Sinai has long been Egypt's most elusive and neglected region. Local residents, particularly the Bedouin tribes, which constitute about two-fifths of Sinai's population, consider the government and its security forces as outside occupiers more concerned with the interests of Cairo than locals’ well-being. The region is rife with organized crime, much of it focused on smuggling arms and goods into Gaza. Historically, this combination of mistrust of the government, the perception that it is an outside force, extensive criminal networks and government repression often generates insurgency. Unfortunately, this pattern is now being played out in Sinai.
For decades, Cairo has used a heavy hand and virtual military occupation to keep Sinai under control. But Hosni Mubarak's overthrow in 2011 sent Egypt's security forces into disarray. Sinai's Bedouins tasted a degree of freedom they had not experienced for many years. Extremists expelled from Gaza by Hamas set up shop there, and Salafist jihadists from across the Islamic world were drawn to the resulting power vacuum and lawlessness. Fighters have shown up from as far afield as Syria, Palestine, Russia, Yemen and Somalia, even as arms from Libya flowed in, including heavy anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons.
Salafist in Sinai initially urged locals to give deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's government a chance. But the Muslim Brotherhood never had a strong base in Sinai and was much more focused on solidifying its support in Cairo and the other big Nile Valley cities than on dealing with far off Sinai. As foreign fighters and Gaza radicals led or at least encouraged increased anti-government violence, Morsi ran out of patience. In August 2012, he ordered a military offensive to clean out Sinai's militants and re-establish government control. This involved armored formations and the first fixed-wing air strikes in the region since the 1973 war between Israel and Egypt.
The offensive tamped things down for a time, but Sinai exploded again when Morsi was removed from power last July. Sinai Bedouins feared they would lose the autonomy they had gained, and outside militants exploited local anxiety to encourage greater extremism and attacks on security forces and other government targets.
After Morsi's political demise, security forces came under almost daily attack. Local residents provided little help to the police and military, preferring to either sit on the side or provide quiet backing to the militants. Extremists attempted to assassinate Gen. Ahmad Wasfy, commander of Egypt's Second Field Army. The deadliest attack killed 16 members of the security forces. In response, Cairo launched an even bigger military offensive and ordered the Egyptian coast guard to blockade the Sinai coast to stem the flow of weapons and militants.
The offensive is still underway, but there is little reason to believe that it will lead to anything other than a temporary lull in militant activity. The Sinai conflict is extraordinarily complex and requires more than air strikes and armored assaults. It intermixes the traditional alienation of local Bedouins, the Israel-Palestinian conflict in Hamas-dominated Gaza, the political chaos across Egypt, the flow of Libyan weapons and now the involvement of the transnational Salafist jihadist movement. Moreover, Sinai's rugged terrain has always been difficult for the government to control no matter who ruled it.
There are no easy answers to the Sinai problem. The Egyptian government cannot sustain the sort of heavy-handed military and police presence that gave at least the appearance of stability under Mubarak. Resolving the Sinai conflict will require increased economic development, the sustained presence of military units trained for counterinsurgency, more-effective intelligence and police services, better local governance and building local self-defense forces to prevent intimidation by militants.
It is doubtful that the Egyptian government can do this while embroiled in political turmoil. It may not even want to. As regimes around the world have found, there are benefits from the existence of or at least the potential for extremist violence, since it provides a rationale for domestic political restrictions and keeps outside aid flowing. The conflict in Sinai is one reason the United States did not cut off aid to the Egyptian military after its removal of Morsi. Even Israel, which would clearly be threatened by a militant presence in Sinai, advised Washington to sustain the aid.
As is often the case, the United States has no truly good options, only bad and very bad ones. Sinai today is at least a ''promo insurgency'' and may have crossed the line into outright insurgency. The region looks more and more like Pakistan's lawless frontier. If the United States pushes the Egyptian military too hard to quickly re-establish democracy, things could unravel even further and faster in Sinai.
But not pushing hard enough could further empower anti-American extremists across Egypt. The United States is walking a very thin line while extremism's roots in Sinai grow deeper. Ultimately, this may compel greater American involvement no matter how much Washington wants to avoid it.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
African Affairs Expert
Photo-Credit-AFP-Egyptian's ''Apache Helicopters'' in Sinai's region