It is Sinai, again—the time bomb that has been ticking for the last 18 months. The bomb has finally exploded and the victims were 16 innocent Egyptian soldiers, who died for no particular reason other than doing their duty for their country by defending its border. They were killed in cold blood by terrorist groups who attacked the Egyptian checkpoint, killed the troops, then stole two of their vehicles and burst through the security fence into Israel.
Now is not the time to place blame or spin the facts for political gains. It is time to think of an action plan that will get Egypt out of this deep, troubled water. Here is my suggestion—a six-step action plan to save Sinai from another gloomy fate.
Thus far, there has been no formal admission from Egypt’s top officials that the situation in Sinai has reached crisis level. The current state of denial reflects a lack of desire to tackle the complex problem, simply because it involves Gaza, a sensitive and emotional subject for the newly-elected Islamic government. Blaming Israel is, by far, the easier solution but certainly not the right one.
Step Two—Public Engagement
For sixty years, ordinary Egyptians have been sidelined when it comes to Sinai. Truth was always in short supply; Egyptians received propaganda news, only to discover a part of what truly happened years after it occurred. Generations of Egyptians have grown up to believe that shared intelligence with Israel is blasphemous and Israel is the only threat to Egypt’s national security. This approach must change if Egypt is truly willing to tackle the root of the problem, a public outcry for new security arrangements is pivotal for success in this.
Step Three—Containing Gaza
As long as there is no viable political solution for the Gaza conundrum, Egypt should seriously start to think about how to contain Gaza without compromising its national security and without punishing the innocent Palestinians who live there. There needs to be a balance of dedication and creative thinking. For years, Mubarak blocked Gaza but turned a blind eye to the flourishing black market economy between the strip and north Sinai. Following the revolution, the border was re-opened but the tunnels continued as well. This simply has to stop, no matter what; Hamas government should choose between an open legal border and the illegal underground tunnels but it cannot have both. If Egypt continues to open the Rafah border, then tunnels have to be blocked: even if it means that the Egyptian army has to search each house across the border to identify entries and exists and block them. Of course, Hamas may declare their desire to co-operate with Egypt, but it is important to understand that Hamas’ cooperation is limited. Smuggling arms for them is a must and they cannot do it with closed tunnels. President Morsi should stand firm against Hamas’ emotional blackmail—there are many ways to help the Palestinians without endorsing Rafah’s black market economy.
Step Four—Change the Mindset
It is no secret that the Peace Treaty with Israel is unpopular among ordinary Egyptians, many advocate amending the treaty. Recently, the amendment camp has received boosted support from many U.S.and Israeli pundits who view the amendment as a solution for the lawlessness in the peninsula. Egyptians who support amending the treaty want the army to reach the border but in liaison with Israel, while Israel would never accept the army at its border without fully integrated open channels of communication between the two countries. This mindset needs to change. Egyptians need to swallow the bitter pill that is even “enemies” have some channels of communication.
It is increasingly clear that Egyptian army personnel need more training and security equipments. Isolated security posts in the middle of nowhere are clearly vulnerable and easy targets for terrorist groups. If this training comes from the U.S., then so be it. Ego should be no obstacle to seeking help.
Step Six—A Gaza fund
It is time for anti-Zionist revolutionaries to show that they love Palestine. A public campaign should start to collect donations in order to sponsor Palestinian and Egyptian families on both sides of the Rafah border, who will be directly affected by the closure of the tunnels. This fund would be a short-term solution until the pro-Palestine Egyptian government sets a long-term project to develop the impoverished area of north Sinai.
Now, I’ve outlined above what should happen but that does not mean it will. The current political dynamic in Egypt is not pro-realism, it is pro-fanaticism, and many in Egypt, not to mention Hamas in Gaza, were quick to point fingers and blame the Mossad for the killings in Sinai. In such, currently, there are two pro-conspiracy theory camps in Egypt:
Camp one—the anti-Zionists who cannot comprehend that Jihadi groups are willing to kill fellow Muslims to advance their cause, and who felt the urgency to conduct some sort of operation before Israel finishes building its barrier wall on its border with Egypt.
Camp two—the opportunists, many inside the brotherhood, who view what happened in Sinai as a golden opportunity to distract the public from the challenging domestic problems facing Egyptians at the moment (i.e., sectarianism, lack of electricity, rising food prices). Tension in Sinai could deflect attention towards Israel while the president has a break.
So far, we can only hear loud rhetoric and empty threats. It remains to be seen if both will materialize into some serious action to solve the chronic problems of the unfortunate peninsula. It is time for President Morsi to face Egyptians with some facts and some hard truth; otherwise, he should start to prepare for war, because it will come, and very soon. Yesterday, Israel shot the stolen tank in its territory; the next time, it could happen on Egyptian soil. Therefore, I suggest the legendary Abdel Halim Hafez’s song, “Hello battlefield,” as a starter course. It can bring back the atmosphere of the Six-Day War to the younger generations.
Some have argued out that Rafah border (which was always designated for people crossing and not for goods) was never properly re-opened following the revolution. It is true that the main supplies to Gaza come via Israel, and not Egypt. However, there were subtle, yet important changes that started to emerge following the revolution, in the form of new fuel and electricity supply. As far as I am aware, the issue of the illegal tunnels was never raised, at least publically with the Hamas government.
It is also important to remember that arm smuggling is vital to many armed groups in Gaza, they may have other routes but the bulk of Grad missiles are smuggled through the tunnels. Finally, many in Gaza benefit from the cheap prices of smuggled goods- taxed by Hamas- and it is not in their interest to stop this lucrative trade, that is why a joint economic projects between north Sinai and Gaza is a must plan for the future. The fund I suggested is a short–term solution. Long term, Gaza need a new political dynamics and long-term economical projects.