The Buzz

The Earthquake in the Sinai

Over at the New York Review of Books, Nicholas Pelham takes a deep look at the ongoing crisis in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, where the Bedouin have become increasingly restless under Cairo’s rule.

The Sinai is now one of the world’s most dangerous places. A tribal leader Pelham planned to interview is killed by a Salafi cousin, militants roam the deserts in technicals, and policemen are routinely ambushed. It was the site of some of the 2011 national uprising’s first violence, the shooting of a stone-thrower that was broadcast around the world by the Associated Press. It’s also, as Pelham shows, deeply complex. Radicals compete with old tribal power structures and Sufis. Drugs and people are smuggled. The Muslim Brotherhood sends in a parliamentarian and the generals provide the mayor. An “urbane Cairo-trained academic and veterinarian from the Fuwakhariya tribe merely shrug[s] when gunmen open fire one evening on a police station.” A young woman in dress (a veil and overalls) form-fitting enough to be branded non-Muslim by the radicals expresses sympathy for their violence against the regime.

The Sinai has become a distillation of the social turbulence, self-contradictions and weird postmodernity of the modern Middle East.

Pelham’s article makes less mention of how truly international the peninsula’s problems have become. Iran funnels weapons from the Sudan, through the Sinai, and into Gaza. Migrants come from places like Ethiopia and Eritrea. Militants come from throughout the Arab world. Arms and vehicles stolen from Libya circulate. Hamas arms itself from the tunnels and funds itself with taxes on them. In the Mubarak era, there was alleged Hezbollah activity. Terrorists have bombed the gas pipeline that leads to Israel and Jordan more than a dozen times; cash-strapped Amman has shelled out billions for alternative sources. Militant activity on the border with Israel led to the IDF inadvertently killing several Egyptian soldiers; crowds stormed Israel’s embassy in Cairo, prompting a string of emergency calls between Israel, Egypt, and the United States. The Sinai unrest isn’t just Cairene misrule and local grievance—it’s a case study of how the globe’s many weakly-controlled "black spots" can metastasize.