Sinai Buffer Zone .. Is it Vital for Egypt’s National Security?

Monitoring and Analysis Unit
30 Dec 2014

The Egyptian army has been trying to create new realities in the country in general, and in Sinai in

The Egyptian army has been trying to create new realities in the country in general, and in Sinai in specific under the pretext of countering terrorism and protecting the national security. The military imposed itself as an alternative that fills the gaps in politics, economy, social life, and even religion and the justice system. This might lead eventually to a conflict between the military and the Egyptian people and civil institutions.

Regarding the armed groups in North Sinai, it is expected that they will carry out more suicide attacks, even if a buffer zone is imposed, since these groups are acquainted with the area of North Sinai, which is considered a new ground for the army.

The buffer zone is looked at positively by the US and Israel, since Egypt is not capable of taking up this project by itself, especially in light of the deteriorating economic situation in a tensed political period, which means that the buffer zone essentially protects the Israeli security, which entails striking the Palestinian resistance.

The Sinai peninsula, despite its strategic importance and natural resources, has been under political, social, developmental isolation for several decades, especially after the Camp David Accords between Egypt and “Israel”, which states in its security appendix that the Egyptian military presence in Sinai shall be limited. The agreement divides Sinai peninsula into three military areas “A, B, C”, and the last one is considered the most sensitive, since it represents the borderline with the occupied Palestinian territories and the besieged Gaza Strip. Today, a military buffer zone has been created on the borders with Gaza, that is 14 km long, and 500 m wide, subject to further expansion in the future. On the other hand, the borderline with Israel, which is 184km long, is considered safe in the opinion of the Egyptian leadership.

This situation could be analyzed from difference perspectives, but it is clear that Egypt is basically targeting the “tunnels” on the borders with Gaza and those who are creating them. These tunnels, that might considered “illegal” are a result of closing the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza. What is the alternative for the Palestinians? What are the objectives of the buffer zone? What impact would it have on the future of national security in Egypt and Gaza Strip?

The Israeli Position

The idea of a buffet zone isn’t a new thing; it represents an old and renewed Israeli wish, that was once expressed at the time of the ousted Hosni Mubabrak, but he couldn’t achieve it for several reasons: he was trying to arrange for a smooth transition of authority to his son without harming his reputation. The new aspect in this regard is the change in the Israeli position regarding the Egyptian military presence on the borders with the occupied Palestinian territories in area C, although this was rejected before, except for a limited number of civil police according to the peace accords between the two countries.

This change in the Israeli position regarding the Egyptian military presence in Sinai could have two possible explanations:

First: Israel no longer believes that the Egyptian army might be a danger, and that there is a mutual understanding between the two countries, reflected in a comment made by Rinan Jason, a previous spokesperson in the Israeli army, about a major shift in the Israeli attitude towards the Egyptian army in Sinai. He said “I remember upon retreating from Sinai that all what we hoped for is to ensure that Sinai remains a neutral area with no presence of the Egyptian army. We said then, laughingly, that all what we want to remain in Sinai is the Bedouins and camels. Oh my God! If I’d say that now I’ll say: take the Bedouins and the camels outside Sinai and keep the Egyptian army there.”[1]

This new factor indicates a feeling of unconcern by the Israeli government in relation to the presence of the Egyptian army. Israel is trying to exploit it as a proxy security agent to secure its borders and strangle the Palestinian resistance, and that is through cutting the chains of food and military supplies to Gaza, and fighting the Jihadist groups inside Egypt. Accordingly, Israel will endeavor to raise the tensions between Egypt and the Palestinians, and in case the Egyptian authorities met the demands of the Israelis and exerted more pressure on the Strip, the Egyptian army might enter into confrontation with the Palestinian resistance movements, and the Jihadist movements in Sinai.

Second: Israel is rearranging its priorities. The last war on Gaza revealed the power of the Palestinian resistance and the failure of the Israeli army in uprooting these movements. Therefore, Israel realized the direct threat these groups represent, and decided that the best means to neutralize this danger is through engaging it in a conflict with an Arab army, such as the Egyptian army, that might lead to the exhaustion of both of them.

In regards to the American position that incessantly backs Israel, the US views Egypt as a major ally in the region, especially in its role in maintaining the security of Israel, which is a cornerstone in the American policy in the Middle East. The Egyptian army comes second to Israel in terms of US aid, and therefore Washington looks favorably at any measures to increase the integrity of the state of Israel, such as the buffer zone between Egypt and Gaza. This position was clarified in a statement by spokesperson of the Department of State Jennifer Saki.[2]

The measures of ousted president Mohammad Morsi in Sinai were considered a step in the right direction to solve the issues of this strategic area. His administration coupled between the security measures and negotiations with the tribal leaders and Jihadist groups in the area, and promised to improve the economic situation for the people of Sinai and demolishing the tunnels. Israel was not content with these measures, since Morsi had left no pretext for Israel to breach the Egyptian airspace. Additionally, opening Rafah crossing aimed at stopping the Israeli assaults against the Gaza strip, and lifting the siege, which Israel considers an attempt to ruin its projects.

