The declaration of a state of emergency in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula on March 9 in anticipation of planned jihadist attacks on government targets indicates the seriousness of a systemic security breakdown that threatens to destabilize not only Egypt but also its volatile borders with Gaza and Israel. With an estimated 1,600 extremists on the loose in Sinai, it’s no wonder this 23,000-square-mile desert has been ominously dubbed, “the new Afghanistan.” A land bridge linking the black markets and fragile states of North Africa with the greater Middle East, Sinai has become a transcontinental corridor of organized crime and global terrorism. It is a place where masked gunmen routinely hijack police cars in broad daylight, jihadists brazenly test-fire long-range missiles from rogue training camps, and gangs of human traffickers sell sub-Saharan refugees into slavery, or worse, steal their organs.
In the economically destitute and politically disenfranchised governorates of North and South Sinai, the need for law and order has never been more acute, yet public confidence in the central government is at an all-time low. After decades of economic mismanagement and a misguided counter-terrorism crackdown that resulted in the mass incarceration of thousands of Bedouins – whose twenty some-odd tribes account for roughly 70 percent of the population of the North and South Sinai governorates – the Egyptian state is associated not with security, but with incompetence, repression and predatory corruption.
In a region where government officials are an object of pubic disdain and anger, it is unsurprising that residents of Sinai are looking elsewhere for security and justice. Increasingly, they are turning to a growing number of informal Islamic courts, which are steadily displacing an official justice system viewed as corrupt and inefficient. Since the revolution, informal Islamic courts claim to have absorbed an estimated 75 percent of the caseload once handled by the official justice system. These courts – which operate on shoestring budgets in basements and school classrooms after hours – have successfully capitalized on the fragility of the state in their campaign to promote Sharia law as the only legitimate alternative to what would otherwise be a legal vacuum.