Egypt gas pipeline attack raises questions about Sinai security

The latest attack on an Egyptian gas pipeline is a relatively minor event. But it's another reminder of the public anger that is likely to cause Egypt to draw further away from Israel.

Nasser Nasser/AP
Egyptian Army soldiers are seen behind the remaining part of a demolished concrete wall that used to protect the entrance of the Israeli embassy in Cairo. The fact that angry protesters were able to break into the now-shuttered Israeli embassy as soldiers stood aside earlier this month was another sign of popular anger in Egypt.

A pipeline in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, near the town of al-Arish, was sabotaged for the sixth time this year today, a reminder that Egypt's relationship with Israel remains a hot topic here.

Gas shipments to Israel owed under a controversial deal signed by former President Hosni Mubarak have been shut since July, after another pipeline attack. The assault today, involving a carload of gunmen who placed an explosive at a pumping station, has disrupted gas deliveries to Jordan and one of Egypt's own power stations.

Who carried it out is still unknown, but the early speculation is on "Islamist militants" opposed to the gas deal. There is also a lot of general anger among the Sinai Bedouin people toward the central government over not receiving much in the way of compensation for the pipeline that crosses the area.

But the issue of gas to Israel – widely seen as a sweetheart deal by many Egyptians – is a real one here, and at least reworking it so that Egypt gets more cash is widely supported by both politicians and average Egyptians.

A few days ago I was on a long Metro ride from the outskirts of Cairo to downtown when a heavily bearded, otherwise scrawny and very poor-looking man, climbed aboard. He began haranguing the packed car as eye-rolling broke out over what everyone took to be the salafi Islamist sermon that was to follow. But to warm up he started on the corruption of the Mubarak regime and the ongoing theft of Egypt's natural resources by Israel that Mubarak had approved – and for this, he received general nods of assent from the Cairene straphangers.

It's hard to imagine any new Egyptian order that emerges from its current political transition that won't be colder to Israel than it was under Mubarak. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the junta now running in Egypt, remains firmly in control and a transition to a democracy soon remains far from assured.

But any governing group that comes to power is going to have to bow to popular demands. The military has backed down in a number of strike battles with workers at government-owned factories and agencies (the most recent victory came for striking transit workers today).

The military didn't want to, but it appears to recognize the need for pressure-release valves in a system creaking under unmet political and economic demands. Creating more distance between Egypt and Israel will be a handy way for any governing group here to build popular support.

That angry protesters were able to break into the now-shuttered Israeli embassy as soldiers stood aside earlier this month was another sign of this popular anger. In that instance, it was stirred by the shooting of five Egyptian border guards by Israeli soldiers during a cross border raid into Israel by militants (at first said by Israel to be Palestinians who'd made their way from Gaza, now said to be Egyptian jihadis) in August.

The string of attacks in Sinai also raises questions about how will Egypt can secure the Sinai, which is sparsely populated and mostly desert. A Bedouin guide who lives near al-Arish tells me that locals have been puzzled that the army hasn't stationed armed guards at the pumping stations, which lie at 15-km (9-mile) intervals along the pipeline. He says local theories about who's carrying out the attacks range from jihadis, to "foreign hands," (a popular theory in a country where xenophobia has been stoked by government news channels), to perhaps the police or military themselves, seeking a pretext for a crackdown.

After attacks in the Sinai in 2004, the government embarked on an extended crackdown near al-Arish, arresting over 1,000 people. Meanwhile, Egypt's military rulers continue to work with the generally unpopular economic blockade of the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian Maan news agency reports today allegations that Egypt deliberately flooded one of Gaza's smuggling tunnels over the weekend, killing three Palestinians inside.

The Gaza tunnels, which infuriate Israel but are semi-tolerated by Egypt (officials on the Egyptian side of the border profit from the smuggling trade) are a powerful symbol of how hemmed in Gazans are, even after Egypt's revolution.

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