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Sinai Peninsula Sees Increasing Violence Since Morsi Takeover


In 2011, when demonstrators took to the streets of Cairo in peaceful protest against then-President Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians in the Sinai Peninsula staged attacks on police stations. And while Cairo is still the scene of political conflict, in the Sinai, the conflict remains extremely violent.

The Sinai is the triangle of land in Egypt - about the size of West Virginia - that is bordered by the Mediterranean to the north, the Suez Canal on the Gulf of Suez to the west and the Gulf of Aqaba, Israel and Gaza to the east. Robert Worth of The New York Times was in the northern Sinai recently. He's in Washington now and joins us. Hi.

ROBERT WORTH: Hi. Nice to be with you.

SIEGEL: How would you describe the current state of affairs in the northern Sinai?

WORTH: Sinai is always a bit of a sort of lawless area, but it's especially that way now. There's been daily attacks there ever since the takeover by the military from President Morsi six weeks ago. And some of these checkpoints - military checkpoints, police checkpoints - have been shot at 50, 60 times. You can see the bullet holes, you can see the burn marks where grenades have been fired at them. And you can see people building walls because the shooting has been so regular.

SIEGEL: Who's shooting at them?

WORTH: It's a bit of a mystery. It appears to be Islamic radicals who were energized and infuriated by the ouster of President Morsi. Even though they, ideologically, are very much distinct from the Muslim Brotherhood, still they felt that he was a stepping stone for them to some kind of Islamic state. And they also felt, from their point of view, that Egypt was returning to a kind of military rule, and that most people in Sinai felt that the governments of Egypt had always related to them entirely through the security services. The feeling was that we were going back to that, and the sense is these guys refuse to accept that.

SIEGEL: Well, has the army, in fact, behaved differently in the Sinai since the ouster of President Morsi?

WORTH: Well, it's hard to say. They claim that they have undertaken a major operation to stop these militant attacks. And they've released information about the number of people they've arrested and, you know, safe houses they've attacked, that kind of thing. But if you spend time there, you get a sense that they are very much hunkered down behind their gun turrets, that they are on the defensive.

And when I asked people there, relatives of people who'd been killed and been kidnapped, whether they've had any contact with the government or the police, the military, they said none. They said, where is the military? Why don't they protect us?

SIEGEL: The Sinai, of course, borders Israel and it's a very sensitive area. It is Egypt's border with Israel. Are the Egyptians - are they, in fact, coordinating with the Israelis in opposing these Islamist groups?

WORTH: They appear to be doing that. The Israelis shot down today what appears to have been a missile aimed from the Sinai, presumably by these radicals, at Eilat, the Israeli tourist city.

And on Friday, there was another incident in which the Egyptians and the Israelis appear to have worked together. However, that's a very sensitive issue. And so the Egyptian military is never going to openly say that they coordinated with Israel in this. However, off the record, some Egyptian security officials said, yes, that there was an Israeli drone strike that killed some Islamic radicals in Sinai and that the Egyptian military coordinated with the Israelis on that.

SIEGEL: When you were there 10 days ago, did you hear from people that they insist on the restoration of Mohammed Morsi to the presidency?

WORTH: Sure. There is a sit-in in el-Arish, the biggest city in the Northern Sinai, but it's hard to tell how representative that is of the broader population. I certainly ran into people who were happy that Morsi had been ousted.

SIEGEL: You described some horrific crimes. I mean, decapitation, kidnappings. It sounds pretty scary.

WORTH: It is pretty scare. And I think one of the most troubling things is this focus on Christians. You know, there had been sectarian attacks in Egypt periodically all over the country for a long time now, but Christians in the Sinai told me that there was nothing like what they have seen in the past month, that they're getting regular death threats, people are scrawling, you know, go home on their houses. A number of them have been kidnapped. And they feel that no one is helping them from the state.

SIEGEL: And it sounds as though it would take a pretty significant move of perhaps troops or security forces from the central government to secure this area. Is that in the cards for Egypt?

WORTH: I don't think they can do it. I don't think the Egyptian military is set up to fight that kind of counterinsurgency. They're mort sort of light infantry. My sense is - and this is what I was also told by community leaders there - that probably some kind of political reconciliation or short-term agreement in Cairo would help to tamp things down in the Sinai as well.

SIEGEL: Robert Worth of The New York Times, thank you very much.

WORTH: It's a pleasure.

SIEGEL: Robert Worth spoke to us from Washington. Ten days ago, he was reporting from the Northern Sinai in Egypt.



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