As the security and political situation in mainland Egypt continue to deteriorate after the 30 June Tamarod (rebel)
protests led to President Morsi’s ouster, likewise the Sinai Peninsula has been rocked with turmoil. In the immediate aftermath of the Egyptian military’s intervention in early July, parts of North Sinai, a lawless region bordering Israel, have witnessed an uptick in violence. Even before these events, there were consistent skirmishes between the inhabitants of North Sinai and security forces stationed there, such as attacks on security posts and the kidnapping of Egyptian soldiers as ransom for the release of jihadist prisoners. However, as Cairo-based journalist Sophia Jones reports for The Daily Beast, the most recent developments pose a unique strategic challenge for any new leadership in Cairo; Jones offers fascinating insight into the society and politics of the Peninsula in, “Battle for the Sinai”:
When Khaled Saad answers his phone there is often a voice on the other end threatening to behead him. “It’s the jihadis, I assume,” he says calmly, but his exhaustion is palpable.
Saad is an activist fighting for the rights of the Bedouin in the Sinai Peninsula, but that long struggle in a largely lawless region has grown ever more complicated and dangerous. Now a spate of killings, apparently unleashed by the tumultuous overthrow of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s government, has made things still worse in this strategically critical region on the border with Israel.
Over the last few years, violent jihadists have tried to fill a power vacuum in the Sinai. This is standard operating procedure for groups sympathetic to the goals of al Qaeda; they move in wherever state control is weak and local resentments are high. But the Sinai holds a geographically key position: it is next to Gaza. Its smugglers are a vital lifeline between that Hamas-ruled enclave and the outside world. The other end of the border is next to the Israeli resort town of Eilat, where authorities found an unexploded rocket in early July.Saad says the ideals of the peninsula’s militant groups are not native to the Sinai. The jihadists have come to Egypt with outside money and weapons, he says, and their numbers are relatively small. But the people of Sinai can only wait so long for the military to crack down on the jihadists, which it seemed reluctant to do under Morsi’s Islamist government. In the end, says Saad, it might be up to the people—not the army or the state—to crush these terrorist groups.
But it would be best if they could work together with forces from Cairo.
“The longer an interim government is ruling Egypt, the more likely it is that terrorism will not subside,” says Omar Ashoura, a fellow at the Brookings Center in Doha who specializes in jihadism. Strong leadership is required, he says, and a balance of civilian and military action to quell the extremist violence. If not, he warned, the Sinai could well become a battleground affecting the whole country and the region.
What any government in Cairo is going to have to recognize is that urgent attention needs to be paid to the Sinai. On July 5, masked gunmen fired rocket-propelled grenades at the airport in the North Sinai town of Arish and attacked government checkpoints, killing at least six police officers and soldiers. Since then there have been nearly daily attacks. Dozens more police officers, soldiers, and civilians have died, a natural-gas pipeline to Jordan was bombed, and on July 6, gunmen murdered a Coptic Christian priest and kidnapped another Copt whose body turned up last week, bound and beheaded. Just this morning, suspected militants in North Sinai fired an RPG at a civilian bus as they screamed “Allahu akbar!,” killing three people and injuring at least 17.
The Bedouin who are native to this region famous as the “wilderness” of the Old Testament have their tribal laws and their own way of life. But rather than understand that and work with them, Cairo has tended to treat them as incorrigible renegades to be oppressed, ignored, or, worse still, exploited by politicians for their own purposes.
When Morsi was elected last year, Abu Ashraf, a powerful Bedouin leader in the Sawakra tribe who often serves as a mediating voice with the jihadists, says he had hope for a new chapter in Sinai.
(…) Abu Ashraf noted that because of the lax security in the Sinai, jihadists and locals have, at times, joined forces to fight the central government, especially families who have members facing arrest in absentia. Young, unemployed men have also joined jihadi groups. While most of the attacks have not been directly linked to Islamist militants opposed to Morsi’s ousting, Abu Ashraf said there is an obvious anger among jihadists who feel the army is attacking Islam. There is also a rising level of resentment among the local population who are more willing now to fight government-sponsored injustice. He maintains that the army often instigates aggression in Sinai. Asked about the recent attacks by extremists, he replies: “Violence creates violence.”
