Since the overthrow of Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi by the Egyptian army, more than a thousand people have died in the worst political violence the country has seen in modern history. While much of Cairo was in chaos yesterday, on the other side of the Suez Canal, not far from the Israeli-Egyptian border in Sinai, 25 off-duty Egyptian policemen were murdered execution-style, after two vehicles in which they were traveling were ambushed. It was a game changer in the continuing struggle between the new government, guided by the Egyptian military, and the pro-Morsi, pro-Muslim Brotherhood supporters.
In the latest news, three significant events occurred today, August 20:
1. The government arrested the top Brotherhood leader, Supreme Leader Mohamed Badie, in the same place where more than 280 Morsi supporters died last week in a confrontation with the military. Al Jazeera’s Mike Hanna, reporting from Cairo, underscored the seriousness of Badie’s arrest: “The arrest of the spiritual leader was always seen as a red line, even Hosni Mubarak never arrested him, but this military-led government is clearly ignoring that.”
2. A Cairo court set a September trial date for the trial of Mohamed El Baradei, who recently resigned as Interim Vice President for Foreign Affairs. He resigned to protest the violent government response to pro-Morsi demonstrations. Today, he was accused of “breaching national trust” by resigning from his position. The charges represent a misdemeanor that could carry a fine of $1,430 if he is convicted. Prior to the 2011 revolution, Al Baradei was best known as Egyptian Nobel laureate and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
3. Egyptian Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah El-Siusi ordered the entire Sinai Peninsula sealed as a closed military zone, following the murder of the 25 policemen by terrorists near Rafah Monday. No further details have been released.
The recent events in the Sinai have a direct connection to the violence in Egyptian cities and may directly influence the resolution. Following is a brief picture of how the Sinai got that way and how it may affect not only the chaos in Egypt, but the rest of the world.
The Radicalization of the Sinai Peninsula – A Brief History In recent years, the Sinai peninsula has become a haven and training ground for al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, threatening not only Israel and Jordan, but Egypt itself. The closure of the Sinai is the latest significant change to a region that, although largely barren with large swaths of rocky desert and craggy mountains, has been integral to the history of the region.
Looking back at its long history, the Sinai has played a significant role in forming and re-forming events that have changed the destiny of mankind. Thousands of years ago, according to the Bible, the Jews, led by Moses, escaped from slavery in Egypt, and traveled for forty years through the Sinai desert. It was in the heart of that desert – at Mt. Sinai – that they received the Ten Commandments, a set of ten rules that still provide moral guidance to Christians and Jews around the world.
Throughout history, the Sinai served as a land bridge for armies marching between Europe and Asia to Africa, controlled in turn by the Nabateans, Romans, early Christians, and the Ottoman Empire. During World War II, the battle of Al Arish was fought between the Turks and the British, and after the war, the Sinai was turned over to Egypt.
In 1967, Israel acquired the Sinai during the Six Day War, after Egypt amassed troops along the Sinai border with Israel, triggering a pre-emptive strike by the Israel Defense Forces. Israel was almost immediately faced with attacks from other Arab nations, first Syria, and then Jordan. Israel ended the war decisively by taking the Golan Heights from Syria, Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and East Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Sinai from Egypt. According to palestinefacts.org, “Arabs lost half of their military equipment while the [Egyptian] air force was completely destroyed on the hands of Israeli forces. The Arab casualty count was over 18,000. On the other hand, Israel lost only around 700 soldiers.”
Less than a year after that war, Egypt embarked on a long and bloody series of attacks against Israel in what was called “The War of Attrition” to try to take back the Sinai. It started off as an exchange of artillery fire along the Suez Canal, but escalated rapidly. In response to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nassar’s military pressure, the IDF engaged in a number of remarkable raids, including the spectacular capture and safe transport to Israel of a complete Russian-made radar installation. Between June 15, 1967 and August 8, 1970, when the USSR and the US intervened, 1,424 Israeli soldiers were killed in this ‘non-war’.
Then, on October 6, 1973, a real war against Israel was launched with the intention of winning back the territory lost to Israel in 1967. The Egyptians joined Syrian forces in a coordinated attack against Israel on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish year. Taking Israel by surprise, Egyptian troops swept deep into the Sinai, while Syria attacked Israel from the north, hoping to drive Israeli forces out of the Golan Heights. Israel counterattacked, and, by the end of the war, had retained both the Golan Heights and the Sinai, although the price in lives lost was high. Israel lost 2,688 soldiers in a war which lasted only 19 days. Egypt lost 5,000 soldiers, and Syria lost 8,000. A cease-fire went into effect on October 25, 1973.
Finally, In 1979, Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty. According to the terms of the treaty, Israel was to withdraw from the entire Sinai peninsula. The withdrawal was complete in 1982, and the Sinai reverted back to Egypt. Israel lost valuable gas fields which they had developed, and growing towns which were emptied and destroyed according to the terms of the treaty.
