Egypt’s Remilitarized Sinai Is a Future Powder Keg

Mourners, soldiers, and military police carry the coffin of Egyptian conscript Ahmed Mohamed Ahmed Ali, one of 11 soldiers killed in an attack claimed by the Islamic State, in Khanka, Egypt on May 8. -/AFP via Getty Images
Mourners, soldiers, and military police carry the coffin of Egyptian conscript Ahmed Mohamed Ahmed Ali, one of 11 soldiers killed in an attack claimed by the Islamic State, in Khanka, Egypt on May 8. -/AFP via Getty Images

In early May, the Islamic State-Sinai Province killed 11 Egyptian soldiers and damaged a natural gas pipeline. Far from demonstrating the Islamic State’s power in the strategic peninsula, the attack was the first major incident in almost a year, a far cry from the full-blown jihadi insurgency that had gripped Sinai only a few years ago. The Egyptian military finally appears to be making progress in rolling back the group. Not only have there been fewer attacks, but Cairo’s funneling of economic development funds to the peninsula has also generated some goodwill among the long-restive population. In March 2021, a coalition of Bedouin tribesmen, armed civilians, and Egyptian military killed the region’s Islamic State leader.

Egypt’s apparent success has been, in part, a result of Cairo’s shift away from a heavy-handed military approach replete with collateral destruction and civilian casualties to a nimbler counterinsurgency strategy with a heavy emphasis on checkpoints and curfews. Israeli tactical air support has also played an important, if less publicized, role. Egyptian-Israeli cooperation contributed in another even more important way: by mutually agreeing to substantial violations of their 1978 peace treaty—or, more precisely, the treaty’s security annex limiting Sinai’s militarization. Not only has Egypt allowed Israel to operate over Egyptian territory, but Israel also allowed Cairo to flood Sinai with troops and heavy equipment substantially in excess of the treaty’s limits.

While these deployments have been indispensable to Egypt’s campaign against the Islamic State, they have also changed—perhaps irrevocably—the status quo for Sinai, where an international peacekeeping force still watches over what is stipulated in the peace treaty to be a largely demilitarized buffer zone. Although the current militarization of Sinai comes at a time of excellent Egyptian-Israeli relations, history suggests that this could quickly change. After all, it has been barely a decade since the Egyptian revolution brought an openly Islamist, anti-Israeli president to power. For nearly 45 years, the treaty’s limits on military deployment in Sinai buttressed the peace. If not reversed, Egyptian violations could threaten the core provisions of the agreement and, over time, compromise the integrity of the treaty.

The Sinai insurgency started in 2011 following the abdication of President Hosni Mubarak during the Egyptian revolution. As the security situation rapidly deteriorated throughout Egypt, a new organization called al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula claimed responsibility for attacking a police station in Arish. In the years that followed, the attacks blossomed into a full-blown jihadi rebellion, in which hundreds of Egyptian police, soldiers, and civilians were killed. By 2014, the most prominent terrorist group in the peninsula, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, had affiliated with the Islamic State and succeeded in mounting multiple attacks on gas pipelines in Sinai, downing an Egyptian military helicopter, sinking a naval vessel, shooting a rocket at a cargo ship in the Suez Canal, killing 311 worshipers in an assault on a mosque, and blowing up a Russian passenger aircraft with 224 people, mostly tourists, on board.

In 2013, Egypt faced rising casualties and a collapse of tourism revenues. According to a former high-ranking official with knowledge of the talks, Egyptian military officers approached their Israeli counterparts both directly and through the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), the international organization set up to monitor compliance with military aspects of the treaty, to request some exemptions to the agreement’s security annex so that more robust forces could respond to the insurgency. The annex divides the peninsula into three zones and stipulates, among other things, that Egypt can deploy only one mechanized infantry division with up to 22,000 troops, 230 tanks, and 480 armored personnel vehicles in Zone A, the area closest to the Suez Canal. Only border guards and police are allowed in Zones B and C, respectively, which are closer to Israel. Since then, Egypt has made hundreds of requests to exceed treaty limitations on soldiers and weaponry—and Israel approved every one, according to current and former officials.

The MFO operates observation posts and performs biweekly reconnaissance patrols that scour Sinai from the ground and the air, counting Egyptian forces, vehicles, and weapons. To keep track of Egypt’s deployments in excess of treaty limits, the MFO records Egyptian requests approved by Israel in a spreadsheet called the “Omnibus Agreed Activities” list, a lengthy and highly detailed register of numbers, locations, and types of additional vehicles and weapons deployed to Sinai. It is updated monthly.

While the MFO’s list is not publicly available, the number of Egyptian soldiers in Zones B and C—from which the treaty prohibits them—is substantial. Four years ago, then-Egyptian Chief of Staff Mohammed Farid Hegazy reported that 24,630 soldiers were taking part in counterterrorism operations in northeast Sinai, in addition to around 20,000 stationed elsewhere in the peninsula. Some analysts’ estimates are significantly higher. Eli Dekel, a former Israeli intelligence officer, has drawn on commercially available satellite imagery to peg Egypt’s total Sinai deployment at three times the total permitted under the treaty. Nearly two-thirds of them are operating in Zones B and C.

