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Sinai: The Heightened Threat Of A Lawless Region


Over the weekend, Islamic militants, in the Sinai Peninsula, ambushed a military checkpoint near the Egyptian-Israeli border. They killed 16 Egyptian soldiers and then commandeered two vehicles and attempted to cross into Israel. One of the vehicles exploded. The other was struck by a missile from Israeli aircraft. Sinai is an increasingly lawless region. The deadly attack last weekend - one of the bloodiest in years - poses a major challenge for Egypt's new Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, and it has put new pressure on the already strained relationship between Israel and Egypt.

Joining me now to talk about the broader implications of this attack are two NPR foreign correspondents with two different perspectives. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is in Tel Aviv. Thanks for joining us, Lu.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: It's great to be here.

GJELTEN: And Leila Fadel is in Cairo where she's NPR's new bureau chief. And a special welcome to you, Leila.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Thank you so much.

GJELTEN: Let's start with you, Leila. What was the immediate response to this attack from the Egyptian side? I mean, these were militants in territory that, at least nominally, is under the security protection of the Egyptian authorities. What was the response in Cairo to this attack?

FADEL: Well, I think pretty immediately the government responded and the president's office responded that they would take immediate and quick actions against these militants to find out what happened, but also, you quickly started to see a very fractious foreign policy and a very fractious reaction. The president, Mohammed Morsi, just spoke in generalities about criminals in the Sinai. They will pay. Where the military leadership here, which holds still most of the power, called them infidels and the enemies of the state.

GJELTEN: Talk a little bit about the Sinai Peninsula. We, you know, we've heard that it's a lawless region. I've heard the word anarchy applied there. What's the situation? Have you - I think you've probably have traveled in that region. What is the situation like right now in Sinai?

FADEL: Well, for decades, actually, Sinai has been generally lawless, not a lot of security forces up there, and the Bedouin tribes really control the situation. And since Hosni Mubarak was ousted last year, that security vacuum has only grown. And in that vacuum, you're starting to see and residents complained that Islamist militants are finding a home. And they say a lot of the tribes up there that we spoke to in light of recent events are saying we've been begging for help, we've been begging for security, but the army hasn't responded. And Egypt - Egypt's leadership says their hands are tied by a treaty with Israel that limits the number of security forces they can have on that border with Israel.

GJELTEN: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, the situation in Sinai, worsening as it is, has got to have caused a lot of alarm in Israel, particularly because of the vulnerability of Israel to attacks from the Gaza Strip, which borders on the Sinai Peninsula. What is the Israeli view of the current situation in Sinai right now in the aftermath of this attack in particular?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, Israel is extremely concerned. It faces a few problems. First of all, it looks at the Sinai - and it's been saying for some time - that it really is worrying about what's happening there, not only do you see militants flourishing, as Leila rightly mentioned, but it's a place where there's a lot of human trafficking, be it for female trafficking or if it be, you know, sort of illegal immigrants trying to make their way into the Jewish state. It's also a place where drugs cross over.

So it's been a problem for them for some time. And they have been warning about it. But because of the - what had happened in Egypt during the revolution, they simply didn't know how to address it. So they are building actually a huge wall down there. And they feel that that is their best defense against what's happening in the Sinai. But, you know, at the moment, and especially after this attack, they really do feel that they're trying to get a sense from Egypt exactly how they're going to tackle the situation. Israel says this is fundamentally an Egyptian problem. Egypt has to deal with it themselves. We can only protect ourselves, but we cannot, obviously, interfere in what is happening in the Sinai.

GJELTEN: Well, you say that Israel is saying - Israeli officials are saying they can't interfere now. In the past, of course, Israel has not hesitated when it has felt the need to do so has not hesitated to take unilateral action to protect Israeli's security. On the other hand, the situation in the Sinai is the result of a peace treaty that Israel very much imagined wants to keep in force. So it seems to me that there may be a bit of a dilemma here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's absolutely a dilemma. I mean, this peace treaty has been in effect since 1979, the military annex, which governs what happens inside the Sinai since 1981. It is a demilitarized zone. That zone is monitored by an international force not of the United Nations, but rather it's called Multinational Force and Observers. And there are groups there from the Fijians to the Americans. There are various different countries that are represented. They're monitoring that demilitarized zone, you know.

And there's a bit of a debate as you can imagine. On this side of the border, in Israel, they say, we have told the Egyptians that they can move more military in there, that they have the permission to exceed the mandate that was originally agreed to in order to bolster security, and they simply haven't done it. There is not the will, they say, here in Egypt to do that. On the Egyptian side, of course, they say, listen, we're hamstrung by this agreement. And there had been calls that they - that that agreement should be renegotiated.

So I think what we're seeing is not only some practical problems, which are that the security is deteriorating in a place like Sinai, and that has implications for Israel. It has implications for Egypt. But beyond that, we are seeing two different countries that have a very testy relationship at the moment. You know, Israel simply doesn't know how it will deal with Mohammed Morsi, the new Islamist president, who holds the reign of powers - who holds the reign of power, and how they're going to navigate this very complex situation.

GJELTEN: Well, Leila Fadel, President Morsi has said that he will now beef up the security in the Sinai or take full measure to guarantee security there. What is his capability for doing that? And what is - in your judgment, what is the political will on the Egyptian side to really improve security in the Sinai right now?

