Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula has become an area of growing concern due to the present semi-anarchical situation in an area that has long been problematic in terms of lawlessness. The Sinai is a triangle shaped peninsula consisting of some sixty-one thousand square kilometers (about the size of West Virginia) with a population of roughly 360,000 – which is divided between ethnic Egyptians, Sinai Bedouin and Palestinians. Since the Sinai has virtually no indigenous sources of water, it has historically served as a largely uninhabited buffer zone between civilizations of the Fertile Crescent (modern-day Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and the Palestinian Territories) and Nile Valley-based civilizations.
The Sinai was formally attached to Egypt in 1906 due to British pressure (the British had been governing Egypt since 1882 and came to view direct control of the Sinai as important to safeguarding the Suez Canal). From this point on, the Sinai was formally recognized as being a part of Egypt, but it always remained a frontier zone that could never be integrated into the Egyptian state and Egyptian consciousness in the way that the Nile Valley region was.
The marginal and frontier nature of the Sinai was further reinforced by the fact that, between 1967 and 1982, initially the entire peninsula, and then a gradually decreasing portion of it, came under Israeli rule and thus was effectively detached from the Egyptian state. Once Egypt reacquired the entire peninsula in 1982 under the terms of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty, Cairo’s ability to integrate the Sinai into Egypt was still severely circumscribed, this time by the terms of the peace treaty. As part of the peace negotiations at Camp David, Israel has insisted that the Sinai remain a demilitarized zone (there are actually three zones in the Sinai with differing degrees of demilitarization) and thus continue to serve as a buffer zone between Egypt and Israel.
The overwhelming majority of the Israeli military then (and now, though a bit less so now) consisted of reservists who required a 2-3 day window to be fully mobilized and ready for battle. Israel, accordingly, needed 2-3 days from the advent of hostilities in order to prepare the bulk of its army for war. Israel thus needed the Egyptian army to have to traverse the Suez Canal and then cross the whole of the Sinai before it could reach the Israeli border – thus buying precious time for Israel as well as allowing Israel to use its air force to attack Egyptian tank columns crossing the canal or traversing the few west to east roads in the peninsula. The upshot of this is that Egypt, even when it had a strong leadership interested and capable of asserting Egyptian sovereignty over the Sinai, was limited in its ability to police and control the peninsula. For both countries, this was a small price to pay in comparison to the benefits of bilateral peace.
Over the years, not surprisingly, the Sinai became a center for international criminal activity that largely involved human trafficking (initially primarily Eastern European women destined for Israeli brothels but also, in more recent years, East African laborers and asylum-seekers), drugs and military contraband. Given its relative lawlessness and proximity to both the Gaza Strip and Israeli border, as well as its Palestinian population, it is not surprising that it also gradually became an area of activity for different Palestinian organizations (including Hamas) whose ties to the Sinai have increased since that organization took control of the adjacent Gaza Strip in 2007.
Furthermore, more recently, the dissemination of Jihadist ideas have led to several Bedouin and Palestinian factions adopting, in broad terms, the ideology and objectives of Al Qaeda and its fellow travelers. Israeli experts have pointed to the existence of cells in the Sinai affiliated with Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Popular Resistance Committees (a Gaza Strip-based organization consisting of former Fatah members), the Army of Islam (an A.Q. affiliated group), and Hizballah (ever searching for new fronts from which to confront Israel). In August of 2011, a proclamation was issued announcing the “creation” of an Al Qaeda “Emirate of the Sinai Peninsula” followed four months later by the establishment of a new A.Q. -affiliated organization in the Sinai known as Ansar al-Jihad.
As the various Palestinian, Lebanese and A.Q.-affiliated organizations have become further entrenched in the Sinai, and as the ability of the Egyptian state to confront these groups became even more limited as the Mubarak regime tottered and then collapsed in early 2011, the Sinai has become a truly dangerous place in terms of regional stability. The trend has been so worrying to Israel that it effectively tore up some of the stipulations of the peace treaty to allow Egypt to deploy additional security forces to the eastern part of the Peninsula. Yet, this seems to have had little effect.
On August 18, 2011, Israel’s border with the Sinai became the scene of a highly professional and well-orchestrated terrorist attack on Israeli road traffic near the border that involved pitched battles of platoon-sized forces between the terrorists and the Israeli military. This was not the first time the Egyptian-Israeli border had been breached to carry out terrorist attacks, but these had previously been few and far between and largely involved Palestinian suicide bombers rather than well-trained guerrilla forces. The recent rocket attack on the Israeli city of Eilat, which lies just a few kilometers from the Egyptian border, was likely the work of a cell operating in the Sinai, and this underscores the potential rocket threat from the Sinai. Israel’s ability to respond effectively to these attacks is severely hampered by the fact that it cannot allow its forces to violate Egyptian sovereignty and carry out overt operations in the Sinai without risking completely undermining what is already, in the post Mubarak era, a very shaky peace with Egypt. Egypt too stands to suffer from the growing terrorist activity in the Sinai as this has already scared away many tourists (on which the peninsula’s economy depends) and Egyptian natural gas pipelines to Israel and Jordan have already been blown up repeatedly, thus hampering Egypt’s foreign trade.
For the United States and the West in general, if the Sinai becomes a “failed state,” this will provide Al Qaeda elements with an additional sanctuary and base of operations that is close to Europe and the major flashpoints of the Middle East. It will also be a threat the now-tenuous Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and could, under extreme scenarios, lead to major warfare, destabilizing the region as a whole. It is important to recognize the threat and make addressing it a priority. At the same time, there will be no easy solution. The best the United States, and Israel, can hope for is an Egyptian government, even if that government is a Muslim Brotherhood government, that will recognize that a “Wild East” situation in the Sinai does not serve Egyptian interests and, in fact, severely undermines them (not least because it could lead to war with Israel, which is not only very risky for Egypt but is certain to lead to the total cessation of U.S. aid). The Administration needs to make it clear to the new rulers of Egypt that America’s expectation is that Egypt continue to play a role that promotes regional stability and that this requires, among other things, that it get its house in order.