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The root cause of Egypt's Sinai conflict

President Mohamed Morsi has failed to address underdevelopment in region, which could be the cause of wave of unrest.
Last modified: 21 May 2013 16:07

It has been a security headache even before the revolution, but once again questions are being asked – why is Sinai such a trouble spot?

The recent kidnapping of seven members of the security forces is becoming a major embarrassment for the current government, particularly that Egyptians have still not been told who was behind the brutal killing of 16 border guards there last summer.

It shows that whatever steps have been taken (if any) to address the problems in the Sinai have not been successful.

The strategic area, on Egypt's border with Israel and the Gaza Strip, is inhabited by tribes that have long complained of marginalisation and neglect. The region remains an underdeveloped desert that lacks basic services and infrastructure even decades after it was liberated from Israeli occupation in 1982.

The loyalty of its bedouin inhabitants, many of whom are denied citizenship and ownership rights, is also constantly in question.

Along the years, the area has become awash with all sorts of illegal activities, including drug dealing, human trafficking, and arms smuggling, not to mention turning into a haven for armed fighters the government says belong to so-called Jihadi cells.

The security vacuum since the revolution has led to an increase in attacks on security forces and gas pipelines there, as well targeting neighbouring Israel and kidnapping tourists.

Authorities have always viewed Sinai from a security prism – responding to the instability by sweeping raids that lead to the arrest of unidentified purported assailants.

Human rights groups have long complained that such crackdowns have been arbitrary and have fueled a sense of despondency among Sinai's residents. Sadly, the current government under President Mohammed Morsi seems to be towing the same line, failing to address the root cause of issues.

Although there has not been a specific entity that claimed responsibility for the recent kidnapping of the servicemen who were carefully handpicked at a checkpoint set up by the captors, there have been demands made – the release of several suspected fighters held in Egyptian jails.

Angered by the humiliating video of the kidnapped soldiers and policemen that was released on Thursday, the presidency vowed to take "firm measures" in response. In an apparent show of force, the army and police have stepped up their presence, but a military operation to free the hostages has not been authorised so far.

Egyptian special forces do not particularly have an ideal history when it comes to hostage-release operations. Many people still remember the 1985 hostage situation on an EgyptAir flight that ended up leaving more than 50 of the 95 people on board dead after Egyptian commandos raided the plane.

More importantly, there are no indications that authorities even know the whereabouts of the hostages. The presidency says it is not talking to the hostage takers, but there are mediation efforts under way, and it does not seem that these men could be released without some sort of dialogue.

Tribal leaders have been key in talks with assailants in previous hostage situations involving tourists or members of the security forces. There have been claims over the past year that President Morsi had also been resorting to so-called Jihadists to mediate with armed groups in Sinai, which, if true, can be quite risky.

The government is, once again, between a rock and a hard place, but it is arguably a position they could have avoided if a genuine, transparent and wide-reaching dialogue and programme was set to develop the Sinai.

There is little evidence to support that armed groups there have been fighting out of genuine conviction and belief in al-Qaeda's ideology and ways, rather than out of years of accumulated frustration and anger toward successive governments that have failed to provide them a dignified life.