FADEL: Well, there's a lot of anger right now towards President Mohammed Morsi. This is his biggest challenge so far as president. He's only been in power for just over a month and, arguably, really doesn't have much power. The military still retains control over most of the security apparatuses and also legislative power. It has veto power over all governmental decisions.

So he's saying, I will react. I will reach harshly. There has been equipment brought to the Sinai right now to seal off tunnels - it hasn't started yet - to stop people crossing. As Lulu mentioned, a lot of issues with human smuggling across those tunnels and accusations that the militants that made - did the attack came from Gaza. But it's really unclear what he can do. And so what's happened is he has become quite reactive, or at least his organization has become quite reactive. The Muslim Brotherhood is accusing Israel of being involved in the attacks, or at least knowing about them and not saying anything, to embarrass the new leadership of Egypt.

It is a very testy relationship. There isn't really direct contact between Morsi and Israel. And so those lines of communication are also unclear. Is Israel communicating with Egypt's military? Are they communicating with Mohammed Morsi? But he's dealing with the population that is extremely angry at him for not securing the Sinai and accusing him of causing this by having an overly friendly relationship now with Hamas, who rule in Gaza.

GJELTEN: Well, Leila, you say that the Egyptians are telling you that the militants came from the Gaza Strip. Do you have any way to judge the accuracy of that? Does that - is that, in fact, what seems to be the case? Or are these militants sort of homegrown militants from the Bedouin people that lived there in the Sinai?

FADEL: The Egyptians are not public - the Egyptian government is not publicly saying they came from Gaza. But off the record, security officials will say, at least some of these 35 men possibly came through tunnels from Gaza. I'm sorry, I forgot the question.

GJELTEN: And - no. And I was wondering about, you know, what other, you know, militants might be involved in this. Some of them came through tunnels from Gaza...

FADEL: Right.

GJELTEN: ...but what about, you know, there are allegations even that al-Qaida is trying to get active among the Bedouins there, native to the Sinai region.

FADEL: Yeah, it's a big concern. A security vacuum like Egypt has in the Sinai is fertile ground for Islamist militants to breed. And residents up there and tribal leaders say that they're coming there with the ideology of al-Qaida in some cases. But their aim, their end goal is very unclear. This isn't the first attack that's happened in the past 18 months. There have been repeated attacks on the gas pipelines. Two Egyptian soldiers were killed last month in a town called Sheikh Zuweid. An Israeli was killed in June. So this is then a problem that has been ongoing for 18 months and has no solution, and the same complaints came - come out each time.

Egypt saying, our hands are tied. We cannot put enough forces out there because Israel is restricting us with this treaty. And Israel is saying, you know, you need to take control of the situation in your country because the border is not secure.

GJELTEN: And what's the popular reaction in Egypt to this? Is there sympathy for Morsi's situation? Is there anger at the militants that did this? You know, what's the sort of the mood? And I understand you are following the funeral of these soldiers who were killed today.


FADEL: Well, you'll find three different sort of sentiments going on. At the funeral today in Cairo, it was very much blame the Brotherhood. This is the Brotherhood's fault. This Islamist president is too friendly with Hamas. They eased restrictions on the border, and now Egyptians soldiers are dying. And you've done nothing to stop it. And actually, you're part of the reason that it happened. So there's that situation.

President Morsi was not even at the funeral today because of security reasons. And his prime minister was driven out of the funeral by shoe-throwing mourners because they're so angry. But then when you talk to residents along that border, they say, we blame the military leadership. We've told them this is a problem, and they have done nothing. And so there's those two sentiments.

And then there's a third sentiment, saying this is all about Israel. Israel wants to undermine us. Israel doesn't want to have a relationship at all with us. They're allowing this kind of security situation on our border.

GJELTEN: And Lourdes, what is, right now, the Israeli view of President Morsi? I mean, he is saying - and many of the right things he says he doesn't want to abrogate the peace treaty with Israel. How much confidence is there in Tel Aviv right now towards - and Jerusalem - towards the government of Mohammed Morsi?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, just to remind you what just happened recently, there was a letter that came purportedly from the new president of Egypt sent to the president of Israel, Shimon Peres. It was a very brief message. It came through official channels, through the Egyptian embassy here in Israeli. And they publicized it here. It was a very benign message, very cordial, thanking them - thanking Shimon Peres for his well wishes during Ramadan. And what ended up happening, as the minute the Israelis publicized it, all of a sudden, you've had the Egyptian government saying, we never wrote it. It didn't come from us. Now, you can imagine how confusing and how mystified and bewildered the Israelis are.

On the one hand, you know, they have a working relationship with the Egyptian military. The powers that are in place in Egypt, they're still there. They're still dealing on an operational level, on a security level with the same people. But politically, they are having trouble, obviously, communicating with President Morsi. It's very difficult for him, obviously, because of his background to reach out to Israel. Israel is extremely unpopular inside Egypt. And so, you know, they are really finding it extremely difficult to figure out exactly how to approach this new political reality in Egypt.

GJELTEN: And I'm certain that there are going to be more issues along that border. NPR's foreign correspondents, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro and Leila Fadel, thanks for joining us. Lourdes joined us from Tel Aviv. Leila Fadel joined us from Cairo. Thank you both.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Foreign language spoken)


FADEL: Thank you.

GJELTEN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.