In the early days of the return of Sinai to Egypt, the region was a popular tourist site for visitors from Jordan, Israel, and Egypt. Since the rise of Hamas in neighboring Gaza in 2007, much of the Sinai has become a hotbed of terrorist activity, although there are still tourist spots in the dramatic and starkly beautiful location. The lawless areas of the Sinai are now populated by a variety of terrorist and jihadi groups, including radicalized Bedouin, al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and lesser known groups such as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdes.
Since the latest Egyptian revolution that began first in 2011 and re-ignited in 2013, the Sinai has been the origin of several terrorist attacks on Egypt as well as Israel. The most recent of these were a rocket attack against Israel’s southernmost city, Eilat, and the murder of the 25 Egyptian off-duty policemen on Monday.
What next? The significance of Sinai rapidly turning from a tourist destination to a terrorist playground is extremely serious. Egypt has not been able to control the growth of terrorism in this huge desert territory. This development threatens not only Egypt, Israel, and Jordan, it also threatens Saudi Arabia, just a few miles across the Gulf of Aqaba on its eastern shore.
To the west lies the Suez Canal, through which three million barrels of oil destined for the West are shipped every day. This represents about 7% of total seaborne traded oil. It is not outside the realm of possibility that a terrorist attack on the canal could close it indefinitely. The only other alternative route, should the canal be closed, is around the horn of Africa, and the cost could be huge for the West.
The two issues – the radicalization of the Sinai and the growing violence in Egypt proper – are linked. The murder of policemen was reported by news outlets to have been perpetrated by Muslim Brotherhood terrorists. As Egyptian cities continue to rock with violence, the military is consolidating its positions and strengthening its forces to quell the violence. With Muslim Brotherhood leaders under arrest, there is now talk in the current Egyptian government of making the organization illegal again. This would not necessarily curb their appetite for power and Shariah law, but it would make it legal to arrest them just for belonging to the organization.
The Muslim Brotherhood has shown its true colors during the last few weeks, trading its rhetoric, as an organization with only a “peaceful” agenda, for a violent jihad by the sword and gun. Last week, Brotherhood supporters pushed an armored personnel carrier full of policemen off a high bridge to the roadway below. Morsi supporters have murdered Christians, targeted and torched at least 60 Coptic churches, and marked Christian-owned properties for future attacks with large black Xs, all sanctioned by the Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood-sponsored violence puts any hopes for acceptance of diversity under their rule to rest, once and for all. “Peaceful” is the last thing on their agenda now; peaceful demonstrators don’t bring AK-47s to their protests, or snipers to their marches. Should they come back into power, as they are fighting to do, we can expect a blood-bath of epic proportions and a reign of official terror against those who opposed them.
With the streets of Cairo growing increasingly violent, and the Sinai desert teeming with terrorists, what will happen next is difficult to say. It might be interesting to speculate on what the Sinai might have been like, had Israel not been forced to return it to Egypt, or how that might have impacted the current situation in Egypt. As it is, Egypt clearly has not been able to control the violence in Sinai, especially when there are life and death issues looming much closer to home.
The West might also contemplate what the impact might be if terrorists from Sinai close the Suez Canal, forcing the delivery of much of the world’s oil around the horn of Africa instead of the shorter route through the Mediterranean. If the price of gasoline rises significantly here in the US, the effects of a developing chaos in Egypt may well be felt at our neighborhood gas station and in our home heating bills, and not just “over there”. What happens in the Middle East does not stay in the Middle East any more, and the reverberations are likely to be felt around the world.
The US has already lost the war to have its voice heard. The signals we send are mixed and muddy. The recent trip to Cairo by Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham was met with less than enthusiasm. Their advice to the Egyptian government to ease the violence by releasing some of the imprisoned Brotherhood leaders fell on deaf ears. As it should have. The administration seems to have no policy at all, and our voice in foreign affairs gets weaker and weaker with every crisis.
First we called Mubarak our ally, then we supported his ouster. We welcomed Morsi in a questionable election, and supported the Muslim Brotherhood as they imposed increasingly harsh Shariah law on the country. We ignored the harassment and killing of Christians and destruction of their property, as the government stood by. Then, when the coup took place and the Egyptian military deposed Morsi, we refused to call it a ‘coup’ and continued our military aid. At the same time, we tried to convince the new government to deal kindly with the Brotherhood. Now we have pulled back on our military aid, but continue to waffle on the various issues and have no clear policy towards Egypt or the Brotherhood that either they or we can understand.
Egypt will have to solve its own problems, but they will have the financial assistance of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who have pledged $12 billion, a handsome sum compared to our relatively small annual contribution of $1.55 billion in military and economic aid. America’s role in the outcome is likely to be inconsequential unless a dramatic policy shift puts us back in the game. Our policy of walking the fence will not buy us anything but disdain and exclusion from the ultimate solution.
Ilana Freedman is an intelligence analyst, who has specialized in terrorism emanating from the Middle East for over twenty years. She is editor of GerardDirect.com.