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Volatile Sinai

Matthias Sailer /aiNovember 14, 2012

Dire economic circumstances and decades of neglect under Mubarak have turned Egypt's Sinai into a breeding ground for criminals and radical Islamists. So far, the authorities have failed to deal with the problem.

Desert road on the Sinai
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Nowhere in Egypt is the security situation currently as tense as in the North Sinai province bordering Israel. Repeatedly, there have been attacks on the security forces and the region is considered a hub for arms smugglers, human trafficking and militant Islamists and jihadists. The central government has little control over large swaths of the area. In the latest incident earlier this month, three policemen were shot dead by unknown attackers.

The reasons for the situation are manifold. Abdel Moati Zaki Ihbrahim is a party official with the governing Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood. "Mubarak completely neglected the Sinai, not only the land but also the people," the political scientist said. "The people living there are not even allowed to join the army or own land."

Dire economic situation

The economic and social situation of the people living in the province is disastrous: there are not enough schools and there is hardly any employment to speak of. Some of the Bedouins have therefore taken to illegal means to earn their living. There's an entire economy based on smuggling: Weapons moving between Sudan, Libya and the Gaza strip are being traded on the Sinai. Another form of income is kidnapping African refugees for ransom.

Egyptian relatives cry on the coffin of a soldier killed (picture: REUTER/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)
Egyptian soldiers are freqent victims of attacks on the SinaiImage: Reuters

The security vacuum after the fall of Mubarak meant that the illegal structures were established even further. "I think the majority of those incidents have an economic background, that this is about smuggling, about keeping smuggling routes free from security forces blocking them," Stephan Roll, an Egypt expert with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), told Deutsche Welle.

The brutality of the police forces plays into the hands of the illegal structures. Torture, and arbitrary arrests are not uncommon in Sinai - as in the rest of Egypt. There are even arrests of female family members to put pressure on fugitives to surrender themselves. But on the Sinai, such tactics have an even more devastating effect, explained Zaki Ibrahim. "Why? Because society on the Sinai is particularly conservative. You can't even look at a woman there even if she's fully veiled." Professional security forces should familiarize themselves with the local traditions and customs before they embark on a police mission, he added.

Al Qaeda connections

All this taken together is a perfect breeding ground for violent Islamists. Zaki Ibrahim believes that their influence is on the rise on the Sinai - with clear connections to al Qaeda. "They see the government as non-believers," and their distorted interpretation of Islam justifies them violence and murder to topple the state. Their goal, Ibrahim explained, was to eventually set up a religious state on the Sinai.

Husni Mubarak
Ousted dictator Mubarak for decades neglected the SinaiImage: picture-alliance/dpa

So far, most attempts to solve the problems in the province have involved the military. "I don't think the military approach has helped much," said Roll. "But my biggest concern is that it wasn't even meant that seriously." Except for moving large troops contingents to Sinai, the authorities haven't actually done anything effectively to deal with the problem, Roll believes.

A reluctant military?

Experts can only speculate as to why the military has been so hesitant. One reason clearly is that in mountainous Sinai, it is very difficult to track down criminal gangs and militant Islamists. Any massive military operation would therefore lead to civilian casualties and only make matters worse. So there are rational reasons as to why the military would be holding off. But the police in the province are also pointing to more simple solutions that would be possible but are still not being undertaken. Incompetence or corrupt officials who profit from the smuggling would be possible explanations, but they remain speculations.

Mohamed Mursi (picture: REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)
President Mursi is careful not to use powers associated with dictatorshipImage: Getty Images

According to Ibrahim, there is one major reason for the absence of a substantial development program for the Sinai: "There's no parliament that could criticize individual measures. We have a president but he wants to use his lawmaking powers only in cases of emergency because that's what he promised."

The military council that governed in the wake of the ousting of Mubarak has had its powers taken away and assumed by President Morsi. Those include all legislation in the absence of parliament which has been dissolved. In an effort to throw off the tag of being yet another another dictator, Morsi said he would use these powers only in emergency situations. A new parliament is expected to be elected by mid 2013 at the earliest.