Assuming these numbers are remotely credible, Egypt today has at least double the number of troops in Sinai originally permitted in the peace treaty, half of which are operating in prohibited areas. These soldiers are equipped with artillery and vehicles also not allowed by the treaty, including an estimated 200 additional tanks beyond the 230 allowed in Zone A, according to several current and former officials. All this is being done with Israel’s concurrence.

To be sure, Egypt legitimately needed a substantial surge in forces and military equipment to contain the Islamic State threat. Israel, concerned about having the terrorist group permanently embedded on its southern border and next to Gaza, acceded to the requests without hesitation. As recently as February 2017, for example, militants fired rockets from Sinai into Eilat, an Israeli city just across the border. What’s more, Egyptian-Israeli security cooperation to fight the Islamic State in Sinai is a key part of the glue that has pulled the two countries closer in recent years, benefiting both sides and peace in the region as a whole.

There is good reason, however, to prevent today’s cooperation from becoming tomorrow’s headache. The longer Egypt’s additional forces remain in Sinai, especially now that the Islamic State appears to be under control, the more challenging it will become to revert to the limits imposed by the treaty.

Although there are no signs that Israel is experiencing buyer’s remorse about allowing additional Egyptian troops and weaponry into Sinai, other developments are more concerning. Most troubling is what Egypt has done without Israeli approval, including the construction of military bases and airfields. Some of these treaty violations, such as building a permanent camp to house Egypt’s 101st Battalion headquarters in Arish, are minor annoyances. But other installations constitute much more significant breaches. For example, Egypt has built three military airfields in Sinai, even though the treaty stipulates that only civilian airfields can be built. According to commercially available satellite images, one of these facilities, Meliz air base in Zone B, appears to include ammunition bunkers, underground fuel storage, and eight hardened aircraft shelters capable of servicing half a squadron of the Egyptian Air Force’s F-16s.

Similarly, the treaty states that in Zone A, just east of the Suez Canal, the Egyptian army is only entitled to operate “military installations and field fortifications” for one mechanized infantry division. Yet over the last decade, Egypt has built command headquarters in Sinai for the 2nd and 3rd Armies, as well as a headquarters for the Unified Command of the East of the Canal, which manages counterterrorism operations in the peninsula. According to Egyptian reporting, this complex at Jebel Um Hashiba is equipped with an operations center housed in a bunker 89 feet below the ground. Egypt also built a large naval facility in east Port Said, just inside Sinai. And the list goes on.

Israel is aware of these developments and has likely raised concerns with the MFO, which acts as the umpire of the peace treaty’s security provisions. But given the Israelis’ improved relationship with the Egyptians, they are reluctant to push too hard and have not lodged a formal complaint. (Israel, too, has periodically been cited by the MFO for exceeding its allowed deployments in the narrow limitation zone on its side of the border.) Yet an MFO official told me that even when the monitoring organization calls the Egyptians out, they do nothing to dismantle their military constructions. Egypt is creating facts on the ground in Sinai that will be difficult, if not impossible, to reverse.

That Israel has been tolerant of these violations is understandable. Security cooperation, including Egyptian support in containing militant activity in Gaza, is part of a significant warming of relations between the two countries. In late 2021, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi hosted Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, the first public bilateral summit in nearly a decade. Soon afterward, EgyptAir ended a four-decade boycott of Israel and launched direct commercial flights from Cairo to Tel Aviv.

Yet the purpose of the peace treaty’s security annex isn’t to reflect current developments but to provide a firewall against an unexpected negative shift. If the risk of escalation during the political instability brought on by the Egyptian revolution was minimal, one key reason was that the security provisions of the treaty were more strictly enforced. In fact, they fulfilled their precise purpose: keeping the two sides’ militaries far apart from each other and providing Israel with strategic depth and early warning.

Egypt needs to hear from Israel, the United States, and the MFO that its security violations erode the peace agreement. While Egypt might be allowed to keep already-completed military construction in Sinai—for it is all but certain Cairo will refuse to dismantle these facilities—the United States and Israel should urge Egypt to desist from building additional bases violating the treaty. At the same time—and as the security situation in Sinai permits—the United States and Israel should urge Egypt to draw down its Sinai troop presence to levels consistent with the treaty.

Instead, Washington has been sending terrible signals that suggest it no longer has the interest or ability to maintain the security aspects of the historic peace treaty brokered at Camp David. Like clockwork, the U.S. Defense Department regularly advances an initiative to downsize the U.S. contingent of 452 troops in the MFO’s 1,154-strong international force. The U.S. contingent is the backbone of the MFO, and a significant downsizing would likely lead to other participating countries reducing their troops as well, or even pulling out. That could bring to an end to the MFO’s crucial role in monitoring, fact-finding, and facilitating communication between the parties in case bilateral channels break down. Robust U.S. involvement is essential—to ensure security provisions are adhered to, keep the MFO functioning smoothly, and protect the peace treaty that forms the bedrock of stability in the region.

David Schenker is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs during the Trump administration.

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