The Benefits of Instability: Continued Unrest in Sinai

It is not often that conflict and instability are promising signs, but depending on one’s perspective, the deepening conflict in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula is potentially a positive development. While other events within Egypt suggest a startling continuation of a domestic status quo, notably the continued limits on journalistic freedom, ongoing protests in Tahrir Square, and accusations of corruption being thrown at the new president and his family, none of this speaks directly to concerns about Egypt’s future role in the international community. And it is precisely this role with which Egypt’s most important strategic partners, notably the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, are the most concerned. Israeli sources continue to cast villainous barbs at the Muslim Brotherhood and Mursi while the West has engaged in an unproductive level of hand-wringing over their future relationship. At the same time, however, Hamas and Gazan Palestinians have admitted frustration and disappointment at the “Islamist” government’s continuation of Mubarak-era policies effective placing Gazan Palestinians under an Israeli-American siege, which is seen as collaboration by a majority of Arabs both in and out of Egypt. Continued unrest in Sinai and the responses favored by the major state actors involved suggest that a set of structural conditions is pushing these states to work together to face common threats in ways that most pundits and “experts” did not expect.

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The first, most basic problem with the Sinai Peninsula is its endemic level of unrest. Despite  the state’s attempts to claim political legitimacy, Egypt has consistently failed to institutionalize any type of stable system in Sinai. They are physically incapable of penetrating much of Sinai’s mountainous terrain and urban dwellers in the few cities in the North complain of arbitrary rule through coercion that makes life both insecure and highly uncertain. In fact, it is plausible to suggest that this failure to institutionalize in Sinai has been a major factor that created room for the puritanical Islamist Salafi movements, currently labeled “jihadi militant organizations” by Egyptian armed forces, to insinuate themselves into the power vacuum. While a wide variety of Islamist movements including the Muslim Brothers, Hamas, and Hezbollah are often labeled “terrorist organizations,” this obfuscates the main sources of their popularity: institution building. In Lebanon, Hezbollah and its forerunners responded to the needs of a poor and marginalized Shi’i population; in Palestine, Hamas provided social welfare services that an increasingly corrupt PLO was unwilling or unable to provide. Similarly, Sinai urbanites in towns like el-Arish and Sheikh Zuwayd link their support for Salafist organizations to the security that these groups have provided. Though many residents concede that it is not a perfect system, especially due to the strict attempts to regulate social conduct, they appreciate that no one will be harassed unless they are doing “something wrong.” While in the West we may have strong opinions about what constitutes “wrongdoing,” the point is that the Salafists have removed the high level of uncertainty generated by [perceived] random exercise of violence by the state.

The major concern expressed by pundits and politicians regarding the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in Egypt was that ideology would trump other political concerns. The accusation, by conservatives in both Israel and the US, was that Egyptian Islamists would find common cause, working to overthrow their secular opponents and establishing an Islamic Republic echoing the Iranian Revolution. A Brotherhood-Salafi alliance was also predicted and security officials in Israel expressed concern that armed groups in North Sinai may be given space to grow. This was especially a concern vis-à-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict, largely due to the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideological cousin, Hamas, ruling Gaza right next door.

Besides the rhetoric of Islamist ideologues, intensified by the populism of democratic elections, there appears to be little cause for concern regarding these alarmist predictions thus far. Instead of a conflict between Islamists and secularists, the dominant security cleavage that appears to be emerging is one between states and non-state actors. Contrary to early predictions, tensions between the Egyptian state and Hamas do not appear to be abating, and in fact may be getting worse. In the aftermath of a militant attack on an Egyptian police station near the Sinai-Gaza border, the Egyptian blockade has once again been re-imposed and efforts to destroy the smuggling tunnels into Gaza have been renewed and are currently proceeding at a pace unheard of during the Mubarak regime. There appears to be a fundamental contradiction between aiding Palestinians in Sinai and attempting to stabilize the Egyptian state; President Mursi’s administration has definitively chosen the latter.

