Skip to main content

Sinai chaos threatens Israel-Egypt stability

By Mark Udall, Special to CNN
July 12, 2012 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Bedouin tribesmen in Dahab, Egypt, in 2009. Lawlessness in the Sinai Peninsula risks turning the region into a powder keg.
Bedouin tribesmen in Dahab, Egypt, in 2009. Lawlessness in the Sinai Peninsula risks turning the region into a powder keg.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Egypt's Sinai Peninsula is becoming more lawless, Sen. Mark Udall says
  • Instability there jeopardizes the 34-year-old peace between Egypt and Israel, he says
  • Udall: Human trafficking in the Sinai has become a human rights nightmare
  • Bolstering the Sinai's long-term economic prospects could begin to help, Udall says

Editor's note: Mark Udall, a Democrat, is the senior U.S. senator for Colorado. He serves on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Armed Services Committee.

(CNN) -- Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, inhabited by some 30 Bedouin tribes, has long been a lawless land that serves as a buffer between Egypt and Israel. But it is now drawing comparisons to the ungoverned tribal regions of Pakistan as networks of Bedouin tribes, Sinai's criminal elements and radical Islamists have begun to capitalize on Egypt's post-revolution security vacuum by increasingly engaging in drug and arms smuggling, human trafficking and terrorism. The escalating lawlessness in the Sinai risks turning the region into a powder keg.

Egypt's domestic power struggle has implications for all nations in the region. Post-Arab Spring instability has increased Israel's concerns about its own security, concerns that will probably grow no matter who is in charge in Cairo. As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I am concerned about the threat that Iran's nuclear program poses to Israel. However, instability in the Sinai is also a growing threat to Israel and Egypt's security. The Israel-Egypt peace treaty, which has provided security and balanced tensions in the region since 1978, is at risk.

Human trafficking in the Sinai has become a human rights nightmare. While leading a congressional delegation visit to Israel and Egypt this summer, I learned about the steady and growing flow of African migrants from Eritrea, Sudan and Ethiopia who are desperate to get to Israel and Europe in search of economic opportunity. But these migrants are increasingly waylaid in the Sinai desert by Bedouin tribes, for whom hostage-taking has become a flourishing business.

While a few years ago a migrant might be ransomed for $3,000, the going price today is more than 10 times that amount. Thousands of refugees are being held captive and subjected to torture, forced labor and rape, while those who cannot pay for their release are often murdered.

Mark Udall
Mark Udall

The Sinai powder keg nearly exploded in August after Islamist militants in Sinai attacked near the southern Israeli city of Eilat, killing and wounding Israeli soldiers and civilians. While pursuing the attackers, Israeli forces killed several Egyptian security guards, which then sparked attacks on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo and led to Egyptian demands for an end to the peace treaty.

Israel has stepped up its military deployment on its side of the border. We have also seen recent attacks on and abductions of members of the Multinational Force and Observers, whose important peacekeeping mission -- established by treaty protocol -- will be increasingly difficult to accomplish amid unraveling security on the peninsula. Recently, southern Israel has seen rocket attacks from the Sinai, as well as an attack by militants who crossed from the Sinai into Israel and opened fire on Israeli civilians.

Political theater, angry crowds in Egypt
Israel's response to Egypt's election
Peres: Muslim Brotherhood must have plan

While Israel is building a barrier along part of the Sinai border, that cannot stop all attacks, and one deadly rocket fired from the Sinai could be enough to kill the peace treaty altogether and ignite a regional war.

It is critical that we engage the Israelis and Egyptians in joint discussions on security in the Sinai and on preserving the Multinational Force and Observers' mission. The Egyptian military should be urged to reinforce checkpoints on the borders between mainland Egypt and the Sinai in order to stop the flow of arms and crack down on human trafficking. Egypt's new government must respect the country's commitments to combat human trafficking under international conventions as well as domestic law.

Corruption is a big obstacle to these common-sense solutions. But a renewed focus on bolstering the long-term economic prospects of the peninsula could begin to address the underlying problems. Highlighting the Sinai's human rights horrors could also be a focus of the Obama administration's Atrocities Prevention Board, which is intended to encourage robust multilateral efforts to prevent and respond to atrocities, something that should bring all nations together.

Ultimately, however, a new Egyptian government needs to understand that a lawless Sinai only undermines Egyptian interests. The administration must make clear to all in the region, but especially to the Egyptians, that they have a common interest in preserving the peace.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mark Udall.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1819 GMT (0219 HKT)
As a woman whose parents had cancer, I have quite a few things to say about dying with dignity.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1304 GMT (2104 HKT)
David Gergen says he'll have a special eye on a few particular races in Tuesday's midterms that may tell us about our long-term future.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1452 GMT (2252 HKT)
What's behind the uptick in clown sightings? And why the fascination with them? It could be about the economy.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1301 GMT (2101 HKT)
Midterm elections don't usually have the same excitement as presidential elections. That should change, writes Sally Kohn.
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Mike Downey says the Giants and the Royals both lived through long title droughts. What teams are waiting for a win?
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1832 GMT (0232 HKT)
Mel Robbins says if a man wants to talk to a woman on the street, he should follow 3 basic rules.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2103 GMT (0503 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say more terrorism plots are disrupted by families than by NSA surveillance.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2125 GMT (0525 HKT)
Time magazine has clearly kicked up a hornet's nest with its downright insulting cover headlined "Rotten Apples," says Donna Brazile.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
Leroy Chiao says the failure of the launch is painful but won't stop the trend toward commercializing space.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Timothy Stanley: Though Jeb Bush has something to offer, another Bush-Clinton race would be a step backward.
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
ADVERTISEMENT