Correction appended: Feb. 17, 2014
The bombing of a tourist bus on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, just a few hundred yards from the heavily fortified border crossing with Israel at Taba, represents a substantial escalation in the Islamist insurgency that erupted in the country last summer.
Until Sunday’s bombing, which killed at least three, including two South Korean tourists, militants in Sinai had taken great care to restrict their attacks to police, army and other sovereign representatives of the Egyptian state they view as illegitimate.
Those attacks came overwhelmingly in Sinai’s northern section, where the Egyptian military had deployed helicopter gunships, armor and troops in answer to a surge of attacks following the military’s removal of Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi as President on July 3. Sinai’s once robust tourist industry suffered, but the only attack to actually occur in the south was the car bombing of a police station at El-Tor, well off the tourist path.
The bus attack changes everything. The bombing — which early reports suggested was either a suicide bombing or an RPG attack — amounted to a declaration of war on the already staggering Egyptian economy, which relies heavily on tourism. It recalls the 1997 mass shooting at Luxor, which killed 62 people, most of them Swiss tourists, at one of the major tourist attractions in Egypt. That attack, carried out by an earlier generation of Islamist extremists, brought a thunderous reaction from the Egyptian government of then President Hosni Mubarak, resulting in the roundup of thousands of citizens suspected of supporting the militants.
This time, the battle lines have already been drawn by Egyptian Defense Minister Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi and the military-backed government put in place after the removal of Morsi, who had been fairly elected. Anyone who expresses support for Morsi’s reinstatement risks being called a terrorist. The entire Brotherhood, which officially eschews violence, now bears the official designation.
If the bus was targeted because it carried Christians — returning from a pilgrimage to St. Catherine’s, the Greek Orthodox monastery below Mount Sinai, where tradition says Moses brought down the Ten Commandments — the attack would be even more freighted.
“The instability in Sinai reflects the instability all over Egypt in the last two years,” says Aviv Oreg, former head of the al-Qaeda desk in the intelligence branch of the Israeli military. But Sinai, which dangles like a shark’s tooth between “mainland” Egypt and Israel, is famously difficult to control.
A few hours before the bombing, reports emerged that Egypt was creating a “buffer zone” between its border and the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian enclave ruled by the militant group Hamas, which controls hundreds of tunnels reaching into Egyptian territory. The tunnels are used both for trade in goods, and for transfer of weapons smuggled and stored in Sinai in great numbers.
“You name it,” Oreg says, “you can find it in Sinai.”
An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the monastery the tourist bus was traveling from. It is St. Catherine’s, not St. Mary’s.