A bedouin guard stands outside a pumping station near Arish in northern Sinai.  (Leila Fadel/Washington Post)

Large caches of weapons from Libya are making their way across the Egyptian border and flooding black markets in Egypt’s already unstable Sinai Peninsula, according to current and former Egyptian military officials and arms traders in the Sinai.

Egyptian security officials have intercepted surface-to-air missiles, most of them shoulder-launched, on the road to Sinai and in the smuggling tunnels connecting Egypt to the Gaza Strip since Moammar Gaddafi fell from power in Libya in August, a military official in Cairo said. Arms traders said the weapons available on Sinai’s clandestine market include rockets and antiaircraft guns.

The seizures raise fresh concerns about security along the sensitive area that borders the Gaza Strip and Israel, at a time when unrest is roiling the region. The addition of shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles to arsenals of Palestinian fighters in Gaza could add significantly to the threat against Israel, whose helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft frequently patrol the strip, which is controlled by the militant Islamist group Hamas.

“We don’t want to see Egypt as a pathway to smuggle weapons,” said Sameh Seif el-Yazal, a retired Egyptian general in military intelligence who said several surface-to-air missiles have been intercepted on the desert road from Libya to the Egyptian city of Alexandria and north on to Gaza. “We believe some Palestinian groups made a deal with Libyans to get special weapons such as shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles.”

Concerns about security in the Sinai have been growing in Egypt and among Israeli and American officials, who have called on Egypt to do more to protect the sensitive area, which borders the Gaza Strip and Israel. In the months since Egypt’s January-February revolution, the pipeline that feeds natural gas to Israel has been attacked seven times by militants. A cross-border attack by assailants in August killed eight Israeli civilians and prompted an Israeli counterstrike that killed six Egyptian troops, including three who later died of their wounds

Palestinian militants in Gaza command a potent arsenal that includes surface-to-surface missiles capable of striking deep inside Israel. But they are not known to have employed more than rudimentary antiaircraft weapons.

Resistance by Bedouins

The vastness of the Sinai, with its deserts and mountains, poses a major challenge to efforts by Egyptian authorities to maintain security there. In recent months, Egypt has sent reinforcements, bringing the number of troops on the peninsula to 20,000, but it has struggled to gain control in an area governed by tribal customs and populated primarily by Bedouins, who distrust the government and call the shots.

A security official and an Egyptian brigadier general who served recently in the Sinai said the seizures have included ammunition, explosives, automatic weapons and caches of heavier arms, including Russian-made Strela-2 and Strela-3 heat-seeking, shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles.

“We’ve intercepted more advanced weapons, and these weapons aren’t familiar to the Egyptian weapons markets; these are war weapons,” said the brigadier general, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

U.S. officials are concerned that some of Libya’s vast trove of shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles could end up in the hands of terrorists, who could use them against civilian jets. Gaddafi’s government had up to 20,000 of the missiles, according to U.S. estimates, and American authorities are working with Libya’s provisional government to track down what happened to them. Although thousands were thought to be destroyed in NATO bombing raids during the conflict this year, many missiles apparently were looted from unguarded warehouses in the chaos of the Libyan uprising.

The 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel imposes strict limits on Egypt’s military presence in the Sinai, but Israel has signaled an openness to further troop increases there because of concerns about cross-border attacks and smuggling. Many Bedouins rely on smuggling as their main source of livelihood, delivering food, cement and other commodities to Gaza — which is under an Israeli blockade — for cash, even as Egyptian authorities have taken new steps to cut off the tunnels that lead into the zone.

The governor of northern Sinai, Maj. Gen. Abdel Wahab Mabrouk, could not be reached for comment, and the head of security in the peninsula, Maj. Gen. Saleh el-Masry, said he could not speak without special permission.

Here in northern Sinai, Bedouin tribes have long felt marginalized and neglected by the government. They point to the dozens of schools in their area with no teachers, the hospitals with no doctors and the lack of government protection as examples of the past regime’s neglect. They were also targeted and abused by police after attacks by religious extremists on tourist resorts in the Sinai in 2004 and 2005.

“There is a real kind of bitterness with the police,” said Yazal, the retired general. “North Sinai was completely ignored by the past regime for decades. They feel like second-class citizens.“

This feeling of vulnerability has created a strong motivation among Bedouins to take their security into their own hands by buying more weapons, which many fear will further destabilize the tense region.

Fears about safety, Islamists

Just a few miles from the Gaza border in Rafah, a Bedouin arms dealer known as Abu Ahmed said that weapons smuggling has been easy since Egypt’s 18-day uprising and that the Libyan unrest next door has created a virtually open border. Antiaircraft 14.5mm machine guns are readily available, he said. Shoulder-fired Stinger-like antiaircraft missiles also are available, he said, and their price has dropped from $10,000 to $4,000 because there are so many in the market.

Abu Ahmed estimates that the number of armed people in the Sinai has doubled in recent months, noting that the Bedouin tribes are stockpiling weapons in case the uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak does not succeed and the police try to target them again.

“Tribal leaders buy in bulk for the tribe and then sell what they don’t need,” he said.

Although there is no well-
defined armed Islamist movement in the peninsula, fliers have been distributed in the name of al-Qaeda in the Sinai calling for an Islamic emirate. In July, armed men carrying the black flags of holy war drove through the streets and attacked a police station in El Arish. A militant Islamist group known as Takfir wal-Hijra has a fledgling presence in the Sinai.

Egyptian officials have asked Sinai residents to register their weapons, but those requests are derided in a region where the authorities are mistrusted.

“If everything was safe and secure, I would register my weapons,” said Waleed, a Bedouin in his 20s who insisted he be identified only by his first name. He said he had bought an antiaircraft gun for $15,000, partly for security and partly because it looked cool, then mounted it on his Land Cruiser. “But, right now, we don’t know. My home, my business and the women of our family are everything to us, and we have to secure ourselves.”

Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan in Washington and special correspondents Ingy Hassieb and Ahmed Abu Deraa contributed to this report.