A volatile Sinai puts Israel and Egypt's peace in question
Five Egyptian soldiers are killed in Sinai by Israeli troops; a young Egyptian climbs 22 floors to replace the Star of David flag with an Egyptian one atop the Israeli embassy in Cairo; and the former Arab League president Amr Moussa says the "Camp David treaty is neither the Quran nor the Bible".
These dramas that escalated in the second half of August seemed to forebode a diplomatic crisis. Politics, however, works in a different way.
Are Egyptians and Israelis really ready to tear down the 33-year-old Camp David peace treaty and put at risk the "no war" situation, which diplomats mistakenly like to call peace? Although the deposed president Hosni Mubarak, once Israel's best friend in the Arab world, is no longer in the picture the answer is still no. Even the thousands shouting for change in the street will not be able to overturn the regional balance.
This does not mean that things will never change. It is obvious that post-Mubarak Egypt will simply not accept the same status quo. The complex situation in the Sinai since the revolution gives some indications of how this change will affect the Camp David Accords.
The peninsula has experienced chronic suffering for at least 30 years because of two related problems. Egyptian governments have repeatedly delayed addressing serious local challenges, which were a result of the 1978 peace treaty rammed through by the United States.
In the past few years, observers have let their imaginations run wild on Al Qaeda influence in the Sinai especially after the unfortunate Taba Hilton resort bombings on the Red Sea coast in 2004.
The real threat comes from the Mubarak regime's history of persecuting, and even murdering, members of the Bedouin tribes on the peninsula. However, demonstrations calling for an end to the violence this year followed the repeated bombings of the gas pipeline to Israel. The pipeline is widely reviled by Egyptians, but the demonstrations that showed a majority of the people of Sinai working to erase the stigma of terrorism.
Before January 25, the start of the revolution, Mr Mubarak tried to hide the Sinai crisis under the veneer of beautiful sand and beaches marketed as a tourism heaven to westerners. Meanwhile Cairo was cobbling together ad hoc solutions that merely delayed the inevitable explosion.
Whatever the form of the next post-Mubarak government, whether the military appoints its own leaders or, as many hope, a democratic administration is voted in, it will face a complex problem in the Sinai that continues to snowball.
The record of the transitional government, under the unclear supervision of the military, has been weak at best. But, surprisingly, the government of the interim prime minister Essam Sharaf seems to have realised these challenges and taken a stand. The cabinet decided in the last week of August to launch the so-called Supreme Authority for Sinai Development, and gave it ministerial powers with an independent budget.
In parallel, the cabinet strongly condemned the latest Israeli violations of the border in a language that had never been used in more than 20 similar incidents since 1978. And the Israeli ambassador in Cairo was summoned and a joint investigation demanded.
Of course, loud voices on both sides were not satisfied. But they will never be. Until recently, Israeli flags had been burnt almost every day in Egyptian cities since the beginning of the year. And some Israeli writers have advocated ripping up the peace treaty and cleaning Sinai of "pockets of terrorism". But on the contrary, both governments and large segments of both populations understand that neither country can afford a schism.
Israel is going through one of the most challenging periods in its short history. It has enough headaches with a nuclear Iran, the unclear future of Syria, an always renewable confrontation with Hamas in Gaza and an unprecedented internal social movement against the government's policies. Adding Egypt to the list is the last thing Israel would want.
On the other side of the border, the new Egypt with all of its challenges is too fragile to engage in confrontation with anyone, and definitely not Israel. There is a government that cannot handle its relations with the army in an ambiguous transitional period. They cannot even afford a serious diplomatic confrontation; the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv is business as usual.
Instead of an explosion, the political tides pull both countries towards the negotiating table to undo the knots tied by three decades of ignoring the reality on the ground.
Diplomacy might divert some of the anger in the streets, but more importantly would allow a renegotiation of some key points without scrapping the Camp David Accords in their entirety. That might translate into a redistribution of Egyptian forces along the border that would guard against threats to Israel's security while granting sovereignty to Egypt on its own soil in real terms - or, at least, more sovereignty than it now has.
Maher Hamoud is a freelance journalist based in Cairo
Updated: September 9, 2011 04:00 AM