There have been many repercussions from the Arab Spring—both real and augured. However, for all the focus, time, and prognostication that have been heaped upon the region by pundits and analysts, one growing problem has received inadequate attention. The Sinai Peninsula—the tooth-shaped desert sandwiched between Israel and Egypt—has become increasingly ungovernable by Egyptian authorities. This has spawned a fertile region for Islamist terror; terror that threatens to engender disastrous consequences for proponents of moderation and stability.
Since the advent of peace between Israel and Egypt in 1979, the border between Sinai and Israel has generally been peaceful. Egyptian-Israeli peace has supported regional stability for decades. There have been no major Arab-Israeli wars since Egypt and Israel fought in 1973 and both have collaborated to dampen Islamist extremism. However, lawlessness and terrorism in Sinai threaten to unravel much of this progress.
Over the past few years, Sinai has become a haven for a variety of Islamist terrorist groups, ironically providing a new base for Islamist resurgence while the Arab Spring simultaneously diminishes global support for extremist movements. Reports indicate that local Bedouin, affiliated and sympathetic with the global jihadist movement, Palestinian terrorists, Iranian- and Hezbollah-backed groups, and al-Qaeda have all set-up operations in the peninsula. While these groups have a diversity of targets—Egyptian and global targets are suitable—much of the terrorist activity has been directed at Israel and the Egyptian-Israeli peace.
For instance, last summer, on August 18, 2011, terrorists launched a daring and deadly raid from Sinai, killing eight Israelis, wounding thirty, and prompting reprisals that raised tensions with Egypt. Last week, rockets were fired from Sinai into the southern Israeli city of Eilat. Terrorists have also attacked gas pipelines and Egyptian security facilities. Israel, unsurprisingly, has responded. It has begun constructing a security barrier along the border and has assassinated terrorist leaders, including Zuhair al-Qaissi, the head of the Popular Resistance Committees, a Hamas- and Hezbollah-backed terrorist group based in Gaza that has operated in Sinai.
The new Egyptian government, despite professing a desire to maintain peace with Israel, has been unable to rein in Islamist activity in the Sinai hinterlands. The current regime has been weakened by the need to focus on establishing a new government and maintain order in the face of continual popular dissent and does not possess the centralized control that allowed Hosni Mubarak to manage the state and the Islamists. This has forced the government to turn inward, focusing on the “core” of Egypt while allowing the desert regions, far from Cairo, to devolve from central control.
Practical limitations, however, do not fully explain the diminished control in Sinai. Ideological acceptance, if not affinity, for the Islamist movements has yielded minimal desire or political ability for some of these new rulers to crack down. While many in the security forces still, like the Israelis, see the Islamists as a threat, numerous new leaders are Islamists or sympathizers. For many, their political power rests on an Islamist constituency, making severe curtailment of Islamist activity difficult and undesirable.
While Israel and Egypt continue to nominally work together, the Egyptian government’s ability and willingness to control the militants has waned and it is unclear whether cooperation will continue in the future. In fact, the new government recently canceled an Egyptian-Israeli contract to provide natural gas to Israel, a key agreement made as part of the 1979 peace accord. Growing terrorist activity coupled with changes in the makeup and goals of the Egyptian regime have contributed to nervousness and uncertainty in the region.
This appears to be one of the major goals of the Islamists. Whether Iranian-supported, al-Qaeda-affiliated, or radical Palestinian, these groups despise the existence of Israel and the Egyptian-Israeli peace. By reorienting their focus from the far-enemy, the United States, to the near-enemy, these Islamist terrorists strive to weaken Israel, moderate Western-oriented Arabs, and the current regional system, laying the groundwork for a Middle East that conforms to the Islamist worldview. Tactically, these groups hope to foment distrust and hostility between Egypt and Israel, thus undermining a bastion of stability that has helped to maintain the security status quo in the Middle East.
This is worrisome from both a regional and American perspective. Greater strain between Israel and Egypt may destabilize the Middle East’s post-Cold War system and, at worst, yield a return (albeit in Islamist fashion) to a bellicose pre-1979 Middle East. Further growth of Islamism, particularly the most radical strands, will not only destroy achieved and potential gains of the Arab Spring, but weaken the United States’ influence in an important region. Success of the Islamist movement in Sinai has the potential to upend decades of positive developments in the Middle East.
While it is too early to deign how Egypt will eventually manage the Sinai, the potential for disaster is clearly present. Increased lawlessness and terror in Sinai is a growing problem of which voices of moderation and peace in the Middle East and West should be extremely wary. More attention needs to be directed toward this area and more pressure applied to stemming Islamist operations and influence—before it is too late.
Written by Josh Grundleger
Josh Grundleger is currently the Editor-in-Chief of the SAIS Review of International Affairs. He is a second year graduate student at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) where he is studying American Foreign Policy, Global Theory and History, and International Economics. He is also an author on FutureChallenges.org.