Egypt’s Sinai problem won’t be solved with air strikes

Fawaz Gerges writes: In response to last week’s border attack in the Sinai peninsula which murdered 16 Egyptian soldiers, today Egyptian military attack helicopters fired missiles on suspected Islamist militants in Sinai, reportedly killing 20. The air strikes on Tumah village – the military’s first in Sinai since Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel – were carried out as security forces massed near Rafah on the Palestinian Gaza border for what they called a decisive confrontation with the militants.

Without addressing Sinai’s severe social challenges, particularly a widespread feeling of neglect, discrimination and disfranchisement among its Bedouin population, the army’s tactics might exacerbate an already dangerous situation.

For the last two decades, the security situation in Sinai has rapidly deteriorated, fuelled by abject poverty, socioeconomic marginalisation and heavy-handed mistreatment of Bedouins, an ancient and proud community, by the Mubarak security apparatus. From the 1990s onwards, billions of US dollars were poured into developing the tourist industry in Sharm el-Sheik in south Sinai and the peninsula at large, with most jobs going to outsiders, not Bedouins. There was no trickle down to the local economy.

Similarly, Mubarak and his associates sold huge tracts of Sinai land to crony capitalists, angering Bedouins who felt excluded from the development of agricultural farms in their heartland.

Equally important, Mubarak unleashed his security thugs against restive Bedouins and humiliated and insulted their leaders, a sin that deepened the community’s resentment against the Cairo authorities. Over the years many Bedouins have told me of their grievances against the Mubarak regime, stressing economic exploitation of their land and disrespect for their code of honour and values.

While Mubarak’s fat cats made fortunes out of Sinai, 50% of Bedouins live in poverty, with few employment opportunities. For their survival, they depend on an underground economy, including smuggling of goods and arms to besieged Gaza, illegal African and Egyptian immigrants to Europe, and drugs. A growing lawlessness turned Sinai into an attractive destination for jihadis, fortune seekers, and criminals. [Continue reading…]

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