Other recent reports of the region are included below:
In Egypt’s Sinai, Militants Intensify Attacks
Military attack helicopters rattle over the impoverished desert towns of northern Sinai and the sound of gunfire erupts nightly, raising fears among
residents of a looming confrontation between Egypt’s military and Islamic militants who have intensified attacks since the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi. Militant groups have grown bolder, striking security forces almost daily and also turning on local Christians. Some are now openly vowing to drive the military out of the peninsula on the borders with Israel and Gaza and establish an “Islamic emirate.” Further fueling the turmoil is the longtime resentment among many in the Bedouin population over decades of neglect and harsh security crackdowns by the state. The military and security forces have widened their presence, and military intelligence officials told The Associated Press an offensive is being planned, but no further details were given. In a rare move, the Egyptian military sent a helicopter across the border to fly over the southern end of the Gaza Strip early on 12 July. Egyptian security officials said it was intended as a warning to its Hamas rulers amid concerns that Gaza militants are trying to cross to back those in the Sinai. The security and intelligence officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press. Israeli security officials say their military has not taken any special precautions, but it is watching the situation carefully. They say they remain in close contact with their Egyptian counterparts, and that Egypt has coordinated its security moves in Sinai with Israel, as required by their 1979 peace treaty. “The situation is not secure. It is better to be home than to go out into the street,” said Moussa el-Manaee, a resident in the northern Sinai town of Sheikh Zuweyid, which has a heavy presence of jihadi groups. “I am afraid to ride my car and catch a stray bullet.” Sinai has been the most lawless corner of Egypt since the ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak in early 2011, with increased violence. Police stations were torched and security forces kicked out of tribal areas where they were notorious for abuses. Shootings took place regularly on police and military outposts. But after the military deposed the Islamist president on July 3, militant groups have lashed out. (…) For militants in Sinai, however, restoring Morsi is not the priority — they have said their goal is to drive out the military and the authority of the central government. His removal, however, took away a leader seen as reining in security crackdowns.
(…) Extremist groups in Sinai had a complicated relationship with Morsi. The groups reject as too moderate the ideologies of his Muslim Brotherhood and even of the ultraconservative Salafis, viewing their participation in elections as heresy. Instead, they demand imposing a strict implementation of Shariah. Salafis often mediated with militants and urged them to give the president a chance. The Salafis have wide influence in Sinai, and many of them sympathize with the extremists’ goals, if not their violent methods. At the same time, Morsi warned against heavy security crackdowns that fueled local outrage in the past, preferring negotiations and promises of development. Critics accused him of being reluctant to go after militants for fear of alienating ultraconservative allies, while locals say his government failed to improve the quality of life in Sinai. The approach emerged in two major attacks the past year. Last Ramadan — in August — just weeks after Morsi took office, gunmen killed 16 Egyptian soldiers, stole armored vehicles and drove into Israel to attempt an attack there. The military responded with a major security operation in Sinai. (…) Soon after, Morsi said security forces had a chance to strike at suspects but did not in order to avoid killing civilians. The suspects have not been named and remain at large. Then in May, militants kidnapped six policemen and a border guard. Morsi vowed to track them down but also warned against a heavy hand that could hurt the captives or the captors. After a week, the seven were freed, apparently after Salafi mediation. The kidnappers were never caught. (Yahoo News, Associated Press)
Jihadists Denounce Attacks by Egyptian Army in Sinai
In a statement posted to jihadist forums on July 6, al Salafiyya al Jihadiyya denounced the Egyptian army for firing on protesters in the city of el Arish in North Sinai. The statement, titled “Regarding the Crimes of the Army Elements Against the Protesters in Arish,” was obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group. The Salafi jihadist group charged that the Egyptian army had opened fire and wounded at least 21 people who were protesting “in front of the district building in Arish during afternoon prayers on 5 July.” “The matter cannot be denied, for the cameras and videos had recorded it and the video is on the internet,” the statement said. According to al Salafiyya al Jihadiyya, the incident is “a continuation of the series of crimes against the people and sons of Sinai.” “The people of Sinai in general will not stand aside, and the rise of the people of Arish after this crime and their taking control of the district building and expelling the army is only an example