On February 15th, in the first attack on tourists in almost a decade, a tourist bus driving through Egypt’s Sinaï Peninsula prey to a bomb attack that claimed the lives of two South Korean tour guides, a South Korean tourist and the Egyptian driver. While the Sinaï, technically a demilitarised zone, is administered by U.N. peacekeeping forces jointly with the Egyptian government, this most recent attack is part of a growing trend over the last three years of increased lawlessness and insecurity in the area.
The contemporary history of the peninsula is far from peaceful. After privatising the Suez Canal in 1956, Israel, with support from Britain and France, invaded the peninsula. Israel withdrew several months later under U.S. and Soviet pressure. However in 1967, Egypt started reinforcing its military presence in Sinaï and prevented Israeli ships to use the Suez Canal. This prompted another invasion by Israel during the 6-days War. The entirety of the Sinaï Peninsula was only restored to Egypt in 1979 after the peace accord with Israel was signed, and the last Israeli soldier left the peninsula in 1982. Subsequently, the area became monitored by U.N. mandated ‘Multinational Force and Observers’, composed of soldiers and civilians, limiting the number of Egyptian army troops present in the peninsula. Since then, the Sinaï Peninsula has enjoyed a prosperous revival as a prime tourist destination, for both Egyptians and foreigners, with touristic sites like Mount Sinaï as well as beachside resorts. This however, like the Egyptian political landscape and indeed that of many Arab States, would change with the advent of the Arab Spring.
As tension and violence between pro-Mubarak forces and the protestors rose during the 2011 revolution, Egypt as a whole was on a slippery slope towards chaos and insecurity. As a result of the revolution, a group of radical Islamists integrated among the local Bedouins in the Sinaï launched ‘the Sinaï Insurgency’. This umbrella term designating a series of attacks on Egyptian assets in the peninsula is still ongoing today. At first this insurgency comprised of for instance low-level attacks on the Arab Gas Pipeline, frequently interrupting Egyptian gas supply to the entire region, as the pipeline extends through Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, as well as attacks on police stations. The most daring attack came in August 2011 when a group of insurgents operated a series of coordinated attacks at the southern Israeli border with Egypt, prompting Israeli Defence Forces to pursue them into the Sinaï and exchange fire with both insurgents and Egyptian security forces. That same month interim Egyptian government launched repressive measures in the peninsula, under the name ‘Operation Eagle’. This vast operation lasted about a year and seemingly silenced the insurgency. This was only temporary as in August 2012, another cross-border attack took place, where insurgents ambushed an Egyptian military base, stole two vehicles and stormed the Israeli border. In retaliation, the Egyptian army and air force conducted ‘Operation Sinaï’, where the entire peninsula was swept for Jihadi terrorists, resulting in 32 insurgents killed and 38 arrested.
That said, since the toppling of President Morsi in July 2013, the situation has continued to deteriorate despite the government’s best efforts. The Islamist and Bedouin groups in the peninsula have started to pose a serious threat to law and order in the country already rendered fragile by internal political turmoil with the Muslim Brotherhood. Police officers and Egyptian troops are the main targets, as they are deemed by the Islamist militants as being ‘infidels’ for answering to a secular government. This explains why between July and December 2013, every attack by the militants was on army checkpoints and police stations. The deadliest yet took place on December 24, 2013, where a huge bomb hit the Daqahliya Security Directorate in Mansoura, killing 16 and injuring 134.
Essentially, the peninsula has in recent months become the stage for a touch-and-go insurgency opposing Islamist insurgents to government security forces, and going as far as getting Israeli security forces involved. The Sinaï Peninsula remains a key strategic asset for Egypt and its stability is a necessity. Indeed, securing the peninsula will help guard the Suez Canal, a critical route in the global trade. Furthermore, it will help achieve post-revolution stability by eliminating the threat of extremism, currently undermining the government and jeopardising the livelihood of Sinaï inhabitants. Finally, Egyptian officials believe a stable Sinaï will enable a strong economic development which can only be beneficial for the future of a democratic Egypt, as it remains a strong tourist spot, even if the most recent insurgent attack on a tourist bus worryingly suggests the militants are broadening their targets to tourists now. The stability of the peninsula is also the key to the stability of the region. Indeed, with two cross-border attacks, and the potential threat of many more, the ‘Sinaï Insurgency’ has successfully contributed to straining diplomatic relations between Egypt and Israel, as Israeli Defence Forces previously crossed over into the Sinaï in pursuit of Islamist militants, which resulted in an incursion on Egyptian national sovereignty and the death of some police officers, fired at by the IDF.
As such, one can wonder how this will impact the relationship between the two countries, particularly considering the history of the peninsula and the constant state of alert Israel is in. The peninsula’s continued rise in insecurity is proving quite difficult to cope with for a fragile Egyptian government. With the breaking news out of Cairo of the unexpected resignation of the interim government in power since July 2013, and the upcoming elections in April, it will be interesting to see how much the Sinaï Insurgency has affected internal Egyptian politics and how much it will dictate the future government’s internal security policy. As for the question of the Egyptian-Israeli relations, the broadening of the insurgency and the cross-border attacks coupled with government instability in Egypt could have the potential to deteriorate them. The extent to which these deteriorate enough to see a possible foreign intervention, however, remains to be seen, and the next couple of months will be crucial in this respect, particularly in light of breaking news about the Egyptian cabinet.