With 16 Egyptian soldiers murdered, Sinai is front and center for President Morsi

The murder of 16 Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai peninsula highlights long-simmering problems there. And now it's up to Mohamed Morsi and Egypt's politically powerful military to deal with it.

Thomas Hartwell/AP
Egyptian Army honor guards carry the coffins of 16 soldiers killed in an attack over the weekend by suspected militants in Sinai at a military funeral in Cairo, Tuesday, Aug. 7.

The murders of 16 Egyptian border guards on Sunday by militants, who then sought to use stolen armored cars to storm the Israeli side of the border, has been commonly framed as evidence of the "deteriorating" security situation in the Sinai Peninsula, and evidence that the country's new president, Mohamed Morsi, must come to grips with a "new" crisis since the fall of Hosni Mubarak.

In fact, the Sinai has been a long-running problem in Egyptian security. In 2004, coordinated attacks killed 34 people near Taba, an Egyptian city popular at the time with Israeli tourists. That was Egypt's first terrorist attack since 1997, when a massacre of tourists at Luxor sparked a wide-ranging and successful crackdown on militant groups. Then in 2005, a series of bombs struck Sharm al-Sheikh, another Sinai resort town (Mubarak spent much of his time at a villa there), killing more than 80 people.

The government of Mubarak responded ferociously to the attacks in the Sinai. After Taba, more than 3,000 residents of Al-Arish on the peninsula were arrested under draconian security laws. Few of the detainees had anything to do with the attacks, and local and international human rights groups who interviewed detainees said many had been tortured.

Were those methods "successful?" Well, there hasn't been a major terrorist attack on tourists in the Sinai since the bombing at the beach resort of Dahab in April, 2006. (This piece has been updated since it was published. The original version omitted the Dahab attack.)

But the crackdown by state security in the territory, seized by Israel after the 1967 war and only fully returned to Egypt in 1989, increased the alienation of the region's Bedouin communities from the central government. The Bedouin were already receiving far less in government financial support than most of the rest of the country. On top of that, the dysfunctional situation where Egypt formally participates with Israel on restricting the transfer of goods and people to and from Gaza but tolerates the smuggling tunnels to Gaza as a circuit breaker on economic and social upheaval there, has empowered local gangsters and smugglers, and fed corruption inside the Egyptian security services. Weapons, tax-free cigarettes, baby diapers, and illegal drugs all flow through the region.

So in Sinai, the table is set for militants to operate. Nothing new there. But it's a new order in Egypt that will have to deal with it. And in that process, a whole series of risks and challenges are going to burble to the surface: civilian political authority vs. the power of the Egyptian military; an Egyptian-Israeli relationship that is almost certainly going to end up reconfigured as a consequence of the arrival of democratic politics in Egypt; an informal agreement between Israel and the Egyptian military over Gaza that clearly isn't working. 

The Muslim Brotherhood's Morsi almost certainly doesn't want to run the old Mubarak playbook of "round up everyone with a beard," given his own beliefs and his constituency. And his sympathy for Hamas would probably time-limit any increased policing of the smuggling tunnels to Gaza. But it isn't entirely up to him.

Dead letter promises?

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces remains at least as powerful a political player in Egypt as the elected president, and today, military officials told the Egyptian press they'd be sending teams to destroy the Gaza tunnels, insisting that the security breach entirely emanated from the strip. Will they follow through? And what will Morsi do when the inevitable claims of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza emerge? We'll see. For the moment, his promise to ease the restrictions on Gaza is a dead letter. And Egypt's generals have a new tool to use in cementing their own political power. 

In Gaza, the effects of the attack were immediate. Not only did Israel and Egypt close the official border crossings, but Hamas immediately responded by closing the smuggling tunnels into Egypt to assist in looking for surviving attackers (most of them appeared to have been killed by Israeli forces). Local residents were anxious about food and fuel shortages, and angry over the attack, which buried any chances of Egypt substantially easing its end of the blockade any time soon.

The cui bono thinking that's inevitable after events like these leads to very few potential winners.

Who's involved?

The attack was almost certainly carried out by jihadis, who have long operated in the Sinai, where sophisticated smuggling groups, a local population that resents central government authority, and a sparse population give them plenty of room to operate. But in Gaza, as on the Egyptian side of the border at Rafah, there was fury at the attacks, which both Egypt and Israel claimed involved militants who had crossed into Egypt from Gaza. Judging by the history of attacks, Egyptians will almost certainly have been involved as well.

Hamas is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and is a far cry from the nihilistic fellow travelers of Al Qaeda. In fact, Al Qaeda-style militants despise the modernist Muslim Brotherhood as too accommodating of the modern world and its political conventions.

But Gaza does have Al Qaeda-inspired militants living and working there. In August 2009, Hamas forces took on an Al Qaeda-inspired group that sought to declare an "Islamic emirate" in Gaza. The battle on the Gaza side of Rafah ended with 22 people dead, six of them Hamas security forces. Despite that defeat, jihadi groups continue to operate in Gaza, and their ultimate aim is to seize power from Hamas, however unlikely that is to come to pass.

While most there will assume Hamas had nothing to do with an attack that is a black eye for Morsi and hurt the Gazan economy, nevertheless they are the power in the Strip, and will receive plenty of blame for any increase in suffering. Anything that delegitimizes Hamas – and the Brotherhood in Egypt – is seen as positive by jihadis.

Can they win? No. Can they create a great deal of mischief and misery? Yes. The killings on Sunday are evidence enough of that. Are the Egyptian military and Morsi, more rivals than partners, likely to bring a durable stability to the Sinai, with an Egyptian constitution as yet unwritten, and parliamentary elections looming in the not too distant future? 

Well, one can hope.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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