Counterterrorism and political consolidation: Egypt’s silent war on the Sinai

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5 mins read

By Daniel Demitz-Halin

SINCE THE MID-2010s, Egypt has faced a growing insurgency in the northern provinces of the Sinai Peninsula. The insurgency initially emerged as a grassroots, Sunni-jihadi movement born out of the historical marginalization of the Bedouins populating the Sinai, but is today a movement that is aligned with the Islamic State (IS) and wields significant territorial influence. The Egyptian government has historically neglected investments in infrastructure projects, education, and medical facilities in the peninsula. Some argue that this neglect stems from a perception of the area as a “buffer zone” between Israel and Egypt, which is only exacerbated by the out-group derogation of Egyptian Bedouins. In January 2011, the growing frustration among Sinai Bedouins had reached a tipping point. As the sense of disenfranchisement with Egypt’s long-lived Mubarak regime began to spread from Tahrir Square in Cairo across the rest of the country, the Sinai began to witness escalating violence targeted at government institutions and security forces in the region. This eventually grew into a full-fledged insurgency which endures to this day. According to data collected by the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, the conflict saw peaks in battle-related deaths (BRDs) in 2015 and 2018. This number has since steadily declined, however, and has never crossed the threshold of 1000 BRDs per calendar year.

The insurgency, initially named Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (roughly “Partisans of the Holy House’’, ABM) had by 2014 come to align its aim with that of IS – to establish an Islamic superstate (“Caliphate”) led by a single monarch under whose rule all Muslims would fall. Following a pledge of allegiance to IS, the group renamed itself Wilayat Sinai (roughly “Sinai Province”, WS) and became part of IS’s multinational franchise. Little is known about the internal organization of WS, but the group is believed to consist of around 1000 operatives. In 2018, WS was estimated to be in control of approximately 900 square kilometres of land.

The dynamics of the conflict appear to follow a somewhat predictable pattern. The trend seems to be that Egyptian military operations are carried out as “reactive” responses to large-scale attacks conducted by WS. Some analysts argue that merely containing, as opposed to eliminating, the insurgency may be seen by the Egyptian government as an acceptable outcome for the time being, given the multitude of other socioeconomic issues currently facing Egypt. One could argue that it may have been this strategy which consequently led to an observed decrease in attacks by WS – perhaps it was not deemed necessary to uphold as high a number of attacks to maintain influence in the peninsula. This might explain the declining BRDs indicated by UCDP data.

Despite this indicated de-escalation, violence against civilians is reported to have increased in recent years. WS employs guerilla-style tactics, including both selective and indiscriminate one-sided violence through IEDs, car bombs, suicide bombs and assassinations, presumably as a coercion strategy and to establish territorial control. Such tactics may have seen success given the Egyptian government’s demolitions of over 12,000 buildings in the Sinai, reportedly in an attempt to establish buffer zones. In other words, a means of re-establishing territorial control. Incidentally, these demolitions were conducted without compensation being provided to affected civilians, and according to Human Rights Watch they likely amount to war crimes. This, once again, highlights the government’s disregard for the grievances out of which the insurgency was born.

The government’s rhetoric in responding to the insurgency also underscores this, as military operations and counterterrorism efforts undertaken by security forces are oftentimes glorified. Egyptian state media outlet Al-Ahram consistently cites exterminating terrorists, and eradicating terrorism in the country altogether, as key objectives of the military operations conducted in the Sinai. The efforts of the EAF and President El-Sisi are often praised, and the adversary is in almost all cases referred to merely as “terrorists”, as opposed to WS or IS. This symbolizes the Egyptian state’s rejection of the insurgency’s legitimacy as a coherent group, and in turn, neglects the underlying issues which led to the formation of ABM in the first place.

Analyzing Egypt’s defensive position highlights possible underlying interests pertaining to the government. The macro-level political and economic deterioration witnessed in the years leading up to, and following, the 2011 revolution, combined with micro-level grievances among large sections of the population, arguably do not constitute favourable conditions for respected and stable government institutions. Hence, by maintaining the political status quo and showcasing the military’s abilities in combating terrorism, the government might be able to legitimize and consolidate its power, which was arguably undermined during the revolution. Incumbent president El-Sisi’s aversion to the Muslim Brotherhood, and Islamist sentiments in general, strengthens this argument. The Egyptian government has historically, with the exception of the short-lived Morsi regime, viewed the Brotherhood with distrust and agitation. This has continued under the rule of El-Sisi who has all but equated the organization’s threat to political stability with that of IS.

While the government has managed to consolidate support among its anti-Brotherhood constituents, societal-level polarization and disenfranchisement are surging due to the poor socioeconomic conditions facing large swathes of the Egyptian population. The increasingly hostile and anti-Islamist rhetoric propagated by the government, the staggering number of arrests and deaths that can be attributed to El-Sisi’s forces, as well as the government’s increased spendings on arms and weapon systems together paint a picture of a government wishing to consolidate its position in society through hard-power tactics. Returning to the question of WS, one might argue that this explains the media blackout imposed by the government on the Sinai, as well as the propaganda-esque coverage of the events transpiring in the peninsula. WS’s systematic targeting of civilians, coupled with the group’s organizational secrecy, would arguably make the group a dubious partner in a negotiated settlement.

If a peaceful resolution is to materialize, a reframing of the conflict is necessary at this stage. Instead of viewing the conflict as one between the Egyptian government and WS, it might be more useful to view it as one between the Egyptian government and its citizens populating the Sinai. In other words, the underlying interests of the Sinai population must be addressed if a peaceful solution is to be achieved. However, considering the political fragility afflicting Egypt since 2011 and the government’s tight control over the media narrative, recognizing this historical marginalization may be synonymous with accepting defeat in the eyes of the government. Selling out to the “terrorists” costing them tremendous amounts of money would not make a positive contribution to the image of a strong, legitimate regime.

An integrative solution which addresses the interests of both the Egyptian government and its citizens in the Sinai might be found in consulting the Arab League (AL). The AL’s specific interests pertaining to the MENA region, in addition to its prior investments in combating IS, make this organization a suitable third-party candidate. Given the unstable economic situation in Egypt, along with the grievances afflicting the Egyptian population as a whole, AL-imposed sanctions would likely be an unproductive measure. Instead, AL-issued development aid targeting the Sinai might be the most efficient way toresolve the underlying interests which led to the rise of WS, while simultaneously allowing the Egyptian government to “save
face” and thereby bring about peace. This could be supplemented by deploying AL peacekeeping forces to prevent further escalation.

Despite possessing the power resources of an internationally recognized nation-state with a monopoly on violence and rule-of-law, as well as significantly outnumbering WS in terms of manpower and presumably logistical capabilities, El-Sisi’s government has not yet succeeded in combating the Sinai insurgency. The political and economic fragility which has burdened Egypt for the past decade, the government’s response to the insurgency, as well as the current regime’s use of hard power tactics hint that El-Sisi’s government is undergoing a consolidation crisis. WS’s presence in the peninsula, on the other hand, appears to be somewhat consolidated. The continued socioeconomic marginalization of the Sinai also seems to be working in WS’s favour. However, viewing the conflict purely in terms of Egypt v.s. WS omits crucial factors which contributed to the outbreak of the conflict and the formation of ABM. If a peaceful solution is to be realized, a reframing of the conflict which addresses the underlying interests which led to the rise of WS is necessary.

By: Daniel Demitz-Halin

Photography: TripWays

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