Lessons from Sinai

Sinai has made headlines time and again after a series of attacks against Egyptian state security forces. A closer look at Sinai militancy offers a valuable insight into contemporary jihadist violence in the Middle East.

Steffen Schimko
17 February 2015
Sinai interior

Sinai interior. Wilson44691/Wikimedia commons (some rights reserved)

Amidst the violence that continues unabated in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and beyond, international media attention has recently been diverted to Sinai once again. The sparsely populated peninsula in Egypt's northeast, with its history of low-level Islamist insurgencies, has made headlines time and again after a series of attacks against state security forces over the last few years, most recently with a number of simultaneous attacks that killed dozens of Egyptian soldiers in late January.

Yet attention usually quickly returns to the more destructive, larger-scale conflicts in the region; as it did even after one of the peninsula's most infamous jihadist groups pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), re-naming itself Wilayat Sina, the 'Sinai Province' of the Islamic State. However, Sinai militancy offers valuable insights into the socio-economics and politics behind contemporary jihadist violence elsewhere in the Middle East.

A tale from Sinai

Socio-economically as well as politically, Sinai has been kept on the sidelines for decades. The local Bedouin population, which makes up between 55 and 70 percent of the peninsula's inhabitants, is largely excluded from Egyptian social and political life. While the tourism sector in south Sinai has been skyrocketing, attracting investment and workers from all parts of Egypt, the Bedouin who have lived there for centuries make up only a marginal part of hotels' and tour operators' workforce. They have little to no right to buy or own land, and Bedouin recruits are nowhere to be seen amongst the peninsula's security forces.

The region only attracted international attention in the mid-2000s, when a series of bombings struck the resort towns of Taba, Dahab and Sharm el-Sheikh. A wave of mass arrests ensued, worsening the already severe marginalisation of Sinai tribes. And while these resort bombings were considered only partially jihadist in nature, the resurgence of violence after the 2011 revolution showed strong Islamist underpinnings, with the appearance of groups like Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis.

Simultaneously, with the retreat of the Egyptian state following the revolution and the beginning of Mohammad Morsi's presidency, so-called sharia courts took over and filled the legal void in the peninsula, creating—at least judicially—a kind of Islamist sub-state in north Sinai. The Islamist courts, or “committees”, are highly respected for being less corrupt and more efficient than the overly bureaucratic Egyptian legal system.

This development seems strange considering that only a few years ago, local tribal society was regarded as 'pre-Islamic' by Salafi standards. But as many Salafists from Upper Egypt moved to the peninsula after the anti-Islamist crackdown following the Luxor massacre in 1997, a feeling of shared identity developed, as both Bedouins and Salafists encountered each other as marginalised groups within Egyptian society. As thousands of local Bedouin shared their prison cells with radical Islamists after the resort bombings, the narrative of Bedouin resistance slowly merged with that of Islamic jihad. 

As thousands of local Bedouin shared their prison cells with radical Islamists after the resort bombings, the narrative of Bedouin resistance slowly merged with that of Islamic jihad.

Local resistance with a jihadist narrative 

Not only have interests and identities merged, but the Bedouin response to structural violence has also acquired a holistic narrative, which might have played a crucial part in turning political passivity into violent resistance. After all, narratives form vital underpinnings for social action, since they collectively interpret reality and give it historical meaning. Thus, while the dire situation in Sinai has always been apparent to its inhabitants, the narrative of jihadism was able to frame it in a way that demands a certain line of action to resist these structures of exclusion and domination: violence. 

Hence, the result of this development goes beyond the formation of mere “accidental guerillas”, but in fact creates militant groups that fight for more than just the end of their oppression. Most attacks staged by Wilayat Sina still focus on members of the army and the police, as well as other installations of the Egyptian state (most famously its gas pipeline to Israel). But the group has increasingly added soft targets such as museums or foreign tourists to their portfolio, violating their ultraconservative interpretation of Islam. They have also beheaded alleged collaborators with Israel in ISIS-style executions, and uploaded the ordeal on their myriad internet platforms. So while the group is certainly overwhelmingly made up of locals from the peninsula joining to support the fight against Cairo, their objectives now stretch from liberation to the establishment of an Islamic caliphate.

In order to battle these efforts, security forces had every excuse to confine themselves to continuing and intensifying their time-honoured strategy of mass arrests, collective punishment, and declarations of state emergency. The government, in line with its campaign of degrading any organised Islamist movement in Egypt, haphazardly blames any incident of political violence on the late Muslim Brotherhood, even when Sinai-based groups claim responsibility. The Egyptian government is thereby intensifying the very tactics that contributed to the alienation of the Bedouin population and their ultimate radicalisation in the first place. Internationally as well, a purely security-based discourse has developed, in which Bedouin marginalisation is always duly mentioned and criticized, but ultimately ignored, only to propose even more ill-conceived, heavy-handed armed responses.

It thus comes with little surprise that, left in socio-economic deprivation, ruled by an authoritarian government, and under the constant threat of yet another military incursion, jihadist militancy appears to be the only form of agency left to the people in the Sinai. But how keen these groups are to advance the tribes' cause, in light of their bombing of civilian targets, remains doubtful; and this is exactly the trap into which the inhabitants of the peninsula have fallen.