The Egyptian Motives

it is indubitable that securing the borders in a country is considered a given right by international standard, but what causes concern in the Sinai case is the aggressive manner in which the authorities in Egypt dealt with the residents in this area. There are almost 880 houses, inhabited by 152 families who were treated badly by the authorities, in a manner that provoked the people, and encouraged the emergence of armed groups. Democracy and diplomacy have not been used with the people of Sinai, instead, the authorities assaulted them and arrested a number of men and women, a thing that is categorically rejected in the conservative community of Sinai. These practices were used by the armed groups to justify their suicide attacks against the army.

It seems that there are reasons that call for imposing a buffer zone with Gaza. These motives are evident in the recent military operations in Sinai, the military intervention in Libya, and el-Sisi’s speech in the UN in 24 September 2014, when he stressed the importance of countering terrorism, in an attempt to legitimize the military coup in his country and present the regime as a trusted partner in the international efforts to fight ‘terrorism”. El sisi went further in his attempts to appease the international community in a statement made by him to the Italian newspaper, Corriere dela Sera, in which he expressed his commitment to ensure the security of Israel as neighboring country saying that he is “ready to send Egyptian troops to the Palestinian land to ensure the safety of Israel, and cooperate in the fight against terrorism.[3]

El Sisi realizes that a number of international, regional, and local powers support him and the steps he is taking. He also realizes that his agenda should be in line with the expectations of such powers, otherwise he wouldn’t be able to stay in power. Therefore he endeavors to increase his grip on power, and act according to the lines prescribed to him. On the other hand, el Sisi knows that his role might come to an end, and that could be a possible scenario, since he is not accepted as a leader by the people of Egypt, the Arab people, and the human rights watchdogs in the world. This is further supported by his decision to acquit Hosni Mubarak, who might be his competitor within the deep state. Further, his decision to involve the Egyptian army in the Libyan situation through supporting Khalifa Haftar, let alone the pressures he exerts on the Palestinian movement through constructing a buffer zone along the border with Gaza, and this costs him a lot of his already weak popularity.

The Impact of the Buffer Zone on the Gaza Strip

The people of Gaza were hopeful again after the reconstruction projects were approved after the last Israeli war on Gaza. Nevertheless, the projects of the separation walls, and buffer zones go faster than the projects of reconstruction, which leaves the people of Gaza and its resistance movements suffer gravely from the construction of the buffer zone. This zone will increase the human suffering in the Strip, since it will deprive the people of a lot of food and medical supplies, and it will restrict the activities of the resistance movements. Postponing the reconstruction projects in the Gaza strip would result in increasing crises on the economic, social, and political aspects, and would definitely reflect negatively on the relationships between Hamas and the Egyptian regime, and in turn compromise both the indirect negotiations with the Israeli side, and the Palestinian conciliation efforts.

The Future of Sinai

The establishment of a buffer zone would not be faced by any sort of opposition, especially that it is approved by Israel and the US in addition to concealed Arab approval. Nevertheless, the threats to the Egyptian national security stem from socio-political and ideological background, and therefore it is not expected that the problem of the Egyptian regime would be restricted to the Jihadist groups in Sinai. The issue is deeply rooted in the Sinai community, and this makes the buffer zone only partially useful.

The provocation by the Egyptian media against Hamas and other Palestinian resistance groups, and accusing them of trying to disturb the stability of Egypt in order to justify the continued closure of the Rafah crossing, would reflect negatively on the relationship between Hamas and Egypt. If the resistance in Gaza was attacked by Israel again, and remains under the Egyptian blockade, this will encourage more Egyptians to join the armed groups in Sinai, which perils the security situation in the country, and therefore the buffer zone would be counter-productive.

Sinai would remain a source of concern, and its people might demand self-governance, which makes the scenario of separation not unlikely, especially if the authorities insist on adopting security policies, such as forcing people off their lands without considering opening channels of dialogue with them, or promising them with more developmental projects in their region.

The authorities in Egypt are heading in the wrong direction in handling the Sinai issue. They are closing their eyes on the importance of starting a dialogue with the tribes in Sinai, and promising them to implement developmental and strategic projects in the area that aim at creating job opportunities, supporting farming and trade enterprises, and connecting Sinai with the rest of the Egyptian governorates. Investment should be enhanced in the Sinai region through announcing reiterating its strategic importance in trade and tourism, providing facilities for investors, and creating a safe investment environment for them. Adopting similar measures would ensure unparalleled success in the region on the economic and developmental aspects, due to the great natural resources this region is endowed with.

This is the only means to control the activities and movements of the armed groups. Otherwise, if the military adopts the language of power and military intervention, without considering the factors that created this situation, the situation is probably to worsen and radicalism will remain on the rise.

It is important to take a lesson from the countries that witnessed the fall of regimes that ruled for decades and depended solely on military power instead of development the human resources in their countries. It is believed that the situation in Tunisia differed from other Arab spring countries because of the stance of the military which remained neutral and never intervened in the political life, even before the revolution at the time of Ben Ali. This means that the Arab peoples should seek to keep the military away from power, if they wish to create civil communities and enhance the rule of law. It should also be noted that any attempts to handle any situation while the military is in powers will have limited results that are unlikely to meet to aspirations of the people ˜˜

[1] The Black Box “Sinai The Backyard” a documentary by AlJazeera channel

[2] The Website of the Department of State

[3] An interview with el Sisi with Corriere della sera

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