Egypt’s military has reportedly killed over 250 Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula during the past ten days. It continues the violent struggle between Cairo and its restive eastern province, which is fast becoming a base for dangerous fundamentalists pledging their allegiance to ISIS.
At the crossroads between Africa and the Middle East, Sinai has always been a geopolitically vital area and its ownership has long been contested. Inhabited since prehistoric times, its northern coastline was a major trade route between Egypt and Palestine and in the first century AD the Roman Empire took control of the Peninsula.
The territory was wrestled back and forth between various Muslim successor states to the Romans before coming under Ottoman control in the 16th century. As Ottoman power declined in the 19th century, so did its grip on Sinai. A nascent Egyptian state was established by Muhammad Ali in 1805 which, whilst nominally a tributary of the Ottomans, was all but independent until the arrival of the British in 1882.
The entirety of Egypt (including Sinai) was effectively a British colony until 1936 when the Kingdom of Egypt was recognised as an independent state by London. Even then, the British maintained a military presence until 1952 before withdrawing as part of a general colonial retrenchment across the globe.
This is when the history of the Sinai Peninsula becomes even more contested and problematic. In 1948, the Arab-Israeli War saw Egypt send troops through Sinai in support of Arab forces in the former British Mandate of Palestine, which was being threatened by the new Israeli state. A reversal in fortunes saw the Israelis occupy part of Sinai for the first time before an armistice was signed in early 1949.
The 1956 Suez Crisis – when an attempted invasion of the Sinai Peninsula by British, French and Israeli forces in a bid to take control of the nationalised Suez Canal ended in a humiliating withdrawal – solidified the Egyptian-Israeli enmity that would continually boil over into war.
In 1967 the Israelis finally captured Sinai during the Six-Day War, which was followed by a three-year War of Attrition orchestrated by the Egyptians in a failed attempt to recapture their lost territory. Further conflict broke out in 1973 after Cairo launched Operation Badr, initiating the Yom Kippur War. Again, the Egyptians could not recapture the Peninsula.
It would take the US-brokered Camp David Accords of 1978 and the subsequent Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty for the Israelis to concede the Sinai Peninsula back to Egypt.
Whilst the Israeli-Egyptian peace has largely held, Sinai has remained unstable. Impoverished Bedouin Arabs – resentful of Cairo’s apparent disregard for their needs – and hardline Islamists have frequently staged attacks on foreign tourist resorts and government checkpoints.
Additionally, Sinai has become the main route through which Hamas has smuggled weapons into the Gaza Strip as part of its ongoing struggle against Israeli supremacy. A sophisticated network of tunnels – partially created and monitored by Hamas sympathisers on the Egyptian side of the border – have invited assaults from both the Israelis and the government in Cairo. It is now thought that Hamas and the Sinai insurgents are working together.
ISIS supporters certainly appear to be taking advantage of the inherent chaos in Sinai to establish a base close to Egypt and the other troubled states of North Africa, whilst also being within striking distance of the hated Israel.
Complicating matters is the religious significance of the region. Mount Sinai, in the southern-central part of the Peninsula, is where Moses received the Ten Commandments during the Jewish exodus. It is therefore a revered place for all followers of the Abrahamic religions.
Attempts to counter the violence in Sinai have tended to be military in nature, which has only perpetuated the various troubles. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has increased military action in Sinai to flush out militants and destroy their support networks, in addition to Hamas’ intricate tunnel system. Whilst this is necessarily part of any solution, more diplomatic, multilateral efforts should be made.
An agreement between Egypt, Israel and the Palestinians – in addition to their regional and international partners – on a coordinated approach to securitising Sinai is the preferable course. Such an outcome, however, is unlikely. Whilst Hamas remains in charge of the Gaza Strip, Sinai will be destabilised by attempts to smuggle in weapons, supplies and fighters. The Egyptians, too, appear reluctant to allow other states to interfere in their sovereign territory, particularly given how troublesome it has been to hold on to.
Without an agreed approach, though, there is no prospect for peace. An area with economic and multicultural potential is more likely to become a land bridge and sanctuary for terror, connecting the theatres of war between the Middle East and Africa. This may ultimately lead to a scenario that has always seemed inevitable: that the Sinai Peninsula will be beyond the control of every sovereign state, destined for perpetual conflict, the repercussions of which could spread far and wide.