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.

Better intelligence is also needed to prevent further attacks from occurring. This includes improved intelligence, security and defense cooperation with Israel, as both countries have a shared interest in seeing an end to jihadist activities in Sinai.

Beyond the vitriolic anti-Israeli rhetoric that has always characterized the Egyptian political arena, security cooperation between the two countries has not changed much since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. This is because the Egyptian military and intelligence establishments were left mostly intact, and they continue to exert almost total control in national-security issues since the January 2011 uprising.

IDF spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Avital Leibovich explained to the The New York Times that “There is ongoing cooperation with the Egyptians. . . . During the [August 5] operation there was cooperation and updates, on a tactical basis. There were mutual updates with the Egyptians.”

However, it seems that there is room—and need—to improve cooperation, especially when it comes to intelligence sharing. With respect to the August 5 attack, in fact, the Shin Bet warned the IDF as early as Friday to be ready for an attack on Kerem Shalom out of Sinai, and it had reportedly shared some of the information with Egypt. The warning was dismissed.

Accepting the need for cooperation with Israel to confront the threat they both face in Sinai does not make Egypt’s new president an American or Israeli lackey. Morsi’s government is not that of his predecessor, and he will criticize Israeli actions and stand up for the rights of Palestinians. But this should not prevent strengthening and solidifying mutually beneficial security cooperation in the Sinai.

In addition to cooperation with Israel, Egypt also needs Hamas’s aid to secure the Sinai. As the ruler of Gaza, Hamas can play a role in preventing Salafi-jihadist infiltration into the area. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Hamas has an interest in cooperating, as the group has been openly trying to crack down on ”jihadist” groups operating in Gaza at least since the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead in early 2009. Hamas's offer to create a permanent security committee with Egypt and its postattack (temporary) crackdown on smuggling tunnels show that the group does want to be seen as a security partner on this issue.

Of course, Hamas—and the Gazan economy—depend on tunnel trade. But if Hamas is serious about cooperating with Egypt, the group must crack down on the tunnels, especially now that the border between Gaza and Egypt has begun to open up.

Insecurity in Sinai cannot be countered by force alone. Since the territory was returned to Egypt, Sinai’s population has been treated like second-class citizens. No profits from the Red Sea resorts or the oil and gas exports trickle down to the region’s Bedouin population, a fact that has long bred resentment and desperation. The prison escapees that hide in Sinai can be recaptured, and the terrorist infrastructure can be crushed. But as long as the government in Cairo ignores the needs of its people, they will continue to be drawn to antistate messages and missions.

During his presidential campaign, Morsi pledged to give Egypt’s Bedouin equal rights as all Egyptians. His government’s fulfillment of that pledge, and the integration of Sinai’s population into broader Egyptian society, can play an important role in stabilizing the area.

Benedetta Berti is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University and the coauthor of Hamas and Hezbollah: A Comparative Study. Zack Gold is a Washington-based Middle East analyst conducting research on Egyptian Islamist groups. Follow them on Twitter: @benedettabertiw and @ZLGold.

Image: Israel Defense Forces