North Africa, West Asia

Egypt’s interest in securing Sinai

Egypt's heavy-handed crackdown on the Sinai insurgency may need recalibration in order to gain the support of, rather than alienate, the indigenous Bedouin community

John-Paul Rantac
6 May 2014
The gas pipeline explosion in Sinai

The gas pipeline explosion in Sinai. Image: Demotix/Muhamed Sabry. All rights reserved.

When Egypt’s long-time president Hosni Mubarak fell at the behest of the people in 2011, one of the first of his crony institutions to collapse was the mabahith amn al-dawla, Egypt’s State Security Investigations Service, responsible – among other things – for security in the Sinai peninsula. Already a weak link in the Egyptian security chain, Sinai has since become a semiautonomous zone, proliferating with Salafi-jihadi groups, Bedouin militias, militant members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Al Qaeda.

To plug the security vacuum in Sinai, Egypt and Israel have made bilateral de facto modifications to their 1979 peace treaty, which imposed strict limitations on the number of soldiers and type of weapons Egypt could deploy in Sinai. The modifications have permitted a greater number of heavily armed Egyptian military forces into much of Sinai, resulting in a large-scale crackdown on the insurgency.

Egypt’s counterinsurgency effort however, has neglected any population-centric initiatives, resulting in casualties in the indigenous Bedouin communities. Egypt has failed to understand that insurgencies are antifragile – they grow stronger in chaos. Through the use of brute force, Egypt is providing fuel to the fire in Sinai, contributing to growing support for the extremists among the Bedouin. Projecting sovereignty across its entire territory is not a new problem for Egypt, but the revolution of 2011 and the coup d'état in 2013, have hastened Egypt’s need to quell the unrest. For Egypt to regain control of Sinai, at least at the level prior to the revolution, it is important to understand the changing dynamics of Sinai, and how this is impacting on security in the region.

The Muslim Brotherhood

The former head of Egypt’s armed forces, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi is almost certain to be elected Egypt’s next president. His main priority once in power will be to suppress the wave of Islamist anger that Egypt claims is being led by the Muslim Brotherhood, who consider the current government to be illegitimate following the overthrow of president Morsi in 2013.

However, the recent bombings that have swept through Cairo and other cities have largely emanated from Sinai’s most active militant group, Ansar Bayt Al Maqdis. Recently designated a foreign terrorist organisation by the US, the jihadi group has claimed responsibility for a host of terrorist attacks since the revolution of 2011, yet the Egyptian government has shifted the blame for the attacks and ensuing chaos onto the Muslim Brotherhood. Whilst this move has worked politically to discredit the group, it would be foolhardy for Egypt to heighten the threat of the Brotherhood whilst lessening that of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, when there are alleged links between them.

The accidental guerrilla

Sinai’s harsh and sparsely populated terrain, along with a lack of state governance, has provided the necessary conditions for Salafi-jihadist groups to build alliances with local Bedouin communities largely neglected by Egypt’s government. In a process labelled the ‘Accidental Guerrilla’ syndrome by David Kilcullen, Salafi-jihadi groups have moved into Sinai, infecting local Bedouin communities with their extremist ideology before spreading their influence and violence to mainland Egypt, Israel, and the Gaza Strip. This contagion effect has prompted a heavy-handed intervention by Egyptian forces, as noted previously, which has been rejected by Bedouin communities who view the state’s actions as a foreign invasion. Many Bedouin have now become ‘accidental guerrillas’, fighting alongside Salafi groups not necessarily because they support their ideology, but because they oppose outside interference in their affairs.

The accidental guerrilla syndrome has enabled extremist groups, including many foreign jihadis, to use Sinai as a launch pad for attacks on mainland Egypt. Extremists in Sinai have been conducting a decentralised operation, with low barriers to entry where new clusters of extremists can come and go as they please. As noted by John Robb in his book Brave New War, Sinai’s dynamic is similar to that of a bazaar, where extremist groups cooperate to share resources, intelligence and funds. As a result, Sinai is rapidly becoming a global hub for terrorist activities; its bazaar dynamic enables extremists to manufacture frequent small-scale attacks designed to hurt the Egyptian economy. By disrupting Egypt’s gas and tourism industries with bomb attacks on a pipeline delivering gas to Jordan and on a tourist bus in Sinai, extremists in the peninsula are maximising economic attrition. They hope this will delegitimise the Egyptian government as it creates a situation where it is the government who becomes responsible for Egypt’s economic failures. If Abdel Fattah Al Sisi fails to halt the attacks on Egypt’s economy, then it may not be too long before Tahrir Square is once again filled with demonstrators demanding change.

The Gaza Strip

As part of its campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi-jihadis in Sinai, who have been carrying out operations with their counterparts in the Gaza Strip, the Egyptian interim government has closed many of the tunnels used for smuggling weapons. These tunnels, however, were a lifeline for the Gaza economy and its people, supplying essential items such as food, medicines, medical equipment, and construction materials, which had been largely restricted following Israel’s economic blockade of the Gaza Strip in 2006. Al Jazeera has reported that the tunnel closures are creating monthly losses of $230 million to Gaza’s economy, with unemployment subsequently soaring.

By bleeding Gaza’s economy, Egypt is strategically attempting to undermine the legitimacy of Gaza’s Hamas government, which has been known to operate in Sinai and has close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt’s policy of isolating Hamas, however, is very dangerous as the most likely alternative to the group is the more extreme Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which was responsible for recent rocket attacks on Israel and is flush with Iranian cash and weaponry. By continuing to attack Hamas economically, Egypt will either throw Gaza into the clutches of a more militant Iranian proxy, or alternatively, leave it without a government, leading to an outpouring of violence likely to spread to Sinai before infecting Cairo.

Securing Sinai

To regain control of Sinai and prevent a total regional collapse, Egypt must address the socio-economic marginalisation of Sinai’s Bedouin, who have suffered decades of neglect by Egypt’s government. Egypt must resist the temptation of total war in Sinai, and instead invest billions of dollars towards long-term development in areas of housing, healthcare, water, land rights, and infrastructure. The economic benefits from South Sinai’s tourism industry, which has been largely accrued by Cairenes and foreigners, must also trickle down to Bedouin communities to provide a reliable long-term source of income. To finance such a large development project, Egypt will have to initially rely on foreign donors who have already pledged billions in aid, until the project becomes self-financing – once tourism revenue returns to pre-revolution figures as a result of a secure Sinai.

Through long-term investment in Sinai’s Bedouin, the Egyptian government could potentially gain the support of a community of around 600,000, who were previously enemies of the state. The creation of a pro-government Bedouin community will likely lead to a rejection of those extremist groups currently operating in Sinai, as communities look to defend their social and economic interests against outside attack.

From this analysis of Egypt’s interest in securing the Sinai peninsula, we can see that it is pivotal for Egypt to counter the rise of extremism that threatens the legitimacy of the government and the long-term stability of the region. Drawing from the work of guerrilla warfare expert David Kilcullen, it is important that extremists should no longer be considered ‘foreign bodies’; rather, they embed themselves into the fabric of communities with weak social, economic, and political conditions. Egypt’s new objective in Sinai therefore, should be to separate the extremists from Sinai’s fabric by reconciling and nurturing relationships with the indigenous Bedouin communities, to prevent the creation of further grievances that extremists can exploit.

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