of that,” the group said. Jihadists are said to have overtaken the district building in el Arish and raised a black al Qaeda flag on 5 July. The Salafi jihadist group further stated that there must “a decisive stand against the war that has been declared by the enemies of Islam in Egypt against Islam and the Shariah of Allah and in which the police and the army participated alongside the secularists and the Christians.” A representative of al Salafiyya al Jihadiyya in Sinai recently announced the formation of a new front, “Ansar al Sharia in Egypt,” in the wake of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster. The group is getting ready for a fight, saying it will “make preparations and acquire means of power such as weapons and training,” according to a statement obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group. In addition to the statement by al Salafiyya al Jihadiyya, a statement announcing the establishment of the Brigades of Abdullah Azzam in Egypt was posted to jihadist forums in early July. According to SITE, the statement was posted to the Shumukh al-Islam forum, but was subsequently removed by administrators. (…) The group concluded its statement by warning that “the traitors and the agents of the Jews and the Christians” must be wary as “what we have to say to them is what you will see and not what you hear. You will only see from us, Allah the Almighty permitting, what will harm you.” (Long War Journal)
2 Killed in Attack in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula
An Egyptian security official says militants have attacked a security checkpoint in the Sinai Peninsula, killing at least two people. The official says the gunmen stormed the post in an area called Sadr Haitan in central Sinai early on 10 July. He says six people were wounded in the attack. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the press. (…) Officials said earlier that a total of five policemen killed by militants in shootings around the Sinai city of el-Arish in early July. (Yahoo News, Associated Press)
Egypt: Coptic Priest Killed in Sinai
A Christian priest has been shot dead in the northern Sinai in what could be the first sectarian killing since the military overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi, as funerals took place for at least 36 people killed between 5 and 6 July in demonstrations and rioting. Mina Aboud Sharween was attacked in the early afternoon on 6 July while walking in the Masaeed area in El Arish, which is close to the Gaza Strip. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood criticised Pope Tawadros, spiritual leader of Egypt‘s 8 million Copts, for giving his blessing to the removal of the president and attending the announcement by the head of the army, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, suspending the constitution. (Guardian)
Egyptian Soldier Killed by Gunmen in Sinai
Gunmen have shot dead an Egyptian soldier during an attack on a checkpoint in the restive north of Sinai, a police official said. The attack took place near the town of El-Arish on 7 July, where Islamists this week stormed the provincial headquarters and raised the banner of Islamist fighters. Earlier on 7 July, armed men attacked four security checkpoints in the North Sinai town of Sheikh Zuweid, close to Egypt’s border with Israel and the Gaza Strip, part of an upsurge of violence there since the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi. Gunmen in pickup trucks exchanged gunfire with soldiers and police in the lawless province early morning, but there were no casualties, security sources said. (Al Jazeera)
Israel Okays Entry of Egyptian Infantry Units to Sinai
Israel has granted an Egyptian request to deploy two infantry battalions in the Sinai Peninsula’s El-Arish and Rafah sector due to the increased terror activity in the area and the attempt on the life of a senior Egyptian officer. The Israel-Egypt peace treaty states that the Syrian army is forbidden from entering the said region. (YNet News)
Five Militants Killed in Army Operation in Sinai: MENA
Five gunmen were killed in North Sinai on 12 July as part of an ongoing military operation to combat militants in the region. A security operation resulted in the deaths of five gunmen, security sources told the state-owned MENA news agency, adding that 37 suspected militants have been killed in North Sinai since 30 June protests. Forty-two others have been injured, the source said. On 13 July, Apache helicopters targeted a vehicle reportedly containing gunmen after an earlier attack on Arish airport. Security sources said the aircraft, which fired on the vehicle, is likely to have killed three people and injured others. The army is continuing combing operations in the area. Eyewitnesses said Apache helicopters were still flying over Arish on 13 July afternoon, reportedly to pursue gunmen and ensure no civilians appraoched the targeted vehicle. (Egypt Independent)
Background Analysis: Islamic Justice in the Sinai
