Commentary

Sinai Turmoil Raises Serious Questions

Middle East In Focus

Middle East In Focus

Egyptian troops continue to pour into the Sinai Peninsula, days after the killing of 16 border guards by suspected Islamic militants. The incident has sparked an intense debate about who stands to gain most from the instability at the Egypt/Gaza border. Some Arab commentators have pointed their fingers at perennial bogeyman Iran, suggesting that Tehran is using militants to cause trouble to show it still has influence, despite the situation in Syria. Israel, meanwhile, is using the incident to argue for the revision of the peace treaty with Egypt, seeking to station IDF troops alongside Egyptian ones in the Peninsula. For many, however, this is ultimately a test of the mettle of newly elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, many began wondering who was immediately responsible for the killing of the border guards. In an article for Asharq Alawsat, Mohammed Hassanein identifies a number of groups that could possibly be involved: “The Sinai Peninsula is currently home to a number of armed Jihadi organisations, the most prominent of which is the ‘Al-Tawhid Wa Al-Jihad’ group, which has called for the establishment of an Islamic Emirate in Sinai. Since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak's regime at the beginning of last year, groups of hard-line Islamists have attacked police stations and the pipeline via which Egypt exports gas to Israel.”

Writing for the Kuwaiti Arab Times, Ahmed Al-Jarallah lays the ultimate responsibility for the attacks squarely at the feet of Iran, asserting “now that the regional doors and international windows have been closed in the face of Iran, it has started trying to use the Egypt-Palestine borders as a backdoor to show it can still influence regional politics and exert power outside whenever it feels like it....However, Iran failed to realize its objectives during the terrorist operation in Sinai....Whatever Tehran does, it will never succeed because it is like a snake biting itself for lack of something else to bite. Indeed, the international community can no longer tolerate the troubles and destruction caused by the ‘snakes’ of the Tehran regime.”

The Israelis, for their part, are using the increased border violence to push to amend the peace treaty between the two countries, especially given the cooled relations with Egypt since the fall of Hosni Mubarak. As Yedioth Ahronoth’s Riccardo Dugulin puts it: “A virtually unchallenged presence of al-Qaeda operatives and radical elements in the Sinai Peninsula, backed by an increased visibility of the Egyptian society’s belligerence toward Israelis, is rapidly turning the Sinai into a staging area for offensive raids against the southern border....After the Arab awakening,…Israel is still David, surrounded by forces which are not only are committed to fight it but are acquiring the necessary capabilities and manpower to do so.”

In light of the rising threat, Yaron Friedman argues that the “Eradication of Sinai terror requires massive military presence in region….The lack of a significant Egyptian military presence has left a dangerous void in Sinai. Islamist terror groups became aware of the region's potential more than 10 years ago, and the financial means at their disposal have allowed them to strike deals with local Bedouin tribes — the real rulers of the desert....Egypt is aware of the severity of the terror threat in Sinai and of the need for cooperation between the new government in Cairo and the army, as well as between Egypt and Israel....However, the eradication of terror in Sinai will be possible only if the Israel-Egypt peace treaty is revised in such a way that would allow for the mobilization of forces from both sides of the border to fight the jihadists.”

Drawing attention to the newly elected Egyptian president, the Jerusalem Post editorial notes: “What is required from Egypt is a concerted campaign to expel Iranian-backed Global Jihad terrorists, remove arms caches in Sinai and Gaza, and halt the funding and training of Sinai Beduin by Iran, Global Jihad and al-Qaida....Above all, this is a test for Egypt’s new president, who also happens to be leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. Now is the time for him to choose the West over Iran and strengthen ties with Israel to combat our common enemy: terrorism. If Mursi can restore calm on the Egyptian-Israeli border, the impact on the whole region will be enormous.”

However, as Arab News’ Osama Al Sharif points out, taking forceful action that aims to address the root causes of the violence in the Sinai could prove difficult and treacherous for Egypt’s new ruler: “The choices for President Mursi are tough. He will be forced to coordinate with Israel if the Egyptian Army is to have a free hand in Sinai. But closing the Rafah border crossing for too long will be seen as unpopular and un-Islamic. It will put him in a tight spot as someone who had promised to offer unlimited backing to the people of Gaza and end collective punishment of its inhabitants....here are no easy choices. There is a heavy political price tag to anything it does now, but Egypt’s battle for Sinai will change the geopolitical balance in that region.”

The Lebanese Daily Star, on the other hand, considers the cost of the violence to the reputation of Hamas: “The militarization of the Sinai by all kinds of extremist factions, as well as the spread of such parties inside Gaza, began under the nose of Hosni Mubarak, and has been going on in Gaza since Hamas took over the strip....The damage that has been done by the attack on the weekend is huge, and the remedy will take some time....Hamas now has to prove is seriousness in combating these organizations in order to gain the confidence of Egypt.”

Finally, there are those who have found the reaction of the Egyptian government to be inadequate. In an op-ed for the Egyptian Daily News, Alia Essam asserts “The timing, location and magnitude of the assault were all devastating in light of the already fragile security situation in Egypt. However, the official reaction of President Morsi and the newly appointed government, to say the least, did not amount to the level of the events....What is expected from the president in the coming days is to revisit the root causes of the incident... Some strategic experts find this a rare occasion to address the flaws of the peace treaty with Israel, which paralyzes Egypt from efficiently patrolling the peninsula.”


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