Many were surprised on June 24, 2012, when the Egyptian army let Mohamed Morsi to be declared Egypt’s first Islamist president in the freest elections in the country’s history. He had confronted and won the army-backed candidate, Mr. Shafik, who had been the last Prime Minister under President Mubarak. Morsi is identified with the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement that had been ruthlessly suppressed by all previous Egyptian presidents. All of the latter had been closely related to the armed forces. Seeing this miracle of democracy, one was forced to ask what kind of deal had been struck between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood; after all this was the same army that dismantled the parliament before the last presidential elections. Until this week, such a deal was just a conjecture. Then, on August 8, Egypt attacked Global Jihad forces near Gaza and a new reality was disclosed. Subsequently, on August 14, the legal advisor of the Egyptian president, Mohammed Gadallah, told to the Egyptian al-Masry al-Youm that Egypt is considering amending the Camp David Accords between his country and Israel in order to regain full sovereignty over Sinai. This is a slight modification from the Muslim Brotherhood typical request to perform a referendum on the agreement imposed on the Egyptian people. Egypt’s latest actions show that the agreement has already been amended de facto. Mohammed Morsi did what the armed forces candidates couldn’t; he ordered the army to conduct air strikes in Sinai for the first time since 1973, and got the support of the generals. Was this the deal? Was Egypt just waiting for an excuse for an air strike? Netanyahu and Hamas have obediently accepted the first attempts of Egypt to enforce its military sovereignty over the peninsula.
Violence in Sinai
The chain of events is striking. On August 5, Global Jihad militants attacked an Egyptian outpost near Gaza, killed 16 Egyptians, and stole several vehicles. One of the stolen Fahd Armored Personnel Carriers was hit in the subsequent Israeli air strike. A second APC exploded before it could enter Israeli territory, at the Kerem Shalom Border Terminal, which connects Israel, Gaza and Egypt. On August 8, Egypt responded with air strikes close to the border with Israel, killing over twenty suspected Islamic militants. Since then, Egypt performed a series of actions that goes far beyond any ad hoc agreement with Israel on the capture of the militants. Egypt keeps reinforcing its military presence in the peninsula, which is banned under the peace agreement. In recent days it carried military actions in El Arish, on the northeastern side of the peninsula. Apparently over sixty militants have been killed in the operation. East Jerusalem newspaper al-Quds reported on August 14, that Egypt demanded the extradition of three heads of an organization named “Army of Islam,” claiming that they had provided indirect support to the recent violence in the Sinai Peninsula. Under the formal international situation, Egypt is not supposed to deal independently with Gaza. That wasn’t all.
Immediately after the August 5 attack, Egypt closed its Rafah Border Cross with Gaza. On August 14, this border was opened for three days, in order to let food and other basic products enter Gaza, as well as to allow stranded travelers to complete their trips. Egypt demanded the smuggling tunnels connecting Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula to be sealed because they are operational in the ongoing violence, allowing militants and weapons to move easily. The attack on the Egyptian forces by Islamists during the holy month of Ramadan couldn’t be accepted by the new Islamic government. Hamas answer was immediate and showed panic. They sealed over one hundred tunnels from the Gaza side, in a show of goodwill and cooperation with the new Egyptian government. Yet, the deputy head of Hamas’ political bureau, Moussa Abu Marzouk, publicly said that there are about 1,200 active tunnels between the Egyptian and Palestinian sections of Rafah. Morsi had yet to order the initiation of a campaign against them, but Gaza and Israel are watching carefully.
Also Israel is changing its behavior quickly. For many years, the border between Israel and Egypt was calm and open; the Sinai gently replaced by the Negev. Last year, Israel begun building a new fence–see picture above–which is stronger than the one separating it from Syria. Now Israel is rushing its construction. Moreover, large and well-equipped IDF forces can be seen along it. Change is in the air.
The Sinai Amendment
Northern Sinai is home to more than forty Bedouin tribes, which form twelve groups with well-defined national identities. In Israel and Egypt Attack Sinai Insurrection, I commented on the increasing importance of Bedouin leadership in the future of Sinai. The “Sinai Amendment” to the Camp David Agreement studied by President Morsi shows their importance. For the first time, Egypt will formally incorporate the Bedouins as part of its security establishment. Bedouins will enlist in groups of at least twenty men whose duty would be to patrol and report on any suspicious activities in their tribal areas. In other words, they will mimic the Israeli Desert Rangers Battalion, also known as the Minorities Unit. These men would receive a salary from the Egyptian government and will be incorporated into the regional police force. Bedouin leaders also demand an Egyptian cellular network; right now they rely on Israeli and Palestinian networks. Another point being studied is the deployment of military helicopters in the area, capable of attacking smugglers. The final step of the reshuffles in the area is the closure of all tunnels. This will harm Hamas and benefit Egypt. Overall, this changes will demand an amended peace agreement with Israel.
Another side clearly losing from the changes is Israel, which suddenly got an Islamist government pushing a strong army closer to its border. Israel may have been convinced to agree in exchange for the closure of the smuggling tunnels. However, it doesn’t matter, anymore. The recent events show beyond doubt that Egypt took back its sovereignty; Hamas and Israel must accommodate to this new reality.