The Sinai Powder Keg

TEL AVIV– The crisis in the Sinai Peninsula seems to have been dwarfed by Sunday’s drama in Cairo. But Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s civilian coup, in which he dismissed General Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the leader of the army’s supreme command, has not diminished the importance of the trouble there.

Earlier this month, jihadi terrorists ambushed an Egyptian military base in Sinai, killing 16 Egyptian soldiers. They then hijacked two armored personnel carriers and sped toward the frontier with Israel. One vehicle failed to break through the border crossing; the other penetrated Israeli territory, before being stopped by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). In response, Egypt’s military and security forces launched an offensive against Bedouin militants in Sinai, while Morsi forced the General Intelligence Service’s director to retire and dismissed the governor of Northern Sinai.

These episodes highlight the complexity of the Middle East’s changing geopolitical landscape, the fragility of Egypt’s post-Mubarak political order, and the explosive potential of Sinai, which, though sparsely populated, includes Egypt’s borders with Israel and the Palestinian enclave of Gaza. Indeed, since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster last year, security in Sinai has deteriorated, and the region has become fertile ground for Islamic extremism.

The 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty mandated that Sinai be largely demilitarized in order to serve as a buffer zone between the two former enemies. Tourism and natural-gas pipelines linking the two countries provided economic resources for the local Bedouin.