In Sinai, Egypt Faces Tough Task to Counter Instability

A crew of an Egyptian ranger battalion. (Tech. Sgt. H. H. Deffner/Wikimedia Commons)

Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula is increasingly being affected by high levels of conflict and instability, which has left hundreds of people dead and thousands more wounded since 2011. The latest of these attacks reportedly occurred earlier today, when four civilians were killed in a roadside bombing near the city of Rafah.

In April this year a car bombing in El-Arish killed seven people, and a combined shooting and bombing in El-Arish and Sheikh Zuwayid killed 17. The Egyptian military also claimed to have killed 29 militants and arrested dozens more in a crackdown on regional strongholds during the month.

The growing insecurity in the region has been fed by the increasing prominence of Islamist extremists, including armed groups linked to the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda. Attempting to address these issues involves understanding the Sinai’s complex interplay of history, geography, and demography.

The origins of what has become an emerging sanctuary for jihadist activity include years of under-investment and under-development by the state, the rift between the Nile-centered Egyptian government and the distinct Bedouin-dominated Sinai region, basic security lapses, and Cairo’s refusal to pursue a meaningful dialogue or resolution process.

As with elsewhere in the region, the Arab Spring was a turning point in creating, and sustaining, the current instability. The unrest in 2011 and 2012 produced conditions ripe for increased militancy. Islamist extremists in the Gaza Strip and wider region flooded into the Sinai, taking advantage of state security forces being focused on containing urban anti-government unrest.

In late July of 2011 approximately 150 militants attacked the city of El-Arish, defeating local security forces. Though the assault lasted only a few hours, it was a sign of things to come. In the months that followed, militants linked to groups such as Hamas and Al-Qaeda also became active.

Bedouin factions adopting Salafi-Jihadist doctrine likewise became involved. Through 2011 and 2012 gas pipelines and security forces were regularly targeted. Cross-border raids into Israel were recorded on several occasions. In January 2012, Bedouin gunmen abducted 25 Chinese nationals and demanded authorities release relatives jailed after attacks in the mid-2000s. This kidnapping trend continued through that year in both the North and South Sinai governorates.

The situation became even more complicated in 2013, when the Egyptian military led a takeover of the Islamist-dominated national government and installed a pro-military transitional administration. In the months that followed, security forces violently dispersed Islamist counter-protests and arrested numerous high profile Islamist political leaders. This period of heightened instability coincided with the start of a surge in acts of terrorism across Egypt and in the Sinai.

Attacks were claimed by the Al-Qaeda-aligned Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) and other militants in the Sinai, Nile Delta, and Nile-based cities. The violence was in turn stoked by the new government, which became more aggressive and increasingly presented a hardline counter-terrorism approach, partly motivated by a desire to shore up support for its clampdown on Islamist political parties and leaders—its only significant domestic opponent.

In the Sinai, the military deployed additional armaments through the Agreed Activities Mechanism in the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. Israel, having already been affected by attacks from the Sinai, was more than obliging, at least privately, in allowing this build-up near its border, though it opposed the introduction of armored vehicles. In November 2014 parts of ABM in the Sinai pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-declared ISIS Caliph, and renamed themselves the Wilayat Sinai (Province of Sinai). Nile-centered ABM members are thought to remain largely loyal to Al-Qaeda.

As well as these recent causes, conflict in the Sinai has much further-reaching origins. Not only is the Sinai separate from greater Egypt, it is home to a different mix of peoples. The North Sinai and South Sinai governorates contain a large Palestinian population, who primarily identify with Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, as well as the Bedouin community whose focus is mostly eastward, towards the Levant and Arabia. Egypt’s larger Nile Valley-centered heritage is foreign, or at least distinct. The Bedouin have also not adopted the Egyptian-specific Arabic dialect.

These core differences have been aggravated further in contemporary times. Following the Arab-Israeli conflicts in the 1950s-70s, the Egyptian government has failed to develop the Sinai or reconcile it with the greater country. Rather, it has promoted the emigration of Nile Valley inhabitants there, exercised dominance over local political structures and discriminated against local residents, specifically through housing policy and employment opportunities. Critically, Bedouin traditions were and are given little recognition by national authorities.

This state of affairs created a region that was increasingly defining itself as separate through the early 2000s. This may well be one of the reasons why, in 2004, 2005 and 2006, armed groups managed to find sanctuary and support to stage deadly attacks on the Sinai’s tourism centers of Taba, Nuweiba, Sharm el-Sheikh, and Dahab.

The bombings served to further polarize the Egyptian center and its Sinai periphery, as the government sought retribution through a policy of mass arrests, predominantly targeting the Bedouin. In a continuation of this detention policy, military and police operations in the Sinai since 2012 have continued to net hundreds of “suspected terrorists,” whose ultimate fate or treatment within the justice system is rarely documented in local or foreign media.

The question then is, what is being done to solve the current crisis? Answering it starts with an admission that the Egyptian government is clearly failing on multiple fronts. Its pursuit of a military solution is unlikely to bring a lasting peace. Instead, the confrontation is stoking and will continue to stoke anti-government civil sentiment among the local Sinai population, specifically the Bedouin.

The confrontational position has also weakened Egypt’s strategic position among the region’s key players. Hamas, Hezbollah, and, quite possibly, Iran, have and will continue to seek influence in the region and among its people. They will likely pursue increased armed activity, either against the Egyptian state or against Israel. Action against the latter could, in turn, threaten the 1979 peace treaty and draw Israel into a conflict it does not want. However, one senses this latter scenario is less likely given Egyptian and Israel’s unwritten accord on reducing the militant threat.

The Egyptian military’s battlefield tactics have also failed. The government persists with its policy of deploying men and materiel, but continues to experience high losses, mostly among its lower-end personnel and middle-ranking officers. The military leadership in the Sinai has also been regularly replaced, thus undermining strategic continuity and critical relationship-building, both internally and with local community leaders. Cairo’s tactics appear to be aimed at intimidating the local populace, rather than influencing them to join the contest against the region’s militants. They also show no clear sign of changing.

In addressing the conflict, the Egyptian government desperately needs allies and it needs to find them as soon as possible. Though Israel stands alongside it in opposing the militant risk, it is unlikely to directly assist in managing the crisis. However, increased coordination between Israeli and Egyptian commanders could be sought in the absence of any larger agreement.

Another avenue Cairo could pursue more aggressively is forming alliances with local tribes. A possible opportunity in this regard emerged in late April when members of the Tarabin Bedouin attacked Wilayat Sinai positions south of Sheikh Zuwaid and El-Arish, in retaliation for the execution of a youth and a tribal sheikh. If the government could build on this opposition it could create a powerful ally with which to confront the increasingly powerful armed groups in the Sinai. However, years of mistrust and an ill-informed political and military policy mean a significant effort will be required in this respect.