Violence in Sinai can be explained in its remoteness from Egypt’s power centers. Its desert ecology, mountain covers, and a long coastline serve as various escape hatches for militants to elude law-enforcement
Egypt is ecologically insulated against insurgent violence. This explains why the country historically has been inhospitable to armed struggles. For violence to fester unmolested, a topography must feature a trifecta of vegetation, elevation and isolation. Across the globe, most violent resistance movements have their bases in thick and wide ranges of forests such as ones in Columbia, Chechnya, or the Philippines. Some find their sanctuaries in mountains as in Turkey and Syria. But all thrive in rural peripheries far from the urban core to be obscured by the prying eyes of the state. For good or ill, Egypt does not have such comfort zones for its ill-wishers. It does not have large expanses of dense vegetation for malcontents to melt into or wage violent campaigns from. Nor does it have elevations in long-rolling mountains that could become safe hideouts for armed bands. Above all it is a demographically compressed country that does not have vast isolated spaces that put distance between the long arm of the law and its violent offenders.
Egypt’s Demographic Compression
Egypt’s entire population is rather packed in 6% of the country’s landmass, which spans Nile Delta and Nile Valley. A population so densely distributed often carries itself into the state’s clenched fist of protection. It enables the state and its enforcers to keep a watchful eye on trouble makers in the population centers that are clustered into a small sliver of land. Demographically compact settlements further help enforcers to microscope any hint of social violence even in its gestation, and preempt its eruption. It is largely because of Egypt’s such violence-aversive land ecology that allowed its successive governments to stamp out extremist movements that were seeded with violence or had the potential to explode into violence.
A case in point is the Muslim Brotherhood that has been in a tight spot since the days of Gamal Abdel Naser. Despite its deep and wide roots of support, among the masses and the classes, it failed to present an armed challenge to the state. Its virulent extensions such as the Gamaa Islamiya were quickly defanged by the state’s blunt instrument – the military. In the like vein, its members such as Ayman Alzawahiri, who could not kick their wild habits, were disgorged from Cairo for good, and forced to live out of sight and out of mind of most Egyptians. They were even stripped of their Egyptian identity, trading in Arab Kafiya for central Asian turbans. Yet Egypt has a blind spot in Sinai that keeps tripping it.
Egypt’s Blind Spot
The Sinai Peninsula has been a chronic headache for Egypt. It got only worse since political turmoil shook the country in 2011. The return to power of the Muslim Brotherhood and its nominee Mohamed Morsi further inflamed the region. It was under Morsi that security forces were pulled out of the peninsula. With such moves, weapons reportedly began to flood into Sinai from Sudan and Libya. Sinai’s Bedouin tribes especially took heart from the fall of their nemesis in Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and have since waged an armed struggle against the state and its law enforcement. Also, they have been able to widen the space for their long-asserted-but-denied autonomy.
In Morsi, they found their salvation when he set free hordes of violent offenders from prisons in an apparent bid to court the region’s disaffected population. On the other hand, such measures earned Morsi deep suspicions in the rank and file of the armed forces. His popularity in the military hit the nadir when he appointed a member of the Gamaa Islamiya, an organization that was accused of bombing tourists, governor of Luxor, a tourist district in Sinai. This reversed the heavy footprint of the state’s policing, and replaced it with the goodwill of the native tribes. Morsi’s decision to tread lightly in the region set off jockeying for power among the tribes, whose fractious conflicts hastened the collapse of what remained of governance there. In no time the whole region turned into a snake pit of homicidal rivalries, and safe havens for unsavory characters drawn from far afield.
The freedom that tribes tasted under Morsi came to resemble a melee. In fact, a tribal leader called the region’s slide into free-for-all by its name: “anarchy.” The Egyptian military was wary of this permissiveness. It worried that “Morsi was giving a free hand to Islamic militants in the Sinai Peninsula, ordering (Abdel Fatah) el-Sisi,” the country’s defense minister, “to stop crackdown on Jihadis who ….. were escalating a campaign of violence.” “I don’t want Muslims to shed the blood of fellow Muslims," Morsi told el-Sisi, and ordered him to hold off on an offensive planned for November 2012. Such moves further deepened the military’s suspicions about Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood. The military believed that the Brotherhood “puts its regional Islamist ambitions above Egypt’s security interests.” Morsi’s flirtation with Bedouin tribes and militants in Sinai was seen as part of his regional agenda.
On the other hand, the military was faced with a brewing militancy in Sinai, which was fast rearing its head to challenge the most manifest expression of the state – the Egyptian military. In one of their most daring attacks in recent memory, militants ambushed and killed 16 Egyptian soldiers on August 5, 2012. Morsi still advised his Commanders patience. Sometimes he did go along with the military to punish the culprits, but his receptivity was often regarded as no more than a pretention. Sinai residents rather described Morsi’s public posturing and occasional fiery rhetoric on behalf of the state as “propaganda.”
Before long, Sinai found itself dumped on a pile of mounting disagreements between Morsi and the military. In a larger context, Sinai came to become the third leg of a tripod – the other two being Morsi’s bungling of the Ethiopian Dam and his alleged plans to trade away Halaib to Sudan -- which collapsed, toppling Morsi from his pedestal. Military and intelligence officials said, “security in the strategic Sinai Peninsula bordering Gaza and Israel was at the heart of the differences” between Morsi and the military, especially Gen. el-Sisi. On July 1, when el-Sisi gave the president 48 hours to come to terms with his Tamrod (Rebellion) opposition or face military intervention, two of Morsi aides called the commander in the Suez Canal region, Maj. Gen. Ahmed Wasfi, to offer him el-Sisi’s job. He immediately informed el-Sisi. That apparently sealed Morsi’s fate as is evident from his firing two days after.
