Obama's Big Egypt Test: Sinai

The lawless desert on Israel's border presents immediate risks -- and possible opportunities -- for American interests in the region.

RTR39B0V-615.jpgEgyptian military Gazelle helicopters fly during a display of military maneuvers in the eastern Sinai. (Reuters)

This post is part of "Obama and the Middle East: Act Two," a series produced with the Washington Institute on Near East Policy for U.S. foreign policy in the president's second term. See our full coverage here.

Egypt's mounting political and economic woes will cause many policy headaches for the Obama administration during the next four years. But in the short run, the Obama administration will have to confront a more immediate risk: that a major terrorist attack in the Sinai will catalyze a security crisis between Israel and Egypt, which the ruling Muslim Brotherhood may use as a pretext for downgrading Egyptian-Israeli relations and perhaps canceling the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement altogether. To prevent this outcome, Washington should immediately press Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to establish direct communication channels with the Israeli government to ensure that this kind of crisis will be managed responsibly.

A terrorist attack emanating from the Sinai that would endanger Egyptian-Israeli relations isn't a theoretical proposition, but an inevitability given Sinai's severe instability. The breakdown of Egypt police forces since the January 2011 anti-Mubarak uprising has rendered the 23,000-square-mile desert territory a security vacuum, which jihadi terrorist organizations -- including possibly al-Qaeda -- have rapidly filled. Some of these organizations have cells within both Sinai and Gaza, and northern Sinai has become a safe haven from which they have launched 15 attacks on the gas pipeline to Israel and Jordan in the two years since Mubarak's ouster. Meanwhile, jihadis have repeatedly attempted to use Sinai as a base for launching attacks on Israel, with the dual aim of killing Israelis and catalyzing a diplomatic confrontation between Israel and Egypt.

A terrorist attack emanating from the Sinai that would endanger Egyptian-Israeli relations isn't a theoretical proposition, but an inevitability.

On August 18, 2011, terrorists nearly achieved both goals. Twelve militants dressed as Egyptian soldiers launched a cross-border attack on a bus near the Israeli city of Eilat that killed eight Israelis and wounded 30 more and, during a counterattack, Israeli forces accidentally killed five Egyptian soldiers. Apparently indifferent to the fact that terrorists operating within its own country had sparked the incident, the proverbial "Egyptian street" responded with demonstrations that demanded closing the Israeli embassy in Cairo and ending the Camp David Accords. The furor culminated with a September 9 attack on the Israeli embassy that brought Egyptian assailants within one locked door of a potentially deadly confrontation with Israeli diplomats. Egypt's then-ruling military junta responded immediately thereafter by dialing down the tensions and signaling their commitment to maintaining relations with Israel.

The threat of this type of terrorist attack repeating itself remains quite high, as demonstrated by the August 5, 2012 attack in which terrorists killed sixteen Egyptian soldiers along the Sinai-Israeli border. But the Muslim Brotherhood's emergence as Egypt's new ruling party will make managing this kind of crisis even more challenging; unlike the former military junta, the Brotherhood refuses to maintain political relations with Israel and has repeatedly signaled its intention to unilaterally amend, if not end, the 1979 peace treaty.

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Eric Trager is the Esther K. Wagner Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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