Analysis |

How Egypt Lost Sinai Long Before the ISIS Attacks

Cairo's decades-long neglect of the northern part of the strategic peninsula and its people is now being paid for in Egyptian soldiers' blood.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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File photo: Egyptian militants drive through the northern Sinai town of Sheikh Zuweid in 2013.
File photo: Egyptian militants drive through the northern Sinai town of Sheikh Zuweid in 2013.Credit: AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The coordinated attack on Wednesday morning against at least a dozen Egyptian military targets in northern Sinai, including the use of massive car bombs, followed the pattern of similar operations carried out by ISIS in Syria and Iraq, which allowed them to capture large areas and towns from the demoralized and dismantled Syrian and Iraqi armies.

The successful transplant of these tactics to Sinai, landing a devastating blow on the Egyptian army that in theory is much better organized and equipped, should not be seen as a surprise when factoring in that the attack took place in a region that Cairo has long ceased to rule in any real sense.

For months, access to the desert peninsula has been forbidden to journalists, especially foreign reporters. They are stopped at checkpoints near the Suez Canal and sent back to Cairo. But prior visits to Sinai, conducted between the 2011 revolution and the recent closure to journalists, clearly showed that Egyptian army reinforcements (made with Israel's quiet approval since they exceeded the military forces level allowed in Sinai by the two countries' peace treaty) were inefficient.

Egypt's military solution to the increased jihadist activity in Sinai was largely limited to setting larger and more numerous checkpoints along the narrow northern coastal highway. Elite Egyptian units with relatively advanced American weaponry are rarely sent far from their positions around Cairo. Instead, battalions of illiterate conscripts with outdated Soviet-era APC's and tanks were deployed to Sinai. The officers remain in town barracks, while sergeants command the checkpoints and at night, huddle inside the APCs.

Map of last week's attacks in the Sinai.

People carry the coffin of an Egyptian soldier killed in last Wednesday's attack by Islamic militants in the Sinai. (AP)

Desert advantage

Egypt's focusing of most of its military activity on the highway that ends at the Rafah crossing to the Gaza Strip is a consequence of the army's limitations and also of a lack of clear jihadist targets. Since many of the Sinai jihadists are from local Bedouin tribes (reinforced by Muslim Brotherhood members who have fled the cities), they know the desert terrain much better than the army, using it to their advantage. After launching attacks, the jihadists quickly retreat and find shelter in the mountains or Bedouin encampments. Military helicopters and fighter-bombers of the Egyptian Air Force have no bases to attack.

Whether or not foreign media reports of Israeli drones being allowed (or requested) to attack targets on sovereign Egyptian soil are accurate, they underline the fact that the Egyptian military is worried that if its aircraft loiter at low altitude over Sinai, they run the risk of being shot down by jihadists using shoulder-launched missiles.

The Egyptian military's failure to assert control over Sinai reaches back to February 2011, when immediately after overthrow of Mubarak, the jihadists succeeded in repeatedly sabotaging the pipelines supplying Egyptian gas to Israeli and Jordanian power plants. The military's first reinforcement on the peninsula was aimed at ensuring the gas shipments, but each time, the jihadists blew up another point on the pipeline.

Egyptian forces drive to El-Arish from Sheikh Zuwaid. May 21, 2013. Credit: Reuters

Bedouins watch as flames rise into the air after masked gunmen blew up a terminal of the natural gas pipeline to Israel and Jordan in El Arish, northern Sinai, in a predawn attack, July 12, 2011. (AP)

Neglect comes at a bloody price

As it was, Sinai's local population never saw even a tiny part of the gas profits.

The peninsula's Mediterranean coast is dilapidated. The buildings in its main city, El Arish, are crumbling, its zoo deserted, and its few hotels empty. Some may find this surprising, especially Israelis who remember the golden beaches of the former settlement Yamit in the post-1967 period. Indeed, the successive failure of the Egyptian government to develop the region since the Israeli evacuation in the early 1980s is now being paid for now in Egyptian soldiers' blood.

Compounding this neglect is the lack of homogeneity and unity among northern Sinai's population. The region's residents are divided between Bedouins who have moved to the small towns along the coast, Palestinians who mainly live close to the Gaza border, and Egyptians who have arrived from other parts of the country, believing the government's unfulfilled promises of new projects. Often, the few jobs available have gone to the new arrivals, gifted by governors appointed by Cairo. Unsurprisingly, few residents feel much loyalty to the central government.

It's enough to peer down from one of the guard towers along the Israel-Egyptian border – the buildings on the Palestinian side of Rafah, despite the dismal economic situation in Gaza, are larger and in much better shape than most of those in Egyptian Rafah.

Collapse of the tunnel economy

One exception to this was the emergence of dozens of small tidy villas that sprung up in Egyptian Rafah's rundown border neighbourhoods in recent years – a clear sign that they covered entrances to Gaza-bound tunnels. However, Egypt and Israel's crackdown on the smuggling economy – the main source of income for thousands of family in Rafah and beyond – has shattered this one exception to the rule.

For years, Israel and the U.S, which also supplied engineering equipment and advisors, begged the Egyptians to act against the tunnels. The Mubarak regime had no special interest in doing so and the Morsi government didn't want to harm its Hamas protégés. No-one was thinking of course about an economic alternative for the local population. The Sissi government, however, wanted to exert pressure on Hamas and it is the first Egyptian leadership to act decisively against the tunnels, destroying some two thousand homes near the border, exploding the entrances and digging deep trenches. Thousands are now homeless and without the income they had from smuggling or "hosting" a tunnel in their basement.

The few remaining deep tunnels are now under exclusive Hamas control and are being used for arms and fighters. The days when an entire economy sprung up around the tunnels and couriers on scooters ferried passengers and KFC deliveries are over.

The downturn in the smuggling business is not just a result of Egyptian military operations. The completion of the massive steel border fence on Israel's border with Egypt has cut off nearly all the routes available to the Bedouin who made a living out of trafficking cigarettes, drugs, Eastern European women destined for the Israeli sex industry and refugees from Eritrea's military dictatorship. Indeed, Sinai's economy is in deep crisis. The Bedouin who once moved freely between the two countries, many of them speaking fluent Hebrew learned during years of work as illegal residents in Israel, are now all unemployed.

At the other end of the peninsula, on the Red Sea coast, the situation is still calm. This region, in contrast to north Sinai, has enjoyed government investments, no small thanks to the presence of Mubarak and other senior officials' villas around the Sharm el-Sheikh resort. The Bedouin who work in the hotels and operate their own holiday villages and mountain tours have an interest in keeping the jihadists away.

Yet as the chaos in other parts of Egypt continues to deepen, and even the hardiest tourists – including Israelis who continue to ignore government warnings against travel to Sinai – keep away, the interest of south Sinai's Bedouins in keeping the peace will also dissipate.

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