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A Box of Sand could be al Qaeda's stronghold

AS a boy I was obsessed with the movie Lawrence of Arabia.

Among its many memorable scenes is one where Bedouin fighters overrun the city of Aqaba and Lawrence announces he will cross the desert and deliver news of their strategic victory in person to his British commanders back in Cairo.

"In 10 days you will cross Sinai?" asks a flabbergasted Auda ibu Tayi, one of the Bedouin leaders of the Arab Revolt.

"Why not? Moses did," replies Lawrence, contemptuously dismissing Sinai's reputation as an unforgiving, inhospitable place.

This huge desert peninsula of 23,000 square miles wedged between Africa and Asia, with a population of only a few hundred thousand mainly nomadic Bedouin tribespeople, has often been a place to fear.

Over the last few days that reputation has been reinforced, as Egyptian security forces continue their campaign to root out Islamic militants whose recent attack on a guard post near the border with Israel killed 16 Egyptian soldiers.

Often referred to in modern Egyptian literature as a Box of Sand, Sinai in recent years has been something of a backwater in terms of its significance in the dramatic events unfolding in the Middle East. Not any more though.

Indeed, in the 18 months since the Arab Spring's Egyptian revolution forced out the former president Hosni Mubarak, the signs of Sinai becoming a new flashpoint in the region have been increasingly difficult to ignore.

While Egypt's new leaders are uneasy with the brewing instability there, Israel too is getting jittery about this wild frontier that has long been a haven for unruly tribes and smugglers of everything from guns and explosives to petrol and cigarettes.

According to acclaimed Israeli security analyst, Ehud Yaari, in the 30 or so years since the signing of the 1979 treaty between the two countries, some Israeli military leaders are now convinced the 150-mile border with Egypt is no longer a "border of peace," but rather a "boundary with some peace".

But just what exactly are the factors that have contributed to Sinai's current unrest and where might it lead?

Well to begin with there are three identifiable geopolitical mechanisms at play here.

The first of these is a burgeoning Bedouin power and influence. For a long time now the Bedouin have felt themselves marginalised and discriminated against – not unlike that other nomadic desert tribespeople, the Tuareg of North Africa.

While the southern Gulf of Aqaba or Red Sea Riviera coastal resorts such as Sharm El Sheikh, Dahab and Nuwaiba saw massive investment and some Egyptians enjoying huge profits from the resulting influx of tourists, much of Sinai and its Bedouin are among the poorest people in Egypt.

It was the Bedouin poet Mossad Abu Fajr who, after serving three years in prison for his political activities, eloquently summed up the feeling of many Bedouin towards Egypt's authorities.

"We drink torture, discrimination, deportation and despotism minute by minute, so that some of us felt that humiliation, just like blood, runs in our veins. The greatest sheikh of our tribe is sent by the police informer to buy him cigarettes from the kiosk in front of the police station."

Given such frustration and bitterness it's hardly surprising many Bedouin saw Egypt's revolution as an opportunity to vent their anger.

It was the Bedouin of northern Sinai who were among the first to join the calls to topple the Mubarak regime and were quick to orchestrate attacks on police stations plundering arms and ammunition in the process.

In turn, they were also quick to intensify this aggression, fusing it with a well-established smuggling network which in itself constitutes a highly mobile and substantive militia.

Added to this potent mix of Bedouin poverty, alienation and extensive clandestine network, comes Sinai's sizeable Palestinian population with links to political organisation inside the beleaguered Gaza Strip.

Among them are Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Resistance Committees and the Dughmush clan's Army of Islam.

In other words, there exists an ideal patchwork for any Islamic terrorist network to tap into.

This was the case as far back as 2005 when more than 80 people were killed in bomb attacks in Sharm El Sheikh, the perpetrators of which are believed to be a mix of those determined to scupper the peace between Egypt and Israel and local Bedouin with a grudge against their government.

But it is the proximity of Israel that makes the Sinai Peninsula such a tempting sanctuary for jihadists, in much the same way that they use southern Yemen and Pakistan's tribal territories as a rear base from which to launch attacks in those regions.

Israeli security specialists have long said they detect the presence of "global jihadists" in Sinai loosely connected to al Qaeda.

This time last year a proclamation announcing the alleged establishment of an al Qaeda Emirate of the Sinai Peninsula appeared on the terrorist network's official websites but was quickly removed.

Leaflets bearing the same message were also distributed around El-Arish on the northern Sinai coast.

Egypt, however, has consistently denied reports of an al Qaeda presence.

Yesterday, Egyptian security forces were again involved in clashes with gunmen around El-Arish and there were reports of heavy reinforcements being rushed to the area.

Indeed, Egypt's air attack on the jihadists a few days ago was the first time that air power had been deployed in anger by Egypt in Sinai since the war with Israel in 1973.

There are fears in Cairo this could escalate dramatically into a full-scale revolt, with an armed runaway Bedouin statelet in which jihadists take root.

If this is to be avoided it will take co-operation between Cairo and Jerusalem and perhaps an understanding by Israel that it will have to talk to Hamas if the region is to head off a new and ever more dangerous Islamic terrorist threat.

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