The growing instability in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula represents one of the most dangerous, and most anticipated, crises in the Middle East. Even before the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the security vacuum in the Sinai allowed criminals and terrorists, including those with an ideology akin to Al Qaeda’s, to expand their operations. In the chaos after the revolution, these problems have worsened. Meanwhile, various Palestinian groups use the Sinai as a launching pad for attacks against Israel. The large-scale smuggling of weapons and civilian goods to and through this territory—much of it bound for Gaza—has fostered an illicit economy in both Gaza and Sinai while helping Hamas bolster its military capacity and political grip over Gaza. Increasing violence and instability in Sinai could complicate Egypt’s already-troubled transition and raise the prospect of renewed large-scale conflict between Israel and Hamas. And the reverse is also true, as witnessed by the dramatic spike in deadly violence in Sinai following the ouster of Egypt’s Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July. In addition to instability in Egypt, prospects for an Egyptian-Israeli military clash also could be heightened, in which case the United States could find itself caught between its closest ally in the region, Israel, and a vital Arab partner on which regional stability depends.
On the surface, the Sinai-Gaza crisis looks simply like an issue of border security. Fighters and weapons go to and from Gaza via the Sinai, and these, in turn, are used to attack Israel and undermine stability in Egypt. Meanwhile, the illicit economies that have grown on both sides of the Gaza-Sinai border are largely the product of increased smuggling operations that grew in response to the closure of Gaza’s borders. But this surface picture shrouds much deeper and far more complex political issues. For Egypt, policing the Sinai is caught up in the country’s turbulent internal politics, with successive civilian governments, including the former Muslim Brotherhood–led government, the military and the intelligence services all wanting to avoid responsibility while asserting their power vis-à-vis one another. For Hamas, the smuggling economy is vital both to its military power and its ability to prop up Gaza’s feeble economy. Meanwhile, for the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA), which was forced out of Gaza by Hamas in 2007, the Sinai problem underscores its growing political irrelevance.
The irony is that all of the main actors—Egypt, Israel, Hamas and the PA—would prefer to see changes in the status quo. Israel, of course, would like to have calm on its borders as well as neighbors that can deal effectively and responsibly with violence and smuggling, even if they are not openly friendly. Egyptian officials worry that instability in the Sinai will become a lightning rod for renewed war and a breeding ground for radicalism in Egypt, further undermining the credibility of the security services and any government, be it military or civilian. They also fear, with some reason, that Israel seeks to dump the Gaza problem in Egypt’s lap. Cairo also seeks to reassert its sovereignty in the Sinai, where restrictions imposed by the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty are seen by Egyptians as an affront to national pride. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and other PA figures would welcome the chance to return to Gaza as well as the added legitimacy that would come simply from being part of any new arrangement.