Guardian on British plans for Sinai

We have often commented on the subject of the Guardian’s tendency to place articles with only the most flimsy of connections to Israel on the ‘Israel’ page of its ‘World News’ section. An article published on the ‘Egypt’ page on September 26th appears to be an example of the opposite: one which actually does have a connection to Israel, but was not placed on that page. 

Written by the Guardian’s chief political correspondent Nicholas Watt, the article’s oddness is not confined to the rather glaring spelling mistake in its strapline (later repeated in the body of the report itself). 

Without any accompanying comment, Nicholas Watt apparently repeats the words of a “senior British government source”, informing readers that:

“Britain is to provide military advice to the Egyptian government to help it crack down on militants in the Sinai Peninsula who are destabilising relations with neighbouring Israel.

In his first meeting with the Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi in New York, David Cameron will announce that Britain’s most senior military figure will travel to Cairo. General Sir David Richards, the chief of the defence staff, will lead a British effort that will also see a stabilisation team despatched to Egypt. The team, which will mainly consist of field experts from the Department for International Development, will advise on how to ween Bedouin tribes in Sinai away from smuggling.”

[Emphasis added.]

Those of us concerned about the future of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty in general and in particular the terror attacks emanating from the extremists’ paradise which the Sinai Peninsula has become in recent years – and all the more so since the advent of Egypt’s ‘Arab Spring’ – may just have found a new worry to add to our list. 

Not only does the British government appear to believe that the main problem in that lawless territory is ‘militancy’ caused by engagement in ‘smuggling’, but the Guardian seems quite happy to go along uncritically with that theory too.

Watt states that:

“Morsi’s move against militants in Sinai was seen as a particularly positive signal because Israel was acutely nervous about the election of an Islamist president in Egypt.” 

But Watt fails to point out that the new Egyptian president has so far largely confined his ‘move against militants’ to incidents in which Egyptian security forces or officials were attacked, displaying somewhat less commitment when Israeli civilians or soldiers have been targeted in cross-border incidents.

Watt also (apparently like the British government) completely ignores the fact that the terrorists (let’s call a spade a spade) in Sinai have Salafist ideological brothers holding the second largest number of seats in the Egyptian parliament as a result of the ‘Arab Spring’ – a factor which is bound to influence both Egyptian domestic and foreign policy.  

In fact, a recent statement by Egypt’s foreign minister appears to suggest that David Cameron’s plans may be less than welcome. 

“The situation in Sinai is an internal affair not up for discussions in international arenas, either at the United Nations Security Council or elsewhere, said Foreign Minister Mohamed Amr.

The situation is Sinai has no affect (sic) on international security and safety, Amr said in press statements Thursday 20/09/2012.

Egypt has told and will continue to tell the UNSC that the situation in Sinai is an internal issue not open for discussion, Amr said in response to a letter sent by Israel to the UN body criticizing the management of Sinai.”

Watt continues: 

“The UN, EU, US and Russia, which oversee the Middle East peace process, fear that instability in the Sinai Peninsula could disrupt the Camp David accords which led to demilitarisation of the area after the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Israel withdrew its forces from the peninsula on the understanding that it would be a non-military zone.”

Leaving aside the rather dodgy time frame (The Camp David Accords were signed almost 6 years after the 1973 war), it should be obvious that Israel did not withdraw from Sinai on an ‘understanding’, but under the terms of a written, signed treaty which lays out the terms of demilitarization in both words and maps. 

Both the Guardian’s chief political correspondent and – more worryingly – the British government do not appear to appreciate that Israeli concerns over the current volatile situation in Sinai extend to far more than the Bedouin drugs and arms smuggling gangs and people traffickers – to whom the Egyptian authorities have traditionally turned a blind eye. 

Without concurrent massive – and long overdue – Egyptian investment in the Sinai Peninsula, the disarming of militias, the ousting of foreign terrorist organisations and the  stemming of the flow of lucrative African migrants into Sinai, ‘weaning’ the Sinai Bedouin from their traditional livelihood of smuggling is liable to be a futile – if not impossible – exercise. 

The main issue at hand is not only whether the new Egyptian government has the economic ability to make the changes necessary, but also whether or not it has the will. Despite three decades of neglect under the previous Egyptian regime, during which smuggling also flourished, the Sinai/Israel border was, for the most part, a fairly quiet one. 

The recent deterioration in the security situation necessitates serious questions: perhaps uncomfortable ones as far as Western governments (and journalists) apparently unable to see anything other than the wonders of the ‘Arab Spring’ are concerned.

 Nevertheless, if the Israel/Egypt peace treaty is to continue to be upheld, responsible parties will also be examining the possibility that a new Egyptian president who ran for election on a blatantly Islamist platform and has since embraced Hamas and the Iranian regime might perhaps be somewhat less than wholly committed to the principles of Camp David, including demilitarization. 

They would then examine the additional possibility that continued unrest in the Sinai Peninsula might actually not go against the purposes of someone eager to change the status quo, but unable to take direct action due to an overwhelming reliance upon foreign aid. 

These questions (and many others concerning issues such as the nature of the as yet unwritten constitution and freedom of the press) are of the sort one would expect Western governments – and supposedly politically savvy journalists – to be asking before they rather condescendingly rush in to promote less than three months of Morsi’s presidency as ‘impressive’ on the basis of the fact that – in acting against armed terrorists on his own territory – he has been doing his job. 

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