—working to transform the border into an ongoing crisis. Hamas, which does not accept the international treaties pertaining to the region, now finds itself in trouble. On the one hand, its mere presence caused the closure of the Rafah crossing in June 2007, after the European Union Border Assistance Mission withdrew. On the other hand, Hamas cannot stop the activities of some of the armed Palestinian factions, such as the al-Quds Brigades— the military wing of the Iranian-sponsored Islamic Jihad organization. Hamas is unable to prevent these armed activities because it practiced the very same thing before winning the 2005 elections.
The leaders of the Freedom and Justice Party—the political wing of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood—should try to steer Egypt clear of the 1967 scenario. Continuing a radical rhetoric against the peace agreement with Israel, whilst trying to provide assurances to the United States and Western countries regarding this matter, may expose Egypt’s national interests to real danger. In an interview with CNN prior to his election, President Mursi did pledge to respect Egypt’s peace agreements with Israel, but these reassurances are currently being put to the test.
Will the Egyptian government cooperate with Hamas in order to prevent Sinai from descending into security chaos? We cannot say for sure yet, but it is certain that both parties must review their radical literature and oppositionist political discourse, so that they can represent the interests of their citizens. If you want your authority to be respected, and to run a government trusted by the international community, you have to renounce the cloak of the past and work hard to prioritize national interests rather than spout empty rhetoric about “resistance” and the Palestinian cause. Egypt would do well to heed Pakistan’s experience, where the role of the central government was weakened as the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan got out of its control. This provided a pretext for the Americans to intervene in Pakistani affairs, and even undertake military operations there without permission.
When a state’s influence and prestige is reduced, parties and groups will begin to disobey the central government. Therefore the security of Sinai is vital in order not to compromise the sovereignty of the state, or even an inch of it, and expose the country to foreign intervention.