Sinai: Egypt’s Natural Resource Bank
Sinai is Egypt’s only prized piece of real estate, spread over an area of 23,500 square miles, which makes it an Afro-Asian nation. The rest of Egypt is 100% Afro. Like Turkey -- Egypt’s former imperial ruler -- that straddles Asia and Europe, Egypt sits astride Africa and Asia, two continents that are bridged by Sinai. If Sinai slides out of its control, Egypt’s Asian identity will cease to exist. Another plank of Egypt’s identity is faith. Like Jewish Egypt, Christian and Muslim Egypt also celebrate the siting of Jabal Musa (Mount Moses) in Sinai where, according to a Biblical account, divinity appeared to Moses and delivered him the Ten Commandments. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, it is not settled whether Jabal Musa is located in southern Sinai that is largely mountainous or in northern Sinai that is mostly desert and that is the hotbed of what observers have already begun to call “insurgency.”
Beyond these abstract concerns, there are more worldly interests in Sinai that engage Egypt’s vigilance. Ecologically, Sinai sits on the natural wealth of minerals, metals, fisheries, and tourist sites, particularly its reserves of petroleum, manganese and uranium. Even in prehistoric times, Egyptians explored the region for mining copper that was then and now considered a highly valued metal of strategic significance. Thousands of years after, contemporary Egypt has built petroleum and manganese industries on the western fringe of Sinai, whose shipments have become a tempting target for “insurgents." They have already repeatedly targeted the Arab Gas Pipeline for their sabotage and caused substantial reduction in gas supplies to Jordan and Israel in 2011. Both countries are largely dependent upon Egyptian gas supplies for their regional needs.
A year later, such supplies to Israel came to a complete halt. Jordanian dependence on Egyptian gas is so acute that its disruption has caused the country $2bn in economic losses each year for the past two consecutive years. It has now approached Cairo for compensation. Egypt’s own losses are far greater as its total volume of dry natural gas exports dropped to 256 billion cubic feet in 2011, from a peak of 647 billion cubic feet in 2009. Egypt is the second largest dry natural gas producer on the African continent after Algeria. Its natural gas reserves of 77 trillion cubic feet make it the third largest producer in Africa after Nigeria and Algeria.
The Arab Gas Pipeline, which carries dry natural gas, runs through Sinai to Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel -- in that order. Disruption in gas supply means drastic cut in Egyptian revenues that are already in decline due to running political malaise. Of equal importance is Egypt’s eco-tourism that serves as its cash cow. Sinai hosts several Red Sea resorts with upscale hotels that beacon tourists from across the globe. Even the country’s popular resorts like Sharm-el-Sheikh are located in southern Sinai. The impact of insurgency however is visible in declining tourism revenue that has dropped by almost one-third from $12.5bn in 2010 to $9bn in 2011. As Sinai is flanked by major shipping lanes on all four sides, its natural advantage as a transit point for exports to Asian and European markets is further enhanced. The peninsula has an about 600 kilometer-long coastline that circles the Mediterranean Sea to the north of Sinai, Red Sea to the south, Gulf of Suez to the west, and the Gulf of Aqba to the east, as shown in the map above. This natural advantage works to insurgents’ designs as well, who wish to hit Cairo where it hurts most: its economic interests. Egyptian military seems to have a long and bitter fight on its hands before peace and quiet returns to Sinai.
Sinai’s Isolation is its Ignominy
Violence in Sinai can be explained in its remoteness from Egypt’s power centers. Its desert ecology, mountain covers, and a long coastline serve as various escape hatches for militants to elude law-enforcement. Besides isolation from the national core, violence-hit areas within Sinai also are concentrated in the farthest and obscure reaches along Egypt’s border with Asia. Isolation thus works to keep militancy from disintegrating. The state helped further “insurgents’” advantage, when its institutions worked at cross purposes as did the Egyptian presidency under Morsi and the military.
It is now abundantly evident that key natural resource conflicts were at the heart of the divide between Morsi and his Commanders. Morsi’s policies on the Ethiopian Grand Dam, border dispute over Halaib Triangle with Sudan and his playing fast and loose with the natural and strategic significance of Sinai were at odds with the military’s framing of national interests. This divergence caused the military to push back, which led to Morsi’s ouster and set the nation’s march to democracy back by years, if not decades.
Also, it will be long before the military can pacify the Sinai Peninsula, given Sinai’s natural and strategic significance that historically kept adding to its troubles. Sinai sits next to Egypt’s another strategic pearl in the Gulf of Suez and Suez Canal that serves as its Shipping Line of Communication to Asia, Europe and North America. Sinai itself can be an alternative route to Asia and Europe if supplies through Suez Canal paused. Ringed by the Mediterranean, Red Sea, Gulf of Suez and Gulf of Aqba, Sinai extends Egypt’s land and maritime borders across continents. Sitting at their confluence, Sinai is a revolving door between Asia and Africa. For all these reasons, the military will serve Egypt well by making peace in the region as quickly as possible, while resisting the temptation to tar all Bedouin tribes as violent bands. After all, violence is confined in a small sliver of 40 kilometers, while Sinai spreads over 61,000 square kilometers. This is where despair gives way to hope!!
(Tarique Niazi, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Environmental Sociology at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire)