Security Vacuum in the Sinai

How Egypt and Israel must cooperate to control a dire threat to their national security.

Israeli Defense Forces find a tunnel near the border.On August 5, just after sundown, an unidentified group of assailants attacked an Egyptian security outpost near the Egyptian-Israeli border south of Gaza. The attackers surprised the Egyptian soldiers as they prepared to break their Ramadan fast, ruthlessly killing sixteen guards and soldiers and wounding several others.

The attackers then stole two Egyptian military vehicles, loaded one with explosives and took off for the border crossing linking Egypt, Israel and the Gaza Strip (known as Kerem Abu Salem to Egyptians and Kerem Shalom to Israelis). The explosive-laden vehicle crashed at the border and—perhaps to punch through the barrier—exploded. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) engaged the second vehicle, disabling it and killing its reportedly five or six occupants.

The Sinai long has been a security hotspot in the region. Well before the Arab Spring and the collapse of the Mubarak regime, terrorist groups in the Sinai made headlines for orchestrating a number of deadly attacks against tourist resorts in 20042005 and 2006. What's more, the Sinai has over the years become a hub for the smuggling of drugs and weapons as well as for human trafficking.

Crime and terrorism are not new to the Sinai, but lawlessness has increased since the end of the Mubarak regime. This insecurity is now a direct and serious threat to both Egypt and Israel.

Securing the Sinai should be a priority for the postrevolutionary government in Cairo. Not only is the continuation of the status quo a direct national-security threat to Egypt, but cracking down on lawlessness also is an important step toward ensuring that the new government is perceived as competent and capable. Finally, the security vacuum in the Sinai risks igniting a confrontation with Israel, an outcome that both the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the newly elected president Mohamed Morsi should wish to avoid.

Establishing control of the Sinai and cracking down on illegal activities are very complex challenges. First, Egypt must increase its military presence in the Sinai, something Israel has already de facto agreed to despite the restrictions of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty. Indeed, the morning after the attack, Israeli newspapers such as Yediot Ahronot lamented that Egypt has kept a smaller force in Sinai than the seven battalions allowed by recent bilateral agreements.

Thus, the Egyptian calls to amend the treaty over the number of troops and type of equipment permitted in the Sinai are a sideshow. Article IV of the treaty provides that “security arrangements . . . may at the request of either party be reviewed and amended by mutual agreement of the Parties,” as has been carried out a handful of times since the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

In Israel, defense minister Ehud Barak said he hoped the slaughter of Egyptian soldiers would be a “wake-up call.” Indeed, Egypt's first response to the attack has been to boost its surveillance of the Sinai, with Morsi demanding to increase Egypt’s security presence to “retake control of the Sinai.”

Still, military presence is not enough. It has to be coupled with capabilities and competence. Here, the Egyptian record is not overwhelmingly positive, as security forces in the Sinai have been overrun in the past by militant cells.

On the issue of capabilities, U.S. Department of State spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the United States “stand[s] ready to assist the Government of Egypt as it acts on President Morsi’s pledge to secure the Sinai and address the threats of violent extremism and border security.”

The Egyptian government receives approximately $1.5 billion per year in military assistance. Perhaps it is time for a conversation as to whether or not the equipment purchased with those funds is adequate for confronting the real threat Egypt faces in Sinai and not some hypothetical foreign threat.

The U.S. Senate version of the FY13 appropriations bill also stipulates that funds “be made available for border security programs in the Sinai.” If terrorists and other criminals are attacking and overrunning Egyptian forces with such frequency, then perhaps the United States should reduce procurement funding in exchange for a larger military-training expenditure.