What Sinai can teach us about Iraq

Moving from Sinai to Baghdad, one finds striking similarities between many parts of Iraq and Egypt's northeast. Both countries were, or are still, governed by autocrats who showed a rather selective policy towards their populations. Iraq's former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki quickly turned the tables in favour of the Shia population, after Saddam Hussein catered to the country's Sunnis under his rule. Maliki's sectarian policing in particular, deploying exclusively Shia police forces in Sunni-majority cities such as Mosul, created widespread resentment among Iraq's Sunnis. The break-up of a mostly Sunni anti-government sit-in by security squads in Ramadi in December 2013 finally tipped the scales, and many of the Anbar tribes quickly aligned themselves with the aspiring Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to battle Maliki's government.

The picture in Mosul also looks familiar. When reports came out that a staggering half a million people had fled the city after it was taken over by ISIS in June 2014, most observers believed they were fleeing the fighters of the Islamic State. But in fact, most of them fled not because of an Islamic militia taking over the city—they ran because they feared the counterattack of the Iraqi army.

But it was not only Baghdad they were afraid of. After the fall of Mosul, PM Maliki and Shia clerics called upon Iraq's Shia population to form militias in order to counter the advance of the Islamic State, through backing up the army with volunteers. Far from being ad-hoc brigades trying to defend communities from being slaughtered by ISIS squads, many of these militias are now out for revenge on Iraq's Sunni population for the crimes committed by the Islamic State. The same goes for the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, who have started to seize the opportunity to enlarge the territory of a future independent Kurdistan by ethnically cleansing multi-ethnic villages in northern Iraq, under the guise of preventing them from being re-taken by ISIS.

This approach of fighting jihadism blind to its sectarian and ethnic underpinnings has also been adopted in the Sinai. The U.S. has repeatedly justified its military aid to Egypt by referring to the government's efforts to combat "terrorism" in the peninsula, ignoring the staggering civilian casualties of Egypt's counter-terrorism campaign. It thus seems to be hard for an Iraqi Sunni or a Sinai Bedouin to be put off by ISIS's or Wilayat Sinai's brutality, since the violence committed by the Iraqi and Egyptian armies, to them, does not appear to be that different. As Rami Khoury recently pointed out, civilians whose livelihoods have been reduced to rubble during an anti-terror operation join militant groups “simply to exact revenge against those who attacked them.”

But sectarianism is only part of the story. Socio-economic neglect, lack of accountable state institutions and rampant corruption know no religious affiliation in Iraq. The overly centralized Iraqi state is regarded as illegitimate in Sunni-majority Mosul as in Shia-majority Basra. Poverty in Iraq is widespread, and even decades of sectarian favouritism by both Saddam Hussein and Maliki have not brought sustained fortunes to any religious or ethnic group. Historically, it has never really mattered what group an Iraqi politician belongs to—the nepotism and indifference towards the country's deprivation are the same.

The little that's left

Looking at these jihadist groups, as well as the actors that have started taking on their advance in Iraq, Syria and the Sinai today, little hope is left that the roots of extremism will be tackled anytime soon.

For one, the United States has committed a considerable share of its air force and training capacities to an open-ended campaign in two highly unstable countries, and keeps shipping military hardware to states that are engaged in lower-level operations against Islamic militants on their own soil. Washington is thus committing tremendous resources to fighting jihadists in the region, but at the same time refuses to stop reproducing the structures that nourish their flourishing. They might be degrading ISIS, but are in fact feeding extremism at large.

Washington is committing tremendous resources to fighting jihadists in the region, but at the same time refuses to stop reproducing the structures that nourish their flourishing.

What's more, the Arab states that have joined the war on ISIS are little different from the governments in Baghdad and Cairo. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has shown to be just as keen on beheading people it disagrees with as the Islamic State. It aided its neighbour Bahrain, also a member of the anti-ISIS coalition, to clamp down on mass protests during the Arab uprisings in 2011, not unlike Syria's response to public unrest that ultimately sparked the Syrian civil war and the subsequent growth of ISIS and the Nusra Front in its course. And most other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council—like Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates—have already become infamous for funnelling large sums to the exact same groups they have now vowed to fight against. How such a blend of coalition members is supposed to sustainably counter militant jihadism from Aleppo to Falluja appears dubious to say the least.

What's even more daunting is the fact that the marginalised communities that provide jihadist groups with most of their local support have little to expect from them—their plights stopped having a lot in common with these groups' goals a long time ago. Be it Wilayat Sinai's repeated attacks against Israel and targets in Cairo, or ISIS's ghastly punishment of people violating their rather peculiar interpretation of Sharia law, Islamic militias have become the proverbial genie that has left its bottle and doesn't plan on going back in anytime soon. After all, extremism has repeatedly shown to rather follow political or even strategic reasoning, instead of being ignited and driven by purely religious fervour.

Thus, even if a radical u-turn in responses to Islamic extremism was to take place, its prospects would look more than bleak. As the clashes between jihadist groups in Egypt, Iraq and beyond with their local and international adversaries intensify, little is changing for the millions living in degradation. The little that is left is the hope that one day, governments and policymakers will realise that political rights, socio-economic development and legitimate institutions are the best counter-extremism policy. Until then, autocrats and jihadists will have their way.

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