Sinai: What It Meant Then, What It Means Now

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There's more trouble unfolding this week in Egypt, as its newly elected president, Mohamed Morsi, confronts violence in the Sinai Peninsula. Sixteen Egyptian soldiers were killed Sunday by shooters, and on Tuesday night, gunmen fired on up to seven government checkpoints in what appears to be a carefully planned attack.

The military responded just hours later, deploying attack helicopters Wednesday morning. The retaliatory strikes reportedly killed 20 people, but that number has been difficult to corroborate.

And while this week's strikes in Sinai were the first in decades by the Egyptian military, it's only the latest in a long line of conflicts.

Anne-Marie Slaughter is a professor of politics and international relations at Princeton University. She explains the complex history of the region and the complex politics surrounding the new governments of the Arab Spring.

Home to the biblical Mt. Sinai, the peninsula now bears considerable geopolitical significance. Surrounded by water on three sides, and Israel on the fourth, Sinai has long been the subject of multiple claims of ownership of the territory. Much of the Six-Day War was fought there in June 1967. Now, Morsi, having just been elected recently, is facing one of the first crises of his term. 

"This is a very complicated time for [Morsi]," Slaughter says. "He's engaged in a complicated set of relations establishing his power base with respect to the military. It seems very unlikely to me that the military is going to do anything dramatic with respect to his actions, even if he has not brokered this deal with them." The new president has fired numerous security officials, including the governor of Sinai, in a mood that is being seen as an attempt to distance himself from the previous regime, which enjoyed a brutal reputation in Sinai. 

Security can be established in Sinai, Slaughter says, but she's hoping that the situation will not escalate too far. "Certainly, we don't want Israel having to intervene," she says. "This is a situation that can be pacified if need be." 

Sinai has long been a pipeline for supplies being sent to Palestine, and the change in the Egyptian administration could increase tensions on that front. "The previous military government was blocking the smuggling tunnels, was trying to broker a deal between Hamas and Fatah, but effectively was trying to help protect Israel's security," Slaughter says. "Now you have a Muslim Brotherhood prime minsister who is much cooler toward Israel, and he doesn't want conflict, but is likely to be more sympathetic to Hamas." 

Slaughter emphasizes both the Israelis' willingness and capacity to help the Egyptians quell further militant violence. "Israel is going to do everything possible to allow Egypt to solve this problem, and to support the Egyptians with intelligence aimed at rooting out these militants," she says.

"But if that doesn't happen, then Israel will act directly. That will create tremendous problems between Israel and Egypt, but Israel has made it very clear that when it comes to its own security, if another government can't act to protect it, it will protect itself."