For the past two and a half years, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula has been dogged by turmoil amid a wave of militant attacks on security forces stationed in the area.
Located in north-eastern Egypt, the triangular peninsula is around 61,000 square kilometres in area. It is situated between the Mediterranean Sea to the north, and the Red Sea to the south.
Administratively, the peninsula is divided into two separate provinces: North Sinai and South Sinai.
North Sinai contains six towns: Arish, the provincial capital; Bir Al-Abd; Sheikh Zuweid; Rafah; Al-Hasana and Nakhl.
South Sinai contains eight towns, several of which are known for beach tourism: Tur, the provincial capital; Nuweiba; Dahab; Ras Sedr; Sharm El-Sheikh; Saint Catherine; Taba; Abu Rudeis and Abu Zunema.
The Sinai Peninsula is the only part of Egyptian territory located in Asia – the rest being in Africa – and serves as a land bridge between the two continents.
The arid desert peninsula is of particular strategic importance, especially given its proximity to the Suez Canal, Israel and the blockaded Gaza Strip which, since 2007, has been run by Palestinian resistance movement Hamas.
The peninsula has historically been at the centre of conflict between Egypt and other regional powers.
“Sinai is an important political, economic and strategic pillar for Egypt, as it is located on the border with Israel and serves as a bridge between Africa and Asia,” Mohamed Ali Belal, an Egyptian military expert, said.
It is of considerable economic importance as well, representing the main source of Egypt’s mineral wealth, with several major oil wells having been found in the peninsula’s western region.
Egyptians have long referred to the peninsula as the “Land of turquoise”, while their ancient counterparts called it the “Land of green minerals”.
Sinai contains nearly 175,000 feddans of cultivable land (41.67 square meters), which produces roughly 160,000 tonnes of fruit and vegetables and around 410,000 ardebs of grain (72,954 bushels).
In recent years, Sinai has become a major tourist destination due to its natural beauty, spectacular coral reefs and biblical history.
In the latter half of the 20th century, Sinai was the source of frequent conflicts between Egypt and the newly self-proclaimed Jewish state.
Israel invaded and briefly occupied the peninsula during the 1956 Suez crisis, known in Egypt as the “Tripartite Aggression”, which involved simultaneous attacks by the UK, France and Israel.
In 1967, Israel captured Sinai from the Egyptians, advancing as far as the Suez Canal’s eastern bank.
Israel continued to occupy Sinai for the next six years – until Egypt launched a war aimed at recapturing control of the peninsula. As a result of the 1973 war, the two countries engaged in protracted peace talks that eventually yielded the landmark Camp David Peace Accord in 1978.
In 1982, Israel withdrew from all of the Sinai Peninsula except Taba, which is located on the coast of the Gulf of Aqaba. Taba was finally returned to Egypt following a 1989 ruling by an arbitration commission.
Areas A, B and C
Under the terms of the Camp David Accords, the peninsula is divided into three “areas”: A, B and C.
Area A covers less than one-third of the peninsula west of the Suez Canal. According to the terms of Camp David, Egypt is allowed to deploy up to 230 tanks and no more than 22,000 troops in Area A.
Area B stretches from Sharm El-Sheikh in the south to Arish in the north. Egypt is allowed to deploy four brigades – armed only with light weapons – in this area.
Area C, meanwhile, includes the border area between Egypt, Israel and the Gaza Strip. Egypt is not allowed to deploy any military forces in this region at all. Under Camp David, only lightly-armed police can be deployed in Area C.
Recently, Israel and Egypt both agreed to raise the number of Egyptian troops in the peninsula following a surge in militant attacks in the area.
“Limitations on the deployment of Egyptian forces in the border area between Egypt and Palestine are one of the main reasons for the emergence of militant groups there,” strategic expert Talaat Mosalam said.
The relatively weak presence of Egyptian security forces in Area C, he added, “made it difficult to uproot terrorists from the area”.
Militancy, military ops
Militant groups have had a presence in Sinai for decades. But attacks by these groups – usually on security personnel – have surged since the ouster of autocratic President Hosni Mubarak in a 2011 popular uprising.
Militants stepped up their attacks further following the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi – Egypt’s first democratically-elected leader – in mid-2013.
The most active militant group in Sinai is Ansar Bait Al-Maqdis, which reportedly swore allegiance to Daesh before changing its name to Province of Sinai.
The group has claimed responsibility for most recent attacks on Egyptian security forces, which have left numerous soldiers dead or injured.
Following Morsi’s ouster, the Egyptian army launched a massive military operation against Sinai-based militants after 16 soldiers were killed in a particularly brazen militant attack.
In January of this year, the Egyptian government set up a 1,000-kilometre “buffer zone” along the Sinai-Gaza border following another militant attack that left more than 31 soldiers dead.
The Egyptian army has also cracked down on a network of tunnels that run under the border with Gaza, which Egyptian authorities say are used to smuggle weapons into Sinai.
Along with limited numbers of Egyptian troops there are also independent multinational forces in Sinai, known as the Multinational Forces and Observers (MFO).
Established in 1982, the MFO – which is not affiliated with the UN – is ostensibly tasked with the implementation of the terms of the Camp David peace treaty.
Composed of 1,500 troops, the force is deployed in the area between the border with Israel and North Sinai’s Sheikh Zuweid city.
MFO forces have come under attack several times, most recently in 2012 when three members of the MFO’s Colombian contingent were injured in a bomb attack.
The absence of development and infrastructure in remote parts of Sinai is seen as a main factor driving local youth into the hands of militant groups.
“Lack of development is to blame for terrorism in Sinai; this also pushes many residents there to resort to drug and arms trafficking,” military expert Belal said.
“What’s more, fugitives from the law often flee to Sinai, making the area a hotbed for terrorism,” he added.
Mokhtar Ghobashi, head of the Arab Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, an Egyptian NGO, warned against relying solely on a security response to the fraught situation in Sinai.
“This will only serve to create more conflicts,” he said.
Translated from the Anadolu Agency, 17 October 2015
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.