The ongoing military operation targeting various non-state forces under the guise of “anti-terror” operations as well as tentatively promising signs of a space opening for Israeli-Egyptian security cooperation further reinforce this state/non-state actor cleavage. The intelligence failure that culminated in the police station attack was an embarrassment to the Egyptian security apparatus, not in their failure to anticipate the attacks, but in the reality that Israel provided advanced warning that was categorically ignored by Egyptian intelligence. Not only did Mursi radically overhaul the North Sinai security team, replacing his own Defense Minister and Chief of Staff in addition to the unpopular governor of North Sinai, but he also rebuked his own party, the Muslim Brothers, for their claim that Israeli intelligence was responsible for the attack, an accusation about as realistic as the charge that they were behind a series of shark attacks in Sinai last year. In reality, Israel has proven itself to be a credible partner for continued security cooperation. This is aided by the simple fact that Egypt and Israel, both targets of non-state actors in Gaza and Sinai, continue to share common security interests.

Compounding this effect is the lack of clear information regarding who these “terrorists” in Sinai are. While most authorities concluded that the attackers were Palestinian militants from Gaza, Egypt has taken the opportunity to target Egyptian Islamists in Sinai despite scant evidence of their involvement in any of the cross-border violence. Moreover, this has continued even as the Islamists have responded to the crackdown with violence of their own, often in the form of reprisal attacks. Furthermore, the link between these Salafist groups and Gaza is tenuous, sustained more through family connections than ideological or operational linkages. On the other hand, Bedouin tribes in North Sinai are intimately involved in the smuggling operations that utilize these tunnels. The movement of weapons, narcotics, and even human beings across the Sinai border has been a source of friction between the Bedouin facilitating the trade and Salafists in el-Arish attempting to impose order, to the extent that there have even been reports of clashes between the two groups. Rounding out the trifecta of non-state actors are the avowedly militant jihadist groups, whose numbers have been reinforced by prisoners that escaped during the Revolution, which have been able to find refuge in Sinai’s insurgent-friendly geography. Little is actually known about these groups and what their actual numbers are, since state forces have taken to conflating all non-state forces with these groups.

Reports coming out of Sinai are inconsistent regarding the state’s approaches to these various issues; articles have suggested that the state is eager to cooperate with the Bedouin against the Salafi jihadists, while others suggest the Bedouin have been targeted by security forces. Of course, these reports need not be mutually exclusive. However in the absence of any consistent system of militant identifiability in Sinai, the question remains, what do these groups have in common that is making them targets of the Egyptian military and why do they form the basis for Israel-Egyptian cooperation? Furthermore, why might an attack launched by Palestinians lead to a crackdown against Egyptian Islamists? The answer is best expressed by raison d’état and the struggle between the state and powerful non-state actors that has come to define Middle Eastern conflict since the Camp David accords. In spite of similar ideological leanings, Mursi’s government does not seem any more inclined to cooperate or negotiate with non-state forces than Mubarak’s was. While friction with Hamas seems to be inevitable in the face of continued Palestinian agitation in the Sinai, it seems to have provided the Egyptian state an opportunity to popularize its attempt to consolidate power against the backdrop of a “war on terror.”

These developments make the Iranian model of regime-formation appear even less likely in the Egyptian case; simply put, the comparison does not contain a high level of realism. Neither Mursi nor the Brotherhood seems committed to exporting their revolution and providing aid to resistance movements across the Middle East.  In this case, it is perhaps Saudi Arabia, not Iran, that provides a good model for understanding the relationship between Islam and International Relations: Islam operates as an important principle in domestic politics and public relations, but is subordinated to pragmatism in the realm of national security producing a state that is quite conservative and irrevocably tied to the United States despite moral claims of value incompatibility. Too, Saudi Arabia provides an informative model for balancing powerful non-state actors that plague Egyptian national security priorities: Saudi Arabia is no less hostile to these groups than Egypt, despite their largely conciliatory strategy for dealing with them. This is not to say that Egypt will inevitably turn to this model, just that the new Egyptian government will only succeed once it realizes the economic and strategic limitations on its ability to pursue an ideologically loaded agenda.

This, of course, does not suggest that relations between Israel and Egypt are likely to get any better in the near future. On both sides of the border the public brinksmanship and mudslinging continues. However, it appears that with every passing day, both governments are realizing that their shared insecurities necessitate a closer level of cooperation. Although this may be bad news for Egyptian residents of Sinai, who have continued to suffer under arbitrary and often violent Egyptian rule, for the US and Israel, it should be taken as a promising signal that despite the face-lift, neither the basic security interests of the Egyptian state nor the strategies Egypt has adopted to pursue them have transformed as radically as had originally been feared.

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