It took a war in 1973 and a decade of negotiations to restore Sinai to Egypt. When it was returned to Egyptian sovereignty 1983 the peninsula looked forward to the implementation of development plans that would make it a land of peace and prosperity for its inhabitants and those around it. Unfortunately, the next two decades (1984-2004) witnessed little tangible progress apart from the tourist resorts that emerged in the south and helped turn that area into one of the world’s prime tourist destinations. Northern Sinai remained remote from the march of economic development, in spite of the fact that, with its long stretches of sandy beaches along the Mediterranean coastline, it is endowed with natural beauty as well as potential for industry.
Having remained fallow for so long Sinai entered an even grimmer period ushered in by terrorist attacks against southern resorts in 2004. The close of 2013 marks the end of a decade of terrorism and, hopefully, the beginning of the implementation of long-delayed plans to turn Sinai into the prosperous and thriving environment first envisaged 40 years ago.
A vicious war between the army and extremist factions and jihadist militias, now in its fifth month, has seen progress made towards dismantling the terrorist structure in Sinai. But it is important to bear in mind that the crisis runs deep. There has been cross-border infiltration which has largely been checked through the closure of most of the Sinai-Gaza tunnels. Now many leaders of takfiri factions have been apprehended, and weapon arsenals have been captured. In the wake of what Sinai activist Ghazi Abu Farraj describes as “the clean-up operation after precision surgery” there has to be a comprehensive plan capable of immunising the area from any resurgence in terrorism.
Militant field leaders like Abu Mounir, Kamal Allam and Shadi Al-Maniei, and ideological organisational leaders such as Abu Faisal, founder of the Sharia Courts in northern Sinai, are not the only players. In fact, much of the action takes place off-stage. Some of the actors ate known, others not. Arab and other countries are involved, some through their intelligence agencies, others by means of groups and organisations that they fund. There are jihadist ideologues who pronounce fatwas from behind bars, such as Abu Mohamed Al-Maqdisi in Jordan, and Wahhabi takfiri sheikhs who issue similar edicts, such as Abi Al-Munzir Al-Shanqiti, author of a lengthy tract calling on jihadists in Sinai to take up arms against the Egyptian army.
Other issues closely intertwine with events in Sinai. Extremists have used the Palestinian crisis and the sustained blockade of Gaza to legitimise aggression against Egypt. Hamas is reeling. The commercial traffic through the network of tunnels between the Sinai-Gaza border engaged some 50,000 workers and was such a major source of revenue for the Hamas government, so much so an entire ministry was set up to oversee the tunnels. That Hamas now feels beleaguered on this front suggests two possible scenarios. The first is that it has become a witting or unwitting tool for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, as an organisational and ideological resource supported by the International Muslim Brotherhood and with the primary function of creating trouble for post-30 June Egypt. There is strong evidence to support this. In the second half of 2013 dozens of Palestinians affiliated with Hamas’s Ezzeddin Al-Qassam brigades were apprehended in Sinai and security forces unearthed large quantities of arms, ammunition and explosives traced back to the brigades. There is another dimension to this scenario. It became clear as the Egyptian army dismantled the tunnel network and tightened border security that the Egyptian authorities were aware of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hand in the matter. A clear message was intended: Egypt’s borders are no longer available for anti-Egyptian propaganda or for activities that undermine Egyptian sovereignty.
Mohamed Gomaa, a researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, explains the second scenario. Hamas, he says, realised it could not afford to continue to lend itself to the designs of the first scenario, having concluded it would ultimately backfire, drawing fire into Gaza which would ignite the political/economic pressure and lead to a redrawing of the Gazan political map in which Hamas would be marginalised.
Eliminating terrorism in Sinai entails drying up all sources of arms. Though the supply is considerably reduced, some still find a way into the peninsula. There are weapons coming from Sudan where, according to the prominent political activist Al-Mahjoub Abdel-Salem, the regime is hostile to the developments in Egypt since 30 June. Egyptian military expert Gamal Mazloum points another supply line across the Red Sea from Yemen where Qaeda activities are flourishing.
The largest weapons tributary, however, flows from Libya, currently the greatest external threat to Egyptian national security due to the proliferation of extremist groups and a weak central government. Many of these factions fall under the jihadist Salafist umbrella and have bases near the Libyan border with Egypt. According to Egyptian security sources and Libyan affairs expert Ali Saleh, there are four arms smuggling routes from Libya into Egypt, from the maritime route and an overland coastal route in the north to two desert routes in the south. In spite of frequent reports that Cairo and Tripoli are working together to curb this traffic Egyptian military reports indicate that breaches of Egypt’s western border continue.
