CAIRO — Egyptians took to the streets last year to protest President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s decision to give two strategically important Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.
But that protest — rare in a country where Mr. el-Sissi has clamped down on the political opposition — could pale in comparison with the backlash the government would face if Mr. el-Sissi agrees to a rumored American Arab-Israeli peace plan that would ask Cairo to give up some of the Sinai Peninsula as a new homeland for Palestinians. In turn, Palestinians would cede much of the West Bank to Israeli settlers.
Naeem Gabr, 50, general coordinator of the North Sinai Tribes, bitterly rejects the proposed swap. His association represents 11 clans numbering about 400,000 people on the peninsula.
“Sinai is the land of our ancestors,” he said. “Palestinian refugees can live in Jordan. That’s a solution that would not disturb or undermine the Egyptian side nor Sinai tribes.”
The Sinai swap was one of the overlooked bits of reporting from journalist Michael Wolff’s White House insider tell-all book “Fire and Fury.” Most of the attention in the U.S. focused on domestic issues, tidbits about the backstage doings of the Trump administration, and the career self-immolation of former White House top adviser Steve Bannon for agreeing to talk to the author.
But it was the Sinai passages that attracted all the attention in Egypt.
Steeped in biblical history, strategically located between Cairo and Israel and divided between resorts on the sun-kissed south coast and Islamic State hideouts in the rugged interior, the Sinai Peninsula has become a battleground over the future of Egypt — whether or not Mr. Wolff’s account of a Trump peace plan is accurate.
Mr. el-Sissi has launched a succession of military operations in the peninsula, which is roughly the size of West Virginia, with the aim of uprooting jihadi groups that have launched terrorist attacks against Egyptian security forces and Coptic Christians.
Islamic State claimed responsibility for the October 2015 downing of a passenger jet taking off from Sharm el-Sheikh and bound for St. Petersburg, Russia. The attack in the Sinai resort town, which killed 224 people, gutted tourism, one of the Egyptian economy’s biggest foreign currency generators.
The Egyptian military revealed late last week that 16 troops had been killed and 19 wounded since the broad-scale Sinai offensive was launched in February. The Associated Press, citing army spokesman Col. Tamer al-Rifai, reported that 105 militants had been killed and nearly 3,000 fighters detained.
The jihadis’ penetration of Sinai led to a surge of coordination between Egyptian and Israeli militaries, including joint moves to destroy tunnels that the militants used to move men and supplies in and out of Hamas-controlled Gaza, as well as the deployments of Egyptian and Israeli fighter aircraft and drones against their common enemy.
Despite an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty dating back to the days of Anwar Sadat, direct cooperation with the Israelis remains controversial and the rumors have eroded Mr. el-Sissi’s support among Sinai’s 1.4 million inhabitants.
“Hundreds of civilians have been killed, including men, women, children and even infants,” said Mohannad Sabry, a former Sinai resident and author of “Sinai: Egypt’s Linchpin, Gaza’s Lifeline, Israel’s Nightmare.” “Close to a dozen villages have been partially or fully destroyed by the military, and hundreds of thousands of productive trees, in farms owned by the locals, have been destroyed.”
Reviving the economy
Campaigning on his government’s investments in energy infrastructure and urban development, Mr. el-Sissi, a former army chief who first took power in a 2013 coup, is expected win re-election easily in the March 26-28 vote. In the face of criticism from human rights groups, many of the president’s best-known rivals have been blocked from running in the election.
Sinai is crucial to Mr. el-Sissi’s plans to reinvigorate the economy. Egypt has deals with Israel and Cyprus that require a secure pipeline across the peninsula if the country is to capitalize on the 120 trillion cubic feet of gas discovered in the past decade in the eastern Mediterranean.
Sinai residents killed a similar deal in January 2011, a month after the Tahrir Square revolution broke out in Cairo, by blowing up a pumping station in a El Arish. As a result, security in the region was called into question.
Gila Gamliel, Israel’s minister of social equality, told Israel National News that she would prefer putting a Palestinian state in Sinai rather than squeezing one between Israel and Jordan, as Mr. Wolff describes in his book. She is responsible for the more than 200,000 Bedouin in Israel.
“If it becomes clear that there is no alternative but to establish an actual Palestinian state, then this would be a regional problem, not just Israel’s,” Ms. Gamliel said in the Nov. 9 interview. “It is appropriate that parts of the Arab countries, such as the Sinai Peninsula, should be considered.”
Israel has good reason to be concerned about Sinai.
Radicalized Muslim Brotherhood supporters fled to the El Arish area after then-Gen. el-Sissi ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013. They found a place among the Bedouin and a mixed population of Egyptians and Palestinian refugees clustered along the coastal area bordering Hamas-controlled Gaza.
The government’s military crackdown in the peninsula initially helped the Islamic State recruit supporters there.
“The lack of real development in Sinai helped ISIS expand and establish a foothold recruiting citizens due to the marginalization they suffered along the years,” Mr. Gabr said.
But a deadly Islamic State attack on a mosque in the northern Sinai town of Al Rawda late last year damaged the group’s standing in the community.
“We will not be consoled until each murderer in Sinai is eliminated, and no mercy will be shown,” said Eissa El Kareen, an elder in the El Romylat tribe who lost dozens of brothers and cousins in the massacre.
The incident spurred Mr. el-Sissi to launch more military strikes in the region. “This attack will do nothing but make us stronger and more persistent in our effort to combat terrorism,” he said in public remarks after the unprecedented killings of 305 mostly Bedouin Muslim worshippers.
Egypt could hardly hand over part of Sinai after such statements, said Tarek Fahmy, a professor who leads the political and strategic unit at the National Center for Middle East Studies in Cairo.
“President el-Sissi … will not reclaim Sinai in order to leave it,” Mr. Fahmy said. “The idea is not an acceptable one for the Egyptian leadership.”