The Sinai Desert, Egypt’s New Equation

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Nature of Events and Consequences

Interview with Ja'far Qannadbashi, Expert on the Middle East and Arab world Issues
By: Farzad Ramezani Bonesh

In the past few weeks, several clashes have occurred between the Egyptian army and the gunmen in the Sinai desert, and as a result a large number of people have been killed including 16 Egyptian soldiers. However, the clash between the Egyptian forces and the unidentified armed groups is still shrouded in secrecy and ambiguity. Meanwhile, an interview has been held with Ja'far Qannadbashi in order to investigate the security and military situation of the region, the roles of Salafi groups, regional and international players, and developments in the wake of the Camp David Accords in greater details:

International Peace Studies Centre (IPSC): During the past recent weeks conflicts have occurred among armed aggressor groups and the Egyptian forces and border guards. Given this, the question jumps to mind that what is the true identity of these people?

Qannadbashi: What has been reported by the media so far is not clear and the information about the issue is extremely limited, which means that neither the Palestinian side, nor the Israelis, nor the Egyptian government have released accurate and exact information regarding these groups. Thus, considering this issue three speculations are imaginable. First, the Palestinian group under Mohammad Dahlan leadership – who used to be close to Fatah and have had conflicts with Hamas during which they resorted to extremism – may have conducted the attack to the Egyptian border guards. Second, the extremist Egyptian groups, particularly those who are in Al-Arish of Sinai Peninsula – and have had an active presence for a long time and played a role in the explosions against Israeli tourists and also it is said that they are responsible for exploding gas pipelines to Israel – may have had a part in these events and developments. And the third speculation involves kibo , a group of Israeli mercenaries who have made arrangements to perform the grand Israeli plan in Sinai region though they are not actively present there. Considering Israel’s goals, Palestinians believe that the third speculation is the accurate one.

IPSC: What are the effects of the recent events in the Sinai desert in Israel’s attitude towards Sinai region and the Security Wall Scheme?

Qannadbashi: In my opinion, one can clearly say that the Israelis have tried to take part in these events to achieve their goals. After the overthrow of President Mubarak, Israel faced a transforming Egyptian army which was changing its major commanders, and thus the possibility of the presence of some anti Israeli groups in the Sinai desert has increased and they can conduct attacks against Israel, an activity which was impossible for these groups at the time of Mubarak. By the opening of Rafah crossing and the tunnels between Sinai and Gaza Strip, the level of threats against Israel has increased, thus Tel Aviv prefers the Egyptian army to take the control of these regions in its hands. Yet, it has been a long time that the Israelis have been seeking to install a security barrier, a collection of walls and planted mines on that borderline. Meanwhile, according to Camp David Accords, the Egyptian army is not allowed to have presence in Sinai region; however, in the current situation Israel has announced its interest regarding this issue. Although this announcement indicates the ignoring of a part of the treaty by Tel Aviv, but the control of the region by the Egyptian army entails an important result for Israel against anti Israeli groups.

IPSC: During this recent week the role of Al-Takfir wal-Hijra group in the Sinai desert has been under spotlight. What are the potentials and role of this group in Sinai?

Qannadbashi: In a country with 94 million people it is quite natural to expect the formation of Jihadist groups who believe in undertaking operations against Israel, Muslims, Shias, etc. Yet, the group of Al-Takfir wal-Hijra has its roots in the past decades and believes in migrating to the villages, staying away from the populations and attending to Jihad. The reclusiveness of this group is somehow similar to that of Boko Haram in Nigeria. However, ascribing the death of Egyptian soldiers to this group is an inverted reality. In fact, all the news agencies with or without reliable resources are avoiding to release information so that the role of Israelis in Egyptians massacre is clarified. It is noteworthy that there is a possibility arguing that concealing the role of Israel’s operation in the Sinai desert may have played a role in commanders’ removal by Mohammed Morsi, since announcing the 16 deaths caused by the Israelis would be regarded as a stigma for Egypt.

IPSC: Some of the reports emphasize that Saudi intelligence service has been supporting the extremist Salafi and Wahhabi groups in Sinai during the past one year. Having this in mind, what is the role of Saudi Arabia in the recent developments in the Sinai desert and the Salafi groups in the region?

Qannadbashi: One should consider the fact that the Sinai desert is located near the Saudi Arabia, and Riyadh is naturally interested in having influence in the region. It is possible that Saudis would support the Salafi and Sunni groups to have advocates all around the world as it does in Africa, Pakistan, etc., however, Saudi Arabia has always operated in regions which are not against Israel, which means that they would never support an anti Israeli attitude. Apart from this, attributing groups with anti Israeli approach and activities to Saudi Arabia is a way for gaining popularity for Riyadh.

