Sinai Chaos Threatens Peacekeeping Mission

U.S.-Led Force May Be Overtaken by Spreading Instability

Pomp and Chaos: The biggest problem for the U.S.-led peacekeeping force in the Sinai Desert used to be ceremonies honoring past conflicts. Now it threatens to be engulfed by instability as the desert turns into a regional trouble spot.
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Pomp and Chaos: The biggest problem for the U.S.-led peacekeeping force in the Sinai Desert used to be ceremonies honoring past conflicts. Now it threatens to be engulfed by instability as the desert turns into a regional trouble spot.

By Nathan Guttman

Published August 17, 2012, issue of August 24, 2012.
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With the MFO unequipped, untrained and not mandated to deal with the new threats emerging in Sinai, the United States has been looking for other options for increasing security in the region. The Obama administration reportedly reached out to the Egyptian government with a list of suggestions for bolstering security in Sinai by enhancing intelligence and counterterrorism capabilities. The United States, according to press reports, has offered to equip Egypt with electronic and aerial surveillance systems and to train police officers dealing with the jihadist violence in Sinai.

But according to Eric Trager, an expert on Egypt at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Egypt’s efforts to counter militant cells have shown little progress, because “the Egyptian army was afraid of confronting the citizens of Sinai. They were afraid that if they got involved, they’d become a target.”

Beyond that, said Michele Dunne, a former White House and State Department official who now directs the Middle East program at the Atlantic Council, “Sinai is a multidimensional problem, with terrorism, smuggling and long-term social problems, and an effective strategy should include all components.”

Unrest in Sinai, experts stress, did not begin with the fall of Mubarak and is not necessarily tied to the power struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the old regime. Tensions go back as far as Gamal Abdul Nasser’s 1952 revolution, and have been driven by decades of neglect of the peninsula’s Bedouin population by the regime in Cairo.

Another destabilizing factor in Sinai is the growth of criminal activity following Israel’s siege of Gaza. Tunnel smuggling of goods and weapons into Gaza from Sinai contributed to an increase in violence fueled by business rivalries rather than by political grievances. Dealing with this aspect of Sinai lawlessness, Dunne said, would require “tough decisions” by Israel regarding the closure of Gaza.

The MFO, according to Dermer, has known about the tunnels, but “did nothing” even though they were located directly within sight of their posts. “Their job is to monitor force levels. That’s all,” Dermer said.

“There needs to be more than just a military response to this situation,” added Joel Rubin, director of policy and government affairs at the Ploughshares Fund and a former Egypt desk officer at the State Department, in charge of political-military relations. “Real engagement — political and economic — with the local population can go a long way to calming the situation there. The U.S. should ensure that such views are included in the development of any security plan.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


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