Thursday, October 30, 2014

An unsettled Sinai poses a threat to regional stability

For many years I had friends who either lived in or visited Israel who would occasionally make a trip to the Sinai, often because they wanted to visit Egypt without the expense of flying to Cairo. Fortunately, everyone I know who made the trip into the southern sands of this region returned unharmed, but this was not a guaranteed outcome. This has been a violent, lawless area of the Middle East in recent years, and the brutal murder of more than 30 Egyptian soldiers by terrorists operating in the Sinai over the weekend was a stark reminder of this reality.

Internal instability in Egypt has no doubt helped to fuel the spread and enthusiasm of Islamic fundamentalist terror groups in the area. The period following the so-called "Arab spring" has seen a series of events which have made the political landscape in Egypt particularly hard to read, with the balance of power shifting back and forth, sometimes violently, between the army and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and its allies. Terrorist groups have clearly taken advantage of this disequilibrium both strategically and tactically, with devastating consequences. Their targets have included both Israeli and Egyptian forces, demonstrating that their goal is to sow chaos and create more space (literally and figuratively) in which to operate. 

In the wake of this most recent assault, the terrorist who carried it out may have also scored a victory by provoking the government of Egypt into declaring a 3 month state of emergency across a large section of the peninsula. This move on the part of the Egyptian government is not surprising, and in the face of such a bold and bloody attack a robust response is surely warranted, but the declaration of a state of emergency also plays neatly into the terrorist narrative about the authoritarian nature of the Egyptian state.

If such entities are allowed to proliferate and gain influence unchecked they could continue to stymy the emergence of a stable (let alone democratic) government in Cairo, in part by providing an excuse for the continuation of de facto rule by the army. Furthermore, any gains they may make in controlling more territory in Sinai provides them with a safe haven from which to launch attacks against both Israel and Egypt. Their ambitions are not limited to murdering Israeli or Egyptian forces in the Sinai - in the long run these groups pose a threat to the national security of the United States and Europe as well. For these reasons, and many more, I suspect that the impact of this recent attack will ripple well beyond the Sinai. Exactly how, when and where we see the effects is hard to know, but one way or another it's not hard to imagine that the deaths of these Egyptian soldiers will not influence Egyptian, and possibly regional, policies when it comes to pushing back against Islamist terror groups.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

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