IPSC: Clinton recently has declared that the United States also has forces in Sinai Peninsula and that they worry about the safety and health of their forces. This means that the issue does not only involve Egypt and Israel, and the US is part of the case too. Given this, what is the approach of the US regarding this issue?

Qannadbashi: In fact, Sinai Peninsula enjoys a strategic importance and is the oil transition region and the linkage to the Suez Canal. Thus regarding its strategic importance in terms of economic and political issues, as well as Israel’s interests in the region, the US follows the current developments there. Accordingly, the United States’ presence in this issue is in support of Israel and offering assurance to Tel Aviv.

IPSC: Some Israeli sources have announced that Morsi is seeking to take the whole control of Sinai Peninsula in Egypt’s hands, and thus Camp David Accords would lose all its meaning. Regarding this argument, can one claim that the recent developments are a part of a scenario written by Morsi and Al-Ikhvan al-Muslimun to increase Egypt’s presence in the Sinai desert?

Qannadbashi: No, I don’t think so. Currently, the Egyptian government is yet to be prepared to play such games in international scenes. Meanwhile, it worth mentioning that it was Israel which engaged Egypt into Sinai issue. Egyptian government is now pursuing its plans responding the economic demands regarding the government’s 100-day plan and therefore has no time for the scenario you are talking about. Israelis are implementing their twofold plan for the security wall on the one hand, and since they cannot be present in Sinai, they are using the Egyptian army in the region in order to prevent any connection between Egyptian Jihadist groups and Palestinians on the other hand. Furthermore, since opening the Rafah crossing is equivalent to the empowerment of Gaza and the import of materials and equipments for manufacturing missiles as well as food into Gaza would be possible, thus Israel has been able to close the crossing to some extent.

IPSC: Does it mean that Israel has been the major winner of the events in the Sinai desert?

Qannadbashi: By the developments in Sinai, Israel has reached two of its goals, namely both they have utilized the Egyptian army by their presentation in the Sinai desert and controlling the dissident groups, and Israelis have gained more latitude to act in some regions. If a bullet is fired to Israel and Egyptian government is not present in the Sinai desert, nobody will be able to criticize Egypt, but if the Egyptian army is present in the region then the accusing finger will show Cairo. Now Tel Aviv is regarding Egypt responsible for a single fired bullet from Sinai region. However, one cannot claim that Israel is the winner of these events, since they are making strategic mistakes. This means that they are apparently the winners, yet regarding Egyptian and Palestinian peoples’ attitude towards the role of Israel in Sinai, following its objectives, the result would be counterproductive. Therefore, in the short-term Israel has gained its goals but their efforts will backfire in the long run.

IPSC: Considering the current situation in the Sinai desert, what are the effects of these developments on Egypt’s approach towards Hamas and Ikhvan’s behaviour in relation to Gaza government? 

Qannadbashi: In fact these events have no effect upon their approach because Hamas is created by Ikhvan. Egyptian people show a lot of sympathy towards Palestine and Hamas and attach a great deal of importance to them, and they know that the current arrangements are in fact meant to act as a cover for creating divisions between Egypt and Hamas. Though certain media outlets in Egypt are arguing about country’s national interest, but this issue cannot affect the relationship between Egypt and Al-Ikhvan al-Muslemun.

IPSC: Is there any possibility for such conflicts and attacks to occur again in Sinai Peninsula and in its borders with Gaza and Israel?

Qannadbashi: I think now everything is focused on the fact that the Egyptian army is going to quell all the unrests in the region and bring all the armed groups under its own control and this is a fact that should be considered. Meanwhile, some minor conflicts and clashes may occur between the army forces and the gunmen; however, they will not be considerable.

IPSC: As a consequence of the developments in Sinai Peninsula, do you think that there is a possibility for a new round of negotiations between Egypt and Israel with regards to the revision of the Camp David Accords?

Qannadbashi: The nature of the presence of Egyptian army is regarded as violating a clause of the treaty. Such behaviour, in a way, means that Israel is allowed to abrogate the treaty to its own advantage. Israel has consented to the nullification of a part of Camp David Accords under the pretext of protecting its security; however, there are no agreements on the cancellation of the whole peace treaty. Additionally, Morsi is not in a condition to nullify Camp David Accords, an objective that is harmonious with the revolutionary wave in Egypt, since the tendency towards protesting against this treaty is still a part of Egyptian people’s attitude.

Key Words: Sinai Desert, Israel, Egypt, Consequences, Security and Military Situation, Salafi Groups, Camp David Accords, Qannadbashi

Source: International Peace Studies Centre (IPSC)
Translated By: Iran Review.Org

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