Peace treaty must be revised
Insecurity in Sinai could engulf the whole country, already teetering following the revolution. Egypt must act, which means first untying its hands, writes Galal Nassar
Egypt is in a state of disarray. In spite of the great Egyptian grassroots revolution, anarchy remained the primary trait of the transitional period, regardless of the degree to which it was fed by political developments, constitutional and legal controversies, and major and minor events in the capital, up and down the Nile from Alexandria to Aswan, and along the fringes of the country, in Sinai, Al-Wadi Al-Gadid and Marsa Matrouh. The chaos, aggravated by mounting polarisations between the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the Muslim Brotherhood, and other political forces, has persisted in spite of the election of a new president. But more than any other locus of tension in the country, the current conflict in Sinai epitomises the crisis of the erosion of central control, security breakdown, and their socio-political and strategic ramifications. The recent events in Sinai, which were triggered by the terrorist attack that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers, cast to the fore numerous crucial domestic and foreign policy questions not least of which are the security of Sinai and Egyptian-Israeli relations.
The situation in Sinai had already begun to deteriorate well before the January Revolution. This was largely due to two factors. The first was the security agencies' mismanagement of a series of difficulties and crises in that area, generating a growing gap between the people of Sinai and the central government. On one side, some entertained doubts as to the patriotism of the Sinai Bedouin in spite of the fact that they bore the burden of the resistance against the Israeli occupation of Sinai following the 1967 war. On the other was mounting resentment against a regime that ignored the developmental needs of Sinai, failed to open job opportunities to Sinai youth in tourist projects that proliferated after control over the area was restored to Egypt, and did not recruit them into military academies as a means to assimilate Sinai's society into national structures. The second factor was the spread of extremist thought in a religious guise during the Sadat and Mubarak eras. Almost intrinsically hostile to many domestic and foreign policy orientations, that type of thought inevitably spread to Sinai.
As the situation in Sinai deteriorated in the Mubarak era, Israel increasingly began to complain that this posed a threat to its own security. While a chief cause of that situation -- the malpractices of the security agencies -- may have been eliminated following the January Revolution, the grip of the central state had weakened at the same time. In Sinai, that grip became almost non-existent. The result was an unprecedented boost to terrorist groups operating in that area. They became increasingly active and more and more audacious until the latest tragic attack. The repercussions of their activities also became increasingly dangerous, especially after Israel was forced to respond to the latest attack when two of the terrorists stormed across the border into Israeli territory. Israel has since seized upon this incident as a pretext for levelling harsh criticisms against Egyptian policy in Sinai and calling into question Egypt's ability to control that peninsula. This, in turn, has stirred suspicions in Egypt that Israel may be planning to reoccupy part of Sinai or to grant itself licence to undertake military operations there or, at the very least, to call for an international force to be stationed on our side of the border.
Islamist political forces and the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in particular were quick to accuse Israel of being behind the latest attack, though to be fair a number of non-Islamist forces shared the opinion. Nevertheless, I believe that part of the Islamists' motive for pointing fingers in that direction was to deflect blame from themselves. The terrorists espouse extremist ideas that they erroneously attribute to Islam, upon which Islamist forces presumably base their political legitimacy. Also, in the immediate aftermath of the Rafah attack, President Mohamed Mursi came under fire for his "ill-considered" decision to establish closer relations with Hamas. It was argued that steps taken in this context made it easier for terrorist groups in Gaza to coordinate with and join their counterparts in Sinai in order to carry out the attack. Mursi was simultaneously criticised for his decision to grant amnesties to prisoners who had been found guilty of involvement in terrorist attacks that had claimed the lives of many Egyptians and foreigners. The critics hold that the amnesties helped create a climate conducive to terrorism which encouraged those who carried out the Rafah attack and could inspire similar attacks in the future, and all the more so if the newly released persons turn around and issue supportive "fatwas" or even actively collude in plots.
Naturally, there is always some logical basis for suspecting Israel. It remains the foremost threat to Egypt's national security to which history offers ample testimony. However, if blame is to be cast, at the very least it should be founded upon concrete evidence and clearheaded reasoning so that we do not find ourselves chasing after groundless hypotheses that prevent us from properly attributing responsibility and, hence, from ending the vicious cycle of insecurity and instability in Sinai. Proceeding from this basis, three observations weaken the contention that Israel was behind the recent attack. First, it issued several warnings of an impending attack and sufficiently in advance to give Egyptian security agencies time to take precautions. Second, sources in SCAF mentioned that the terrorists had received support from inside Gaza while they were carrying out their operation. Apparently, mortar bombs were fired from the vicinity of Gaza airport with the purpose of distracting Israeli forces from what was happening in Sinai. Third, there is no denying the already dangerously deteriorating situation that existed in Sinai and the gross negligence on our part in handling that situation. That security breakdown, mismanagement, general anarchy and disintegration at the fringes helped clear the way for the operation, regardless of the ideological or national affiliation of the perpetrators.
So, what needs to be done? Egyptian military command has deployed land and air forces, destroyed tunnels that are often suspected of being used as a transit for terrorists, and laid siege to rugged mountainous areas used as terrorist hideouts. Often such measures produce immediate results. Unfortunately, however, the benefit is temporary because they fail to address the root causes. Recourse to the "iron fist" approach cannot, in and of itself, remedy the security breakdown, the root causes of which are to be found in economic, social and educational problems that lay the grounds for extremism. Simultaneously, the "iron fist" approach will remain a kind of mirage unless the protocols of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty are revised, especially with regards to the deployment of Egyptian forces in Area C in Sinai. The provisions of those protocols were originally devised on the basis of two fallacious assumptions: firstly, that Egypt poses a threat to Israeli security rather than the reverse; and secondly, that the only threat that Egypt faces comes from Israel. Theoretically, under a peace agreement, both assumptions are invalid. Be that as it may, the situation has changed radically since 1979, which should be reason enough for revising the treaty or even abolishing it. We cannot rule out, at this juncture, the possibility that some ultra-extremist forces assume power in Israel and execute a plan to reoccupy all or part of Sinai, or assume the right to send in forces in pursuit of targets or other "security" aims. More immediately, the provisions of the treaty do not reflect the reality that terrorism in Sinai is an immediate threat to Egypt before being a potential threat to Israel. While Israel has certainly given the Egyptian military command the green light to bring in forces that are not necessarily provided for under the arrangements of the peace agreement for the purpose of counterterrorist operations, there is no logical reason why Egypt should remain at the mercy of the whims of this or that Israeli government for permission to deploy our forces as needed on our own territory.
It follows that our primary concern, now, should be to push for a revision of the unfair conditions of the protocols of the peace treaty. Indeed, President Mursi should declare this as one of his foremost priorities. The treaty does provide for the possibility of amendment, but it requires the agreement of both sides in order to set the process into motion. Therefore, as a first step, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry should submit an official request to Israel for this purpose and the president should form a negotiating team, reminiscent of our "Taba team", consisting of our best legal, military and diplomatic experts. At the same time, we should pre-empt possible Israeli intransigence by bringing in reinforcements into Area C in sufficient force to confront the threat of terrorism in Sinai, for otherwise we will be laying ourselves open to the likelihood that intermittent terrorist attacks will escalate into a flood that could overflow the bounds of Sinai and threaten the entire country.
We cannot overstate the need to succeed in restoring security to Sinai. Success there will reverse the trend of deterioration and mounting anarchy and herald the restoration of stability throughout the country.