Twenty-five Egyptian police officers were executed Monday in an ambush on the Sinai Peninsula. Although Sinai has had a history of violence and instability for some time, the escalating bloodshed suggests that Egypt, the most populous and strategically important country in the Middle East, is headed into the grips of a civil war.
The violence in Sinai predates last week's massacre of former President Mohamed Morsi's supporters, and even Morsi's rise and fall from power. Tensions have only gotten worse in the region in recent years, as it has increasingly hosted weapons-smuggling and black-market trade with Sudan, Libya, and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. The situation worsened with Egypt's 2011 revolution, in which security forces were withdrawn from the area and former militants were released from prisons. Some of the 2011 militants went on to establish Ansar al-Jihad, an Al-Qaeda branch in Sinai, and their activity established the key players in today's feuding political arena.
In August 2012, during Morsi's short-lived Islamist administration, 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed in Sinai by local group Ansar Jerusalem, marking the peninsula's deadliest attack until now. At this point, the Muslim Brotherhood took advantage of the situation by demanding that the government "confront this serious challenge to the Egyptian sovereignty" and "protect Sinai from all armed groups." Morsi responded to the call with strict attention and a crackdown on the region as well as the demolition of tunnels between Sinai and Gaza. This was much to Israel’s appreciation, since many of the weapons smuggled through those tunnels were delivered to Hamas for use in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
This is where the most recent dispute begins. When Morsi attempted to quell the violence in the region, he was still condemned by the army for being too lax, specifically because he released Islamists from prison and vetoed military operations in Sinai. Although this response may have appeased the Muslim Brotherhood, it only incited more anger from the military, which eventually used it as one justification for Morsi’s forced removal.
Now that the military coup has taken place, Egypt's political crisis has the secularist army pitted against the Muslim Brotherhood. While earlier violence in Sinai was attributed to independent extremists, violent acts such as Monday's are now planned strategically by Brotherhood followers to retaliate against harsh and indiscriminate military attacks. Without Morsi or any political figure as intermediary, the two organizations are now diametrically opposed both ideologically and politically. The army's vicious tactics to eliminate the Brotherhood have done nothing but cause a broader wave of jihadist violence.
The BBC aptly notes, “The battle against the Brotherhood is increasingly interpreted as a battle against all Islamist currents rather than just one political party,” causing even greater polarization between Egyptians. Even worse is that the situation in the Sinai Peninsula might could deteriorate if the United States cuts foreign aid to Egypt, which could lead Egyptian generals to suspend security cooperation with Israel and expend more force on the conflict in their own homeland.
Ultimately, the escalating violence in the Sinai parallels the increasing violence between the secularist military and the Muslim Brotherhood. Especially because of Egypt's key geographical location, not only will the two sides eventually deteriorate into complete civil war, they will wreak havoc on the entire Middle Eastern political ecosystem if there is not international intervention.
Without a swift compromise, Sinai may be a dark omen of things to come in Egypt, disrupting international political peace, trade, and religious amity worldwide.