Protesters sitting in a road blocked by burning tires in front of the North Sinai governorate
Protesters sitting in a road blocked by burning tires in front of the North Sinai governorate headquarters in El-Arish, Egypt, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2012. Photo by AP
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The murder of three policemen, burning tires, demonstrations against Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, the refusal of the Bedouin tribal heads to convene in Cairo to discuss the security problems in the Sinai Peninsula, and the opposition's sharp criticism of the way the Sinai is being handled, are all symptoms of the smoldering volcano that is active in the northern Sinai and quickly gathering strength for its next eruption.

The brawls between Egyptian police and armed gangs, apparently members of extreme Islamist groups, reached a peak on Saturday, when three policemen were shot dead by gunmen.

Immediately afterward, the policemen at the El-Arish police station launched a demonstration, blocking roads over what they said was contempt for their safety and that of the area's residents. They were joined by residents of El-Arish and members of the tribes who live in the nearby villages, who blocked the main roads leading to El-Arish. Later, policemen from the Sheikh Zawid police station joined the protest, abandoning their station and forcing the army to man it with soldiers.
 
Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and Interior Minister Ahmed Gamal El-Din were summoned to El-Arish to try to calm down the tribal leaders, but rather than meet with them, the two made do with speaking to the district governor, after which the interior minister announced he was sacking the security chief of the northern governorate.

The brevity of the visit infuriated tribal leaders, who had already gathered for the meeting that was expected to take place in the district administration building. When they were told the two ministers would not have time to meet them, they went out to the street and began burning tires. The next day they were invited to Cairo to meet with el-Din but they responded that they were not going to be toyed with and if the minister wanted to meet, he should come to them.

This rift between the civil and military leadership in El Arish and the heads of the local Bedouin tribes comes at a critical period, during which the military is trying to get the tribes to cooperate more closely against the radical elements, and at a time when the government hasn’t even started to rehabilitate northern Sinai. On a website the North Sinai Governorate set up to publicize its accomplishments, one can read about lots of meetings, promises, and lunches with tribal leaders, but the grand plan once discussed that included huge investments that would create jobs in the area remains buried deep in some drawer.

The turmoil in Sinai is quickly trickling toward Cairo, where opposition representatives denounced the government and Morsi for seemingly being unable to maintain quiet in the peninsula. “Why haven’t the names of those involved in the murder of the Egyptian officers in August been released?” demanded the chairman of the secular Wafd party.

Political activists in Sinai interviewed on Egyptian television demanded that the government publicly admit that Operation Eagle (the large-scale operation aimed at clearing the Sinai of terror organizations, which began in August) was a total failure, and to put those responsible for security on trial. Police volunteers from El-Arish reported on a popular television program that the weapons the Interior Ministry had given them to deal with the armed militants are not appropriate and can’t even be used to disperse demonstrations.

In August it really looked as if the Egyptian army and Morsi intended to operate intensively and continuously against the radical groups, and Morsi even obtained the support of Hamas’ Khaled Meshal and Ismail Haniyeh, who promised to confront these groups’ offshoots in Gaza. But apparently these armed cells have gathered in the mountainous regions of the central Sinai, in areas where it is difficult for the regular army to operate. It also seems that the relative calm in September led to a thinning out of the military forces.

Morsi’s government thought that it could promote cooperation with the Bedouin tribes. But since the latter understand that the promises made to invest in their areas and create jobs are not being kept, and that the army isn’t able to deal with the extremist groups, they are naturally rethinking their cooperation with the regime.

With Morsi in the thick of a tough political struggle with the Salafist political movements in Egypt, and when the radical organizations accuse him and his government of heresy, it’s difficult for Morsi to use the required measure of military pressure against the Salafist groups in the Sinai. He is trying to maneuver between these two Salafist streams, but Sinai can’t wait. Any day now it is liable to erupt beyond the “routine” violence to produce terror attacks against Israel and make managing foreign policy vis a vis Israel even more complicated for Morsi.