It is not just the weapons from Sudan, Yemen and Libya that flow into Sinai. Terrorists have also begun to flock to the peninsula in order to wage holy war. The majority of leaders of the recent wave of armed assaults have been foreign jihadists, most of them trained in Al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They then passed on training to their local affiliates in Sinai. There are recent arrivals from Syria to, both Egyptian and foreign. Any effective anti-terrorist programme must take this into account. Cross border cooperation is required to dismantle an international terrorist network which, like organised crime, has tentacles everywhere. The assassination of Major Mohamed Abu Shaqara, whose whereabouts had been leaked to a terrorist cell, and of Major Mohamed Mabrouk, who was to be a key prosecution witness in the espionage case against Mohamed Morsi, both point to the trans-national nature of this network.
Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis initially claimed responsibility for the assassination, followed by Furqan Brigades. Both are members of the Jihadist Shura Council in Sinai. Security experts believe that these groups are actually covering for others outside Sinai. The backgrounds of suspects arrested in connection with the assassinations are very different to those of members of Sinai groups. The suspects come from wealthy families and had university educations whereas the vast majority of members of Sinai groups come from poor families and have little more than elementary school education and sometimes not even that.
The deadliest terrorist attacks in Sinai in 2013 were the second Rafah massacre in August in which 25 soldiers died and the bombing of an army bus in November which killed 11 soldiers. These were well organised operations, terrorist expert Lieutenant Colonel Khaled Okasha told Al-Ahram Weekly, which underscored the relationship between the perpetrators in Sinai and the International Muslim Brotherhood. This International Muslim Brotherhood provides funding and has encouraged the export of terror outside of Sinai. These exports include the attack against the church in Warraq, the attempted assassination of Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim in September and the bombing of a satellite station in Maadi in October.
July, a period of intermittent attacks, was the prelude to a major confrontation. August and November brought peaks in terrorist attacks against police and military installations and personnel, October saw a relative lull in violence. In October and November the army made major advances in the battle against terrorism, arresting many of Sinai’s jihadist takfiri leaders.
There has been a qualitative improvement in security for Sinai residents, says Mohamed Hamad, son of a local Sinai chief. The area from Beir Al-Abad to Al-Masaid at the entrance to Arish, once a trouble spot, is safe during the day and relatively safe at night, he says. The situation becomes more tense the further one moves towards Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah, where weapons still abound.
Military affairs expert General Talaat Muslim told the Weekly that the military’s overriding aim in Sinai is to restore security. The army does not play a political role in the peninsula but is following its traditional function which is to safeguard and eliminate all threats to national security. “We are engaged in a military battle and in any battle there will be losses,” he says. “However, the level of losses has remained within acceptable limits and is far less than was anticipated at the outset of operations.”
Members of the Sowarka and Tarabeen tribes complain of tit-for-tat violence between the army and terrorist groups and its effect on innocent people. They say homes have been destroyed and civilians targeted on the basis of a vague suspicions. A distinction must be drawn between those who practise violence and others, a member of the Tarabeen tribe told the Weekly. He stressed that harming the innocent breeds vengeance.
“We do not condemn the army for moving against any terrorist target. In fact we cooperate with it. But sometimes the situation gets out of control. Perhaps, too, they should do more to protect people threatened by the takfiris. Twelve sheikhs from the tribe were killed because they cooperated with the security agencies. The authorities have ignore this and not one of their families received compensation,” he says.
“There is security cooperation with neighbouring countries,” said the same source, “not least Israel. Israel also has agents and cells in Sinai that are playing a role in events and gathering intelligence in a very professional way. But we have to keep watch on those who are with us in case they turn against us. We cannot trust any party. Hamas is just like Israel in this matter. I am worried about Hamas because it is the Muslim Brotherhood’s arm playing from the outside while Muslim Brotherhood elements in Sinai confine themselves, superficially, to a political role.”
Comprehensive development is the only long term solution to any resurgence of the terrorist virus. Yet, says Salah Gawdat who has conducted many economic and technical studies on Sinai, though a third of a century has passed since Egypt won the peninsula back from Israel, two regimes have come and gone, a third is currently in power and a fourth is on its way, the development process has yet to extend beyond six per cent of the area of Sinai. This is despite the fact that Sinai contains 48 per cent of Egypt’s mineral wealth. The problem of Sinai’s underdevelopment could be solved, he says, by a realistic investment plan and a massive population transfer of around four million people from the Nile Valley. There would be development of the coastlines and land reclamation. Agricultural expansion would see an increase in olive cultivation and the introduction of new strains of wheat. These activities would change the face of Sinai though for them to happen, the state as a whole must return to Sinai, not just the army.
- Egypt’s Sinai emerges as new theater for jihad (bigstory.ap.org)
- Why Egypt’s Sinai Is a Security Mess (defenseone.com)
- With Morsi Gone, Egypt Is Reportedly Cracking Down on Terrorism in Sinai and Sealing those Gaza Tunnels (theblaze.com)