Armed assailants killed 16 Egyptian soldiers waiting to break the day’s Ramadan fast in the Sinai Peninsula on Sunday. The unidentified attackers proceeded to steal two military vehicles, which they used to breach the Israeli border before being thwarted by an Israeli airstrike. Eight attackers were reportedly killed during the incident. The attack raised the stakes in an ongoing battle for security in the Sinai Peninsula, a rugged, sparsely populated, politically neglected region where Bedouin groups sometimes exert as much control as the Egyptian military, which itself is prohibited by the 1979 peace treaty with Israel from deploying sufficient troops in the area.
But the attack also underlined how little information is widely available—particularly in the non-Arabic press—about the Sinai, which is emerging as a burning political and security issue. The night of the initial attack, Egyptian and international television networks were forced to rely on a trickle of information from state news outlets as well as phone interviews with the few Egyptian journalists based in the Sinai.
By Wednesday morning, the sense of confusion only deepened when news leaked of an Egyptian military operation in north Sinai, which one official claimed killed 20 people. But an Al Jazeera English reporter on the scene reported that no bodies were found in the morgues and no one was reported missing from the towns where the operation reportedly took place. Back in Cairo, a brief statement from the military, read on television by a stern, disembodied voice, confirmed that an operation took place but gave few details.
Of course, a degree of confusion is to be expected whenever news of a sensitive security matter breaks in a remote region. But the ongoing crisis in the Sinai demands deep reporting on the economic, military, and political dynamics at the root of the instability. International journalists said that such reporting is difficult to carry out because of access restrictions applied by the Egyptian authorities along with increasing concerns for personal safety in a region where foreigners, Americans in particular, have recently been targeted for kidnapping. Police all but disappeared from the Sinai after heavily armed Bedouin routed them in fighting during the winter 2011 uprising that ended the dictatorship of former president Hosni Mubarak.
“I wouldn’t feel safe for more than a few days unless I was staying in one place with people I trust,” said GlobalPost senior Middle East correspondent Erin Cunningham. “Which is how I conducted my interviews in Kandahar, in Afghanistan.”
Government-accredited foreign journalists say they have been hassled and sometimes turned away by police and military forces at checkpoints in the Sinai. Freelance journalist Ian Lee said, “Going out to Sinai, I’ve been stopped by police, I’ve been held for over an hour. I’ve been turned back.”
The result of these logistical obstacles is that even experienced foreign reporters are forced to plan reporting trips carefully, in close coordination with local contacts.
Lee cautioned other reporters, saying simply, “Don’t go to Sinai and report on a whim. That’s a recipe for danger and disaster. If you go to Sinai, you better have contacts there.”
Reporters agreed that the lack of access is affecting the quality of coverage. “I think it skews the narrative of what’s happening out there and why these attacks are happening and what the population of the Sinai really wants,” Cunningham said, pointing out, for example, that many Bedouin make a political distinction between the police and the military, and do not support attacks on the latter.
Indeed, what gets lost in much of the short-term reporting on the Sinai is the political roots of the instability in the region, which is long-term neglect by the Egyptian central government.
“People tell you in their stories that Sinai has horrible security problems and it’s overrun with extremists, but you don’t get enough context, which is that for years this section of Egypt has been horribly neglected by the government,” said Time magazine correspondent Abigail Hauslohner, who reported in the Sinai last year by embedding with Bedouins in the region.
Already a semi-detached area, the peninsula was occupied by Israel from 1967 to 1982. Since the Israeli withdrawal, the Egyptian central government has pursued security and development policies that favor “mainland” Egyptians over the Sinai’s mix of Bedouin, Palestinians, and other minorities. This background is not always found in reports that stress the immediate events of the day, frequently involving militant attacks on Egyptian government forces, the Israeli border, or the oft-targeted gas pipeline to Israel.
“They [the Bedouin], in practice, have not been allowed to be part of the military or the police force. That alone suggests a problem in that they’re not a part of their own security. They get systematically discriminated against at checkpoints,” Hauslohner added.
Lee agreed that the underlying causes of instability needed to be addressed. “We’re going to continue probably seeing attacks and insecurity and instability in Sinai until a political solution is reached,” he said. “There has to be security, but more importantly a political solution that will make Sinai safe, but it will also make it safe for journalists.”