SHARM EL-SHEIKH – In the wake of an attack that killed 16 security officers in the Sinai Peninsula in August, the Egyptian military has ratcheted up the pressure against jihadis there. Generals have promised an extended campaign to extinguish the terrorist threat, bringing in heavy armor and firing missiles at training camps to back up their pledge. But, if past performance is indicative of future returns, the offensive is likely to be a fleeting affair. The armed forces have never shown much interest in stabilizing Sinai, and previous operations to clear out jihadis have not prevented them from returning.
Egyptians blame the strictures of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty for their military’s inability to police Sinai. The bilateral accord stipulates that Egypt can station only 22,000 troops in the western part of the peninsula, known as Zone A. In the eastern section bordering Israel, known as Zone C, the Egyptian presence is restricted to Central Security Forces personnel. Composed of poorly trained cadets, the CSF is limited to carrying out “normal police functions,” according to the agreement’s security annex.
Jihadis have exploited the security void created by last year’s revolution to reinforce their presence in Sinai. As the threat has mounted, Israel has allowed Egypt to increase troop levels in the peninsula beyond those stipulated in the peace accords. But Egypt has not taken advantage of the offer. Last August, the Israelis permitted an additional seven battalions and 20 tanks in Zone C. But the Egyptian armed forces never brought in the full number of additional troops, and did not even bother to transport the tanks across the Suez Canal.
Egypt’s approach toward Sinai troop deployments reflects its traditional neglect of the peninsula. Historically, it has deployed only 70-80% of the 22,000 soldiers that the treaty allows in Zone A. And the military has never established a regional command in Sinai, preferring to allow units temporarily stationed there to report to their superiors scattered around Cairo and its environs.