Egypt's army fills Sinai, but business runs as usual
Cairo has reinforced troop levels in the peninsula, but they are few and far between, and smuggling continues apace.
Sinai, EGYPT - A bearded Bedouin approached a cab on the main street of Rafah, in Egypt. Right next to the taxi, at either end of the narrow street, were two armored personnel carriers and a squad of Egyptian army soldiers in full combat gear.
"Do you want to go over them, or under?" he asked with a smile, but totally serious. The starting price was 1,000 Egyptian pounds, but you can bargain. At the height of the biggest military operation ever against terror in northern Sinai, the main business of the area's Bedouin - cross-border smuggling into Israel or the Gaza Strip via tunnels or holes in the fence - continues apace.
The army roadblocks begin before Sinai on the road from Port Said to the big bridge over the Suez Canal. The checkpoints are permanent, but now they are manned by soldiers using APCs rather than police officers, and they have been reinforced with piles of sandbags. But the regular emplacements along a stretch of nearly 200 kilometers, from the canal to the outskirts of El-Arish, are abandoned at night. Despite the military operation and the reinforcements, which according to Israeli sources add up to seven battalions beyond the deployment levels specified in the Camp David treaties, the Egyptian army does not dare position isolated soldiers along the main road of northern Sinai out of fears of Bedouin attacks.
Israel gave its approval to increasing Egyptian deployment levels in northeastern Sinai several times last year, to improve border security, but that improvement is not evident. In any case the forces are not deployed in southern Sinai, the area from which Israel believes the most recent Grad rocket fired at Eilat was launched. The reinforcements did not prevent the attacks on the natural gas pipeline to Israel, which was recently sabotaged again - the 14th time since early 2011.
Only two kilometers before El-Arish are there once again APCs with heavy machine guns, sandbags and soldiers - very close to the gas station that was burned to the ground by Bedouin a few weeks ago. From there, inside El-Arish and every few kilometers until Rafah and the border crossing, there are more and more heavily protected roadblocks, with soldiers keeping close to their armored vehicles and the machine guns on the roof. At first sight, the military operation looks impressive, as more soldiers and APCs move in from their bases in western Sinai, near the Suez Canal. These bases were built on the remnants of Israel's Bar-Lev Line built after the Six-Day War. But it is obvious very quickly that the reinforcements are just sitting in place. The new battalions were placed only along the main road. They do not conduct patrols along it, do not leave the road to search in El-Arish or Rafah and certainly do not come anywhere near the Bedouin camps near the mountainous regions south of the coastal plain.
The quality of the Egyptian troops is also not the best. In the events where the army was called to intervene during the revolt against former President Hosni Mubarak last year, the units deployed were elite units of professional veterans equipped with the finest American armor. But the battalions sent to Sinai are filled with inexperienced, raw recruits, and their armored vehicles are almost all old Soviet wrecks. Few officers are visible.
In my previous visits to northern Sinai, three and seven years ago, you couldn't cross the road without running into hundreds of police and Mukhabarat secret police operatives who flooded the region. Now there is no sign of them. Egyptian law enforcement authorities are nowhere to be seen near the border, except for a handful of police officers near the Rafah border crossing into the Gaza Strip.
This week, maybe because of the operation, the border crossing was closed. All along the road from El-Arish semitrailers packed with sacks of cement were parked, waiting for the crossing to open - or an opportunity to reach one of the tunnel openings. The soldiers did not even check the identity cards of the drivers or their bills of lading. They merely slowed down and glanced at the occupants. Out of fears of attack the soldiers stood all day in the blazing sun wearing their helmets. Between shifts they stayed in tents set up along the sides of the armored cars, which have their own colorful sun umbrellas.
Many of the armored vehicles were not in northern Sinai but outside the bases in the depths of the peninsula, to protect the guards against Bedouin attacks. The Multinational Force and Observers in Sinai, who are responsible for monitoring the Camp David Accords, have found themselves trapped inside their bases and have not been patrolling the region.
The main road into central Sinai is closed to tourists and abandoned. People on the road have been abducted or at the very least robbed by Bedouin, said a driver who used to ferry tourists from Cairo to the region. There are no tourists in the area anyway, and only the hotels at Taba just next to the Israeli border have tourists. Almost all the resorts are empty, and construction has been halted on all tourism projects.
For years it is clear there has been a mass exodus from Rafah and El-Arish, along with a lack of interest on the part of the central government in Cairo in investing in the area, which has few tourist attractions.
But the smuggling and transfer of goods into Gaza have brought a sort of economic spurt. On top of basements concealing tunnel openings owners have built fancy homes, and a significant portion of the building materials coming through to the Gaza Strip, both above and below ground, have been siphoned off for the new construction. There is even a new Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in El-Arish. Most of the residents of Rafah and El-Arish are Palestinians or Egyptians from elsewhere in the country. The Bedouin can be identified by their vehicles. They drive new Japanese cars on the roads and SUVs off the roads, to their encampments and to smuggle goods and people across the border into Israel.
The corruption is best evidenced by the condition of the roads. The members of the road repair crews are most often found sleeping along the main roads, and even the roads that were improved in the past two years are already shot. Someone simply sent the asphalt somewhere else.
Egypt's revolution is incomplete, as the lack of security in Sinai illustrates. Campaign posters from the recent parliamentary election and the presidential election at the end of the month are more scarce in Sinai. Whereas in other Egyptian cities every wall is covered with a variety of election posters, in Rafah and El-Arish most are of the charismatic Salafist preacher Hazem Abu-Ismail. His bearded face jumps out from walls in towns where all the women are covered from head to foot - and the image of other candidates is absent.