Justice comes slowly to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, and sometimes not at all. In August 2012, local security officials announced that they were searching for 120 militants wanted on charges of attacking police stations and killing 16 Egyptian soldiers at a military post near the border with Israel. Six months later, they’re still looking. Police are few and far between, and those who do patrol the streets are increasingly the victims of the same crimes they are trying to prevent. Police cars are hijacked in broad daylight while officers are gunned down by masked assailants in a climate of brazen banditry and lawlessness that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu famously described as “a kind of Wild West.” The 23,500 square mile Sinai desert has long been a sanctuary for militant Islamist groups and smugglers operating along Egypt’s porous border with the embargoed Gaza Strip. But despite their strategic significance, the two governorates of North and South Sinai are among Egypt’s poorest and most politically marginal, accorded a mere four seats each in the 508-member People’s Assembly. Decades of neglect and economic discrimination by the central government have fueled resentment among the Bedouin tribes that account for around 70 percent of the Sinai’s 500,000 residents. It is estimated that only 10 percent of the Bedouins are formally employed, and one out of every four does not possess a government ID card. Their many grievances — including legal obstacles to land ownership, lack of basic public services, job discrimination, and systematic exclusion from military and police academies — have reinforced a climate of mutual distrust between the central government and the Sinai. A natural incubator for economic and political unrest, the Sinai is increasingly taking on the characteristics of a breakaway state playing by its own rules in the security vacuum left behind by the disintegration of former President Hosni Mubarak’s police state. As one Sinai resident described the abrupt withdrawal of security forces in the early days of the uprising, “The police left the city on January 29, 2011 at 4 p.m. heading to Cairo and never came back.” Deteriorating security conditions have made the Sinai a magnet for drug and arms dealers. While Egypt’s formal economy is in a tailspin, a multi-million dollar black market in trafficked goods — ranging from stolen organs to hashish to surface-to-air missiles — is quietly thriving in the hundreds of tunnels linking Sinai to Gaza. This underground economy has brought much-needed revenue to one of Egypt’s poorest regions, but with it has come an unwelcome wave of crime and rising extremism. Since the revolution, the Sinai has seen 14 different attacks on the pipeline supplying natural gas to Israel and Jordan and many more carjackings, armed assaults, attacks on military and police property, and most recently a foiled bomb plot apparently targeting a church in Rafah. (Foreign Policy)
Since our most recent update on the Middle East and specifically, “In Review: Background to Egypt’s ’30 June’ Movement,” sent out on 3 July, everyday has brought about new developments for the country as a whole. For excellent, up-to-date reporting and analysis on post-30 June developments, journalists working for the Egypt Independent who were recently laid-off due to the newspaper’s controversial closing, reorganized and launched Mada Masr on 1 July 2013.
Topic Debate: Egypt’s Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation places the blame squarely on President Morsy inForeign Policy,“BlameMorsy: How to Wreck a Country in 369 Days.” Hanna argues, “Let’s not forget how we got to this grim point. On the night of June 30, in the face of unprecedented, nationwide mass mobilization and protest, Morsy was politically wounded, his legitimacy undermined, his ability to govern Egypt irreparably damaged. (…) The fateful, misguided decisions made throughout his tenure and in the run-up and aftermath of the June 30 protests have now put Egypt on the cusp of civil strife and violent conflict. An intransigent, isolated president chose to ignore reality and set the country on the course for an undeniably unfortunate military intervention into civilian politics. While Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood will undoubtedly now assume their more familiar role as victims, significantly aided by the brutality and stupidity of a repressive Egyptian security sector, the primary responsibility for Morsy’s ouster and Egypt’s perilous state resides with the deposed president and his Brothers. None of this was inevitable.” (Foreign Policy)
Olga Khazan, The Atlantic’s Global Editor, argues that the Egyptian Army’s killing of pro-Morsi protesters on 8 June, in which 51 people were killed and hundreds were injured, indicates “the extreme downside of the fact that thecountry is controlled, even if temporarily, by unchecked soldiers.” Khazan provides a useful historical analysis of how the Army came to be Egypt’s most powerful institution, unrivaled even today: “By 2011, the army’s political and military might was unparalleled. The Times detailed how the army was operating a lavish hospital and a fleet of luxury Gulfstream jets. The interim armed forces government, which governed the nation between Mubarak and Morsi, put foreign NGO employees on trial, leading to the sentencing and expulsion of 43 such workers. The military absorbs most of the aid the U.S. continues to send to Egypt. It’s now the largest army in Africa and one of the largest in the world, and by developing an extensive network of businesses, it has also become a dominant economic force, controlling between 10 and 30 percent of the economy and employing hundreds of thousands of Egyptians. In a Pew Research Center poll conducted in March, 73 percent of Egyptians said the military had a good influence on the country, making it more popular that most of the country’s other political parties. (…) “The struggle over the narrative now is going on between the Brotherhood and the military — what really happened here and who’s responsible,” Robert Springborg, an expert on the Egyptian military at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, said. “The outcome of that will determine the future of Egypt. If the military looks like it’s killing good Muslims, they’re in big trouble. But if people get behind them and say the army is defending people against the Brothers, they’ll maintain their political position.” (The Atlantic)
