Sinai tensions rise

FROM THE ECONOMIST INTELLIGENCE UNIT

The Egyptian authorities have blamed unspecified Palestinian militants based in Gaza for rocket attacks directed towards Aqaba in Jordan and Eilat in Israel on August 2nd. It is still not clear where the rockets were launched, although it seems probable that it was in Egyptian territory in the Sinai peninsula. The incidents, which resulted in one death in Jordan, have significance both for regional security and for the role of the Egyptian security forces in Sinai.

There are two broad theories circulating about who might have been behind the attacks. According to Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, Palestinian security agencies have suggested that the attacks were carried out by units dispatched into Sinai by a Hamas commander based in the south of the Gaza Strip, but without the knowledge or approval of the central Hamas military command in Gaza City. The newspaper cited Palestinian sources as saying that the commander was acting under instruction from the Damascus-based political leadership of Hamas and members of Iranian intelligence agencies. Another theory, supposedly favoured by the Jordanian authorities, is that a Salafi Islamist group based in Gaza, and opposed to Hamas, was responsible. This group, al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, has previously been associated with operations in Sinai, notably two bomb attacks on tourist resorts in 2005 and 2006. Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the main Palestinian factions in Gaza, have denied any involvement in the attacks.

Bedouin connections

The attacks come amid a build-up of tensions in Sinai between the Egyptian government and Bedouin tribes, which have been accused in the past of collaborating with Al-Tawhid wal-Jihad. Egyptian internal security forces increased their presence in Sinai following an attack in late June on the Arab Gas Pipeline that runs through the region to Jordan and Syria. A Bedouin group also threatened to sabotage another pipeline supplying gas to Israel. The relationship between the state and the Bedouin, the semi-nomadic tribes that form most of the rural population in Sinai, is one of mutual distrust. Some Bedouin were accused of carrying out the 2005 and 2006 bomb attacks against tourist resorts and the community has suffered harsh treatment as a result; some members are also involved in smuggling, including of drugs and weapons. The bridge between Africa and Asia is naturally a strategically sensitive region and smuggling route, and moreover it borders Gaza, Israel and the Suez Canal.

Until now the state has responded to dissent among the Bedouin through security crackdowns. The pattern of using the security services to deal with problems rooted in the Bedouin’s social, economic and political concerns is perhaps indicative of a system headed since 1952 by army officers. National security and regime stability are prioritised over the rule of law and human rights, a situation that is perpetuated by the emergency laws and by a lack of democratic processes. However, a meeting between the interior minister, Habib al-Adli, and Bedouin leaders on June 29th showed an attempt to adopt a different strategy, as did the release of 98 Bedouin detainees in recent weeks.

Although this potentially offers a short-term solution, it does not address the underlying problems. The Bedouin want to see a reduction in the security presence in Sinai and its consequent oppressive restrictions, coupled with improved infrastructure and development of the area. The government, meanwhile, would like to increase its military presence, which is restricted under the 1979 Camp David agreement with Israel under which a multinational observer force monitors the border and Egyptian civil police officers enforce domestic security. The Egyptian Third Army, which was formerly responsible for the Sinai area, is headquartered over the canal in Suez. Moussa al-Dilh, a Bedouin spokesman from the Tarabin tribe, told Daily News Egypt on July 8th: “The police are trying to provoke the Bedouins, raiding our homes and shooting up water tanks. They’re trying to find a reason to increase the number of troops in the area.” This supports indications that the government would like to push the Third Army back into Sinai. The combination of political, economic and national security factors that merge in Sinai suggests that relations between the Bedouin and the government will remain uneasy.
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