Journal Essay

Sisi, the Sinai and Salafis: Instability in a Power Vacuum

Lyndall Herman

Summer 2016, Volume XXIII, Number 2

Ms. Herman is a PhD candidate in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona.

Throughout the twentieth century, the Sinai Peninsula has occupied an awkward position in the nation-state system. Claimed by Egypt — and at times Israel — the population has by and large not identified itself with the Egyptian state. The contentious history of the territory, combined with the disenfranchisement of the population, has played a significant role in the increased lawlessness throughout large portions of the peninsula. In particular, transnational criminal undertakings and the growth of extremist elements have been the result of this disenfranchisement. The continuing state-level power vacuum in the Sinai is a threat to the cold peace between Egypt and Israel and is adversely affecting the precarious balance of power currently exercised by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

This article examines how the alienation of the local population of the Sinai by the Mubarak regime allowed for the reconstituting and strengthening of radical groups in the Sinai. As well, this legacy, coupled with a policy of non-engagement by Mohammed Morsi's government and the militant approach of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's regime, has led to the current precarious balancing act in the Sinai. This insecurity, in turn, has a detrimental effect on the stability of the Gaza Strip and the relationship between Egypt and Israel. The current situation should force all three parties involved to face the reality that overt cooperation with one another may be the best way to address this instability.

To comprehend the current situation in the Sinai, it is important to examine both the state-level interactions and policies in effect and the individual factors and historical connections that are in place. The demographics of the Sinai — in particular the close relationship of much of the population, both financial and familial, to the Gaza Strip — is key to understanding trends in the growing radicalization of portions of the population. At a state-power level, the tempestuous relationship of the Sinai population to the central Egyptian administration is a crucial factor. Additionally, the place of the Sinai at the middle of the cold peace between Israel and Egypt is significant in studying and addressing the increased radicalization of the Sinai. In particular, the 1948 and 1967 wars and the 1979 peace treaty all saw the Sinai and its population as a pawn to be traded for varying levels of strategic advantage.


The Sinai Peninsula is approximately 130 miles from east to west and 240 miles from north to south, covering an area of 23,000 square miles. The peninsula encompasses five of Egypt's 27 governorates; the three most populous ones, straddling the Suez Canal on the western edge of the Sinai, for various cultural and political reasons discussed below are not a focus of this paper. The peninsula is then divided into the north and south Sinai governorates. These two account for approximately 550,000 people, about 0.7 percent of Egypt's total population.1 These figures include the many Egyptian migrant workers who primarily come from the Nile Delta to work in the tourism industry in south Sinai. The largest population concentrations in north and south Sinai are on the northern and western coastal fringes, where the cities are located.

Approximately 300,000 Bedouin live in the Sinai, a small proportion of whom are still fully nomadic. This population is split between the two provinces and accounts for about 70 percent of the total.2 Approximately 15 major tribes control the majority of the Sinai, several of which share familial ties with Bedouin populations in the Gaza Strip, West Bank and Israeli-held Negev.3 Many of these Bedouin tribes are said to have origins in the Sinai dating back to much earlier migration to the area from the Arabian Peninsula.4 This Bedouin population is proud of the ancestry linking it to the Arabian Peninsula and looks to familial histories in the Gulf as a source of cultural and religious authenticity.5 These close personal and historical relations with the Gulf are significant in understanding the positioning and acceptance in the Sinai of various Salafi clerics, often from the Gulf.

Additionally, many Bedouin and other Sinai residents have Palestinian ancestry, another important link to the "East" (discussed in more detail below). Much of the population of the Sinai, in particular the Bedouin population, links itself more closely with the histories and discourses of the Eastern Mediterranean and Gulf regions rather than the Pharaonic heritage espoused by the Egyptians of the Nile Delta.6 There has also been minimal effort to integrate and engage the population of the Sinai in discussion of these differences and their place in Egyptian society. Rather, the economic and cultural policies of the central Egyptian government have sought to "Egyptianize" this population — at times forcibly — without acknowledging these alternative identities.7

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