Middle East observers usually don’t read Uruguay’s press to follow events in the Middle East. But in the last two days, Uruguayan reports suggest a troubling development in the Sinai that could impact on the region in unexpected ways.

Uruguay peacekeepers in Sinai surrounded by protesting Bedouins

That was the headline in MercopressThe 35 Uruguayan soldiers “surrounded” were among the 1650 members of the Multinational Force and Observers stationed in the Sinai since 1981 to oversee the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Twelve nations provide troops to the MFO, with the United States providing the largest force — an infantry and support battalion consisting primarily of National Guard units.

The article states that their base in the northern Sinai also houses American and Columbian troops. Uruguay’s foreign minister explained: “The actual situation is that a Uruguayan contingent in the northern Sinai is (…) surrounded by Bedouins linked to some insurgent movements in the region.” Defense Minister Eleuterio Fernandez Huidobro said negotiations were underway with the Bedouins to end the standoff.

The article claims that the Bedouins demand the release of four of their colleagues imprisoned in Egypt. The Bedouins are smugglers and have no military structure, the article continues. They have been involved in blowing up a gas pipeline from Egypt to Israel and Jordan, but “there is no political motivation for their actions other than mercenary.”

That relatively innocent description has been challenged by recent events in the Sinai and led an Arab expert to tell me today, “Yes, the Bedouins in Sinai are a mafia/militia, but they are increasingly Salafist and Jihadist.”

The August 2011 attack from Sinai that killed eight Israeli civilians and soldiers on a border road near Eilat was well-planned and coordinated. The dozen attackers, all residents of Sinai (although the planner was apparently a Gazan Palestinian), fired anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. In a most uncharacteristic tactic, four of the Bedouin attackers were deployed as suicide bombers. For more details see Ehud Ya’ari’s recent monograph “Sinai: A New Front.

Four years ago, I wrote about the MFO troops being in harm’s way. “Gaza Chaos Likely to Metastasize: Are American/Multi-National Forces in Sinai Targets?” was the article’s title. It read:

US-led multi-national troops are at war with Islamic radicals in Afghanistan and Iraq. Chasing the Americans out of another base in the Middle East will be a great achievement for Nasrallah, Ahmadinejad, Bin Laden, and Assad… the tremors coming out of Gaza could spread across the Sinai and the Suez into Egypt itself. The Moslem Brotherhood does not require much to ignite riots in the streets of Cairo.”

How I wish I was wrong.