Read as much as you want on BostonGlobe.com, anywhere and anytime, for just 99¢.

Lawless Sinai could be omen for Egypt

Violence spreads as government, rebels still at odds

SHEIKH ZWAYD, Egypt — Every night at dusk, the streets of this desert town near Israel empty out, and the chatter and thump of gunfire and explosives begin. Morning reveals the results: another dead soldier, another police checkpoint riddled with bullets, another kidnapping. In mid-July, the body of a local Christian shop owner was found near the town cemetery, his head severed, his torso in chains.

The northern Sinai Peninsula, long a relatively lawless zone, has become a dark harbinger of what could follow elsewhere in Egypt if the interim government cannot peacefully resolve its standoff with the Islamist protesters camped out in Cairo.

Continue reading below

In the five weeks since Egypt’s military ousted the Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, the endemic violence here has spiraled into something like an insurgency, with mysterious gunmen attacking military and police facilities every night.

Last week, the violence threatened to draw in Israel. Israel briefly closed an airport at the Red Sea resort of Eilat Thursday after Egyptian officials warned about the possibility of militants firing rockets from Sinai. The next day, up to five militant suspects were killed and a rocket launcher was destroyed in an airstrike in Sinai, state news media reported, and there were unconfirmed reports that the strike was carried out by Israel.

The Sinai attacks have taken at least 62 lives, officials say, not counting the 60 suspects that Egyptian authorities say they have killed. There has also been a troubling rise in attacks on Christians, who are fleeing the area in large numbers.

Although the world’s attention has been focused on Cairo, where about 140 Islamist Muslim Brotherhood supporters have been killed in clashes with the police since Morsi’s ouster, the chaos in Sinai in some ways represents a more troubling prospect. Unlike the Brotherhood, which has a longstanding commitment to nonviolence, the jihadists here are out for blood, and they appear to have been energized by the military’s reassertion of power. Some Egyptians fear a renewal of the kind of terrorism they suffered during the 1990s, especially if the military resorts to an even more forceful crackdown.

The northern Sinai may be both a symptom and a cause of Egypt’s festering crisis: One of the military’s reasons for ousting Morsi was the belief that he was too soft on the jihadists here and saw them as potential allies. Yet the military, for all its warlike talk, seems unable to thwart the mysterious bands of gunmen who own the night.

The military announced last week on its Facebook page that its counterterrorism operation over the past month in Sinai had led to 103 arrests, and the destruction of 102 tunnels, 40 underground fuel storage tanks, and four houses used by extremists. The reference to tunnels, presumably those used to smuggle weapons and goods into Gaza, tallies with the military’s routine suggestions that Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls Gaza, is involved in the violence. However, there is no evidence to suggest that is true.

Most residents here say the authorities appear to be on the defensive, with soldiers and police hunkered down at their posts, suffering daily casualties.

Although the attackers mainly hit the police and the military, a dozen civilians have been killed in the cross-fire, according to local hospital officials.

Jihadism has long been a problem in Sinai, which was under Israeli occupation from 1967 to 1982. The area’s independent Bedouin tribes have resisted full integration into the state, and smuggling and drug trafficking to neighboring Israel and Gaza have been rampant here for decades.

But the Egyptian state has contributed to the problem, local leaders say. “They treated us all as traffickers and criminals, and this marginalization made a fertile ground for terrorism,” said Sheik Abdelhadi Etaik Sawarka, a leader of one of the area’s tribes.

After the 2011 revolution in Egypt, the security services withdrew from Sinai, leaving a vacuum where armed Islamists thrived, and some foreign fighters filtered into the area. The militants also gained access to more sophisticated weapons from Libya after the civil war in that country, analysts say.

There are persistent rumors that the fighters have acquired surface-to-air missiles that could threaten aircraft in Egypt and Israel, though these have not been confirmed.

The identities of the attackers in Sinai remain mysterious: No one has claimed responsibility, and the Egyptian authorities have said little, helping to fuel conspiracy theories.

The biggest concern for the United States and Israel, said Michael Wahid Hanna, an expert on Egyptian politics and the military at the Century Foundation, is “the possibility that Egypt has lost control over what’s going on in the Sinai.”

Loading comments...
Subscriber Log In

You have reached the limit of 5 free articles in a month

Stay informed with unlimited access to Boston’s trusted news source.

  • High-quality journalism from the region’s largest newsroom
  • Convenient access across all of your devices
  • Today’s Headlines daily newsletter
  • Subscriber-only access to exclusive offers, events, contests, eBooks, and more
  • Less than 25¢ a week
Marketing image of BostonGlobe.com
Marketing image of BostonGlobe.com