The peninsula is extremely unstable and a basket case, just the kind of place Islamic Sate is looking for.
This past Tuesday Egyptian security forces killed five suspected militants in ambushes on their hideouts in the Sinai Peninsula.
On the same day six policemen were killed when an explosion struck an armoured vehicle in North Sinai.
A few days earlier army forces had killed 10 terrorists and arrested 17 others in ambushes on their hideouts in Sinai.
And so it goes… on and on and on.
It seems not a day passes without somebody getting killed in Sinai. That’s because Egypt’s army and police are in the middle of an offensive against a rising wave of militancy, especially in Sinai, since the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi last year, and before him Hosni Mubarak.
Following the January 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak and his regime, Egypt became increasingly destabilised, creating a security vacuum in the Sinai. Radical Islamist elements in Sinai exploited the opportunity, using the unique environment, in launching several waves of attacks upon Egyptian military and commercial facilities.
But it was Mohamed Morsi’s presidency and its subsequent fall that opened the gates wide to militants. We now know that Morsi allowed in a large number of Jihadists bent on turning Egypt into a Muslim Brotherhood country. Then when Morsi was forced out in 2013, there was a dramatic increase in violence by armed Islamists which sought revenge for his ouster.
Some of the Sinai attacks have shaken the country, not least the recent beheading of four Egyptians, the first time that any decapitations had been made public in Egypt.
The insurgency is not confined to just one group but Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis appears to be the most active, the most organised and most deadly of the local jihadists, having claimed responsibility for a wave of attacks, including the December 2013 Mansoura bombing which killed at least 16 people, and which ultimately led the government to officially label the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation.
It was Beit Al-Maqdis which beheaded the Egyptians, accusing them of providing Israel with intelligence for an air strike that killed three of its fighters. The beheadings are now the all too familiar calling card of ISIL, the Islamic State now known as IS. Small surprise that links are growing between Ansar and IS which has been providing Ansar instructions on how to operate more effectively.
Following its rapid advances across Syria and Iraq, the IS could like to make Sinai part of its so-called caliphate. Sinai is a fertile and convenient environment for such ideology, particularly considering the presence there of jihadist factions said to be affiliated with IS. Thousands of Egyptian militants have also joined IS in Iraq and Syria. They could return home to fight the government.
Militants have also capitalised on the chaos in post-Gaddafi Libya to set up over the border. Based in Libya, they have forged ties with Ansar, creating a complex web of home-grown militants and international terrorists.
Furthermore, when Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007 it built tunnels which funnelled aid to the strip one way but returned jihadists and their weapons into Sinai the other.
Security provisions in the Egypt-Israel peace treaty of 1979 have reduced a security presence in the area, enabling militants to operate with a freer hand. The Camp David accords mandates that the Sinai must remain demilitarised, with only enough forces in Sinai to enforce security. In the two years since 2011, Israel has approved two Egyptian military increases in the Sinai Peninsula above levels set in the accords, but obviously more increases are needed.
Notwithstanding Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis announcing its allegiance or lack thereof to IS, the main fear is that the peninsula will become our worst nightmare, particularly if IS extremists unite with their Sinai counterparts to build their dream religious caliphate. It’s almost unthinkable but Sinai could become Egypt’s Iraq. The authorities might lose control of the peninsula, leading to its transformation into a playground for extremist terrorist organisations. It could happen. When it steamrolled through northern Iraq in June almost unopposed by the Iraqi military, IS in effect defeated an Arab army, one of the region’s largest. That’s how strong it is.
In response, Egypt has launched Operation Sinai, the ongoing military campaign to crush the Sinai insurgency. Army offensives have indeed squeezed Ansar but at the same time the attacks have forced its members to flee to other parts of Egypt where it could make it more difficult for intelligence agencies to track the group and where they can still pose a security threat.
To stave off this insurgency, albeit budding, Cairo must do more than take the fight to the militants; it must address the legitimate grievances of Sinai’s inhabitants. It should distribute resources more equitably, and integrate the Bedouin into all aspects of public life. By design or mismanagement, limited government investment and development in Sinai has not reached the local Bedouin populace. According to The Economist, the Bedouins have long-standing concerns against the central government in Cairo, claiming they are barred from joining the army or police, find it hard to get jobs in tourism, and complain that many of their lands have been taken from them. The combination of Sinai’s harsh terrain and lack of resources have kept the area poor and hence ripe for militancy. Sinai’s armed Bedouins are so exasperated that they probably would not hesitate joining Islamist extremists in their battle against the government, if some have not already done so.
Sinai is a basket case. Its native Bedouins suffer from economic deprivation and political alienation. Securing the Sinai Peninsula in the long term requires that the government, with the assistance of the international community, seriously addresses the problems of the Bedouins, improves their socioeconomic status and ultimately facilitates their inclusion into the fabric of Egyptian society.
Mubarak’s neglect of the Sinai has come back to haunt Egypt. His status quo policy on Sinai brought bombings of its resorts between 2004 and 2006, with a combined death toll of about 130, as well as a spate of clashes between Bedouins and police and tourist kidnappings. And now Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis and Islamic State.
One Egyptian president after another has crushed militant groups but they have always resurfaced. President Al-Sisi has restored some political and physical stability. But militant groups still present a major challenge, as do the people of Sinai who should not be regarded as second class citizens nor should they feel they are. They have been neglected for decades by previous administrations and it is now up to the present government, which already inherited so many problems, to take on one more.
There must be a response more than equal to the escalating terrorist threat in the Sinai.
Alaa Abdel-Ghani is an affiliate professor, Faculty of Journalism, American University in Cairo.