Irrespective of who is to blame for the current turmoil in Egypt, as Eric Trager, the Next Generation Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, argues in Foreign Affairs, “The Muslim Brotherhood Won’t Back Down”: “The Muslim Brotherhood is unwilling to give up on itsconfrontation with the Egyptian military for two reasons: it doubts that the military is unified in favor of the ongoing crackdown and it knows that it can count on its legions of members to continue risking death to protest. The Brothers are likely right about both, but that does not mean that they will win. After only one year in power, during which its blatantly autocratic behavior alienated millions of Egyptians, the Muslim Brotherhood is back where it started. For six decades before the 2011 uprising, the group sat in the opposition, under fire from a military regime. This time, even after security forces unseated President Mohamed Morsi, detained top Muslim Brotherhood leaders and reportedly issued arrest warrants for about 300 more, shut down the group’s television station, closed some of its offices, and then killed 53 and wounded hundreds at a demonstration outside of the Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo, the Muslim Brotherhood does not seem ready to go quietly. It has called for an intifada and has repeatedly vowed escalate its protests until Morsi is reinstated. (…) Historically, however, the Muslim Brotherhood has been willing to compromise, albeit temporarily, on such principles when faced with an insurmountable adversary. (…) Yet remarkably, and despite having little chance of success against the military, the Muslim Brotherhood seems ready to continue taking on the brass for two reasons. (…) First, the Brothers doubt that the military is unified in favor of the ongoing crackdown. (…) Second, the Muslim Brotherhood knows that it can count on its legions of members, around 250,000 by conservative estimates, to continue risking death to protest Morsi’s removal.” (Foreign Affairs)
Nathan Brown, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University, provides anoptimistic yet realistic outlook for “Redoing the Egyptian Revolution: How to Get the Transition Right this Time”: “The Egyptian uprising of 2011 was about many things, but one rallying cry that united almost all Egyptians was the need for a new constitutional order — one that would promote democracy and ensure that the government serves the interests of the entire society. (…) Now Egyptians will try, once more, to realize a democratic and stable future. Unfortunately, they may not achieve their original goal any time soon. (…) That is not because Egyptians have no constitutional tradition. They do; it dates back further than that of many European countries. Nor is it because the Egyptian constitutional tradition lacks sophistication, richness, or poplar resonance. It has all these things. What Egypt lacks, however, is a sound tradition of constitution writing. Mundane procedural problems were the Achilles heel of the 2011 transition, and now the body that made all those mistakes, the Egyptian military high command, has delivered a new road map. Not only is this new plan riddled with some of the same flaws as the old one, it will be put in place in an atmosphere that is anything but conducive to success. (Foreign Affairs)
Max Fisher, writer for The Washington Post, voices his concern for the country’s future political stability arguing “Why Egypt’s Crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood is Bad for Everyone”: “Focus, just for a moment, on where Egypt isright now, rather than on how it got there, important though that is. These three things are true: (1) the MuslimBrotherhood is still a big political player in Egypt, with lots of supporters and weight in society; (2) it’s in the middle of an existential dilemma, a choice on whether it should continue to try to work within the system or oppose it outright; (3) the military government is cracking down fiercely on the Brotherhood, issuing arrest warrants for top leaders including supreme guide Mohamed Badie. Those three things are a potentially dangerous combination for Egypt, and not just for the Brotherhood. The military crackdown sends a strong signal to the group and its leaders, deliberately or not, that they are not welcome in the Egyptian political system they dominated until one week ago. That would seem to make the Islamist group much, much likelier to oppose the system from the outside. And that makes Egypt’s democratic experiment significantly less likely to ever really get off the ground. (Washington Post)