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Instability on Sinai Border Poses Challenge for New Egyptian Government

August 8, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
After militants attacked an Egyptian border checkpoint, they crossed into Gaza, where Israeli forces stopped and killed the insurgents. But doubts remain on whether Egyptian forces can safeguard its borders. Jeffrey Brown talks to McClatchy Newspapers' Nancy Youssef and Georgetown University's Samer Shehata for more.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And for more on the latest tension and violence, we turn to Nancy Youssef in Cairo, where she’s reporting for McClatchy Newspapers, and here in Washington, Samer Shehata from the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University.

Nancy Youssef, start with you.

What led to the Egyptian military — what led it to take action in the Sinai? What’s behind this?

NANCY YOUSSEF, McClatchy Newspapers: Well, on Sunday, 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed by Islamist militants along the border. It marked the deadliest day for Egyptian soldiers since the 1979 peace accords.

And because of public pressure, because of the gravity of the situation, because some hope the Egyptians recognize the threat of domestic extremists within their own country, Egypt decided to respond with helicopter airstrikes that reportedly led to the killing of 20 militants. That’s according to state media, although we have no independent confirmation of that.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, when we say militants, when we use that word, do we know who we’re talking about? What is known?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, the Sinai is perhaps the most ungoverned and unruly part of Egypt. And it’s been so for years.

But since the uprising that led to the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime 20 months ago, it has become even more so, more looting, more smuggling of arms and weapons across the border, and more vows from various Islamist groups that are based there, including al-Qaida, to launch aggressive campaigns against Israel.

And so this was sort of an ongoing fear that this kind of action would be happening in the Sinai, as it’s become even less governed than it was before the fall of the regime.

And so we haven’t received any confirmation of who — which Islamist group attacked these troops. No group has claimed responsibility, nor has the Egyptian government come out and identified any group as responsible.

But we do know that there are various groups active in that part of the country and committed to sort of creating cross-border tensions and problems for Egypt.

JEFFREY BROWN: Samer Shehata, tell us more about the Sinai and the situation there. It’s a place we haven’t focused on in a long time. Who is there? How much control does the government have? What is going on?

SAMER SHEHATA, Georgetown University: And it’s a place the Egyptian government hasn’t focused on for decades.

The Sinai is relatively lightly inhabited. And many of the residents of the Sinai, the Bedouin, as well as the other residents in the smaller cities and so on, feel marginalized from Egyptian society, Egyptian politics. And that’s because the regime, successive regimes have really neglected the Sinai in terms of education, health, infrastructure.

They have really viewed the Sinai only through two prisms, a security prism to respond to things like that we recently saw with incredible force, and so on, and as a source of revenue with regard to tourism, which hasn’t largely benefited the inhabitants of Sinai.

So it is a marginalized area of the country compared to the — compared to the Delta, compared to Cairo and the other cities.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so the militancy, is that new that has gone into a vacuum here after — in the post-Mubarak era, or has that always been there and been controlled?

SAMER SHEHATA: Well, there has always been — or, I should say, there has been for many years now violence directed at both Egyptian state, as well as Israel and Israeli interests in the Sinai. I mean, many years ago, there was a horrific bombing at the Taba Hilton, which killed many Israelis, well as Egyptians.

There have been a number of terrorist attacks in the last decade in Sharm el-Sheikh, another major tourist center. And those attacks have been directed against the Egyptian state when Mubarak was in power, as well as against Israeli interests.

So there has always been this element of un-governability or outside of the rule of law in Sinai.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Nancy Youssef, so putting this in that post-Mubarak context of this new Egypt, we saw President Morsi, he fired his intelligence chief. What kind of position does this put him in to? What are the constraints and pressures he’s under right now?

NANCY YOUSSEF: Well, it was an attempt by Morsi to reclaim some of his presidential authority.

Remember, under the interim constitution, he has no say over military matters. And so one of the three people who were dismissed today, the chief of military police, was actually dismissed by Mohamed Tantawi, the military — leader of the military council.

Morsi — President Morsi has faced some difficulty asserting his authority since becoming president in June. And the Muslim Brotherhood, through which he rose to power, has really been focused on domestic issues.

And last week, the president promoted his cabinet, and most of the social services went to the Muslim Brotherhood Freedom of Justice Party members, and the international and top positions, if you will, in defense and finance stayed within technocrats or with the Mubarak regime.

And so Mubarak — President Morsi needed to sort of assert himself as president. This week, in a way, really exposed the limits of his presidency. He didn’t attend the funeral for those 16 soldiers here. It was led by Tantawi. His prime minister tried to attend and was attacked.

And when he went to the attack site, he could only spend 25 minutes there because of the security threat. And so, in this balance of power struggle, if you will, that’s going on between the ruling military council and the presidency, this is Morsi’s attempt to sort of appear authoritative over the security situation in — not only in Sinai, but in Egypt writ large, even though, frankly, he doesn’t really have much authority over either.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Samer Shehata, what does this do to the situation and relations with Israel, between Israel and Egypt? Is there cooperation over something like this? Or does it possibly lead to new tensions?

SAMER SHEHATA: Well, it doesn’t necessarily need to lead to new tensions.

And, in fact, the Israelis applauded the Egyptian government’s military strikes in Sinai. In fact, both Egypt and Israel and, interestingly enough, Hamas has an interest in security in Sinai and it not being a place where extremists are attacking Egyptian forces or Israelis and so on.

So this could potentially, if the stars align, lead to some kind of cooperation among at least the Egyptians and the Israelis, and maybe even the Egyptians and the Palestinians.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, in the meantime, it’s correct to see, as Nancy was saying, this all sort of fits into larger problems in Egypt over security and all kinds of things.

SAMER SHEHATA: Right.

I mean, the two most pressing concerns in Egypt right now are the economy and security, not necessarily in that order. And, in fact, Morsi has pledged to concentrate on those and a number of other things in his first 100 days. So, this is the first major test of his presidency, and we will see by determining how effective he is at controlling security and bringing about economic benefit how successful he is in fulfilling those promises.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Samer Shehata here, Nancy Youssef in Cairo, thank you both very much.