How Egypt is making IS bigger in Sinai
During Friday prayers, Egypt witnessed a massacre of 305 civilians and dozens of injuries in what seems to be a well-planned bomb and gun attack on al-Rawda Mosque in the Beir al-Abed village near al-Arish, the capital of North Sinai. This assault is not the first, but it is the biggest in Egypt’s recent history in terms of casualties. The ‘Islamic State’ (IS) militant group hasn’t claimed the operation yet, but their fingerprints are all over the scene: the nature of the target, the location, and the capacity deployed.
Unlike other groups like al-Qaeda, who mostly target military and police forces, IS, through its local affiliate militant group Wilayat Sinai (Sinai Province), is known for targeting civilians and state troops alike. Wilayat Sinai is the strongest, best-trained and apparently richest Islamist militant group in the province. Since the group declared its annexation to the then-newly-founded Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in 2014, highly organised operations against the Egyptian military, police and civilians have been executed, inflicting much pain to both the Egyptian state and the people.
The Egyptian state has not been quietly watching this escalation. On the contrary, a state of emergency has been enforced in Sinai since October 2014; many ‘anti-terrorism’ laws have been passed; and the Egyptian army, in cooperation with the police forces, is doing what they think is best to fight this group in the Sinai Peninsula. However, so far, there are no signs of victory for the Egyptian military. Worse, Egypt has just broken its historical record of civilian casualties in a single attack.
Strategically speaking, it’s important to understand how this operation and earlier ones, took place. But equally important, if not more, is the need, for once, to ask the very urgent ‘why?’ question. To stop this bloodbath, we first need to understand the reasons behind it. Why are the Sinai militant attacks on the rise, despite heavy military operations by the Egyptian army since 2014? Is violence a recent phenomenon in the peninsula, or does it have deeper roots there?
To answer these correlated questions, we have to understand one old, major element of the foundation of violence in Sinai, and two specific recent escalations that led to today’s highly complex situation on the ground.
The foundation of violence in Sinai goes back to the two decades following the October War in 1973 and the subsequent return by Israel of the peninsula to Egypt piece by piece. In the 1980s, the state made several promises of investment for development, none of which was fulfilled. In the mid-1990s, a new wave of development promises came from Cairo, and were met when Sinai became a hub for mega-tourist investments. However, none of these benefitted the peninsula’s marginalised population. Large areas, historically owned by the Bedouins, were taken from them by force and given to Mubarak’s business elite. The most significant ‘developmental’ change we can document is the opening of a window for locals to provide camel rides to tourists and play the exotic subjects in their photographs.
Credit should be given to the marginalised Bedouins of Sinai, who rejected the radical ideas and violence preached by the Mujahideens returning from Afghanistan in the 1990s. At the time, radicalisation and violence was hitting hard the rest of Egypt, as the returnees successfully recruited combatants among the Nile population. Sinai remained safe from that mess.
The first escalation only came after the unfortunate Taba bombings on the Red Sea coast in 2004, right after which radicalisation started happening in Sinai. Although the operation was found to be an al-Qaeda one planned from abroad, the security apparatus of Mubarak has persecuted, tortured and even murdered members of the Bedouin tribes in a lawless show of excessive power. This marked the beginning of success for militant elements from the Nile Valley and abroad seeking a hideout in the poor and geographically complex central and northern regions of the peninsula.
Mubarak’s apparatus brought the Nile valley security culture and practices, and made use of them against the Bedouins. The urban dictatorship came straight from the Nile banks into tribal territories in the desert, introducing the peaceful locals to state violence, torture, and murder, under the guise of emergency law and ‘fighting terrorism’. This was an act of dehumanisation, whose consequences no one could afford, neither then, nor now.
Following the short-lived 2011 revolution that brought down the tyranny of Mubarak, the 2013 military coup deposed the Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi with popular support. Since then, Egypt is living under the most repressive regime ever witnessed in its modern history. The country is now one of the world’s top jailers of journalists and political opponents. In line with this severe repression and state violence, Sinai witnessed a second and much bigger escalation of violence than in the aftermath of 2004 bombings.
This escalation is linked to changes on the ground since 2014, following a costly and bloody attack by Wilayat Sinai, which took the lives of more than 30 soldiers. Under the protection of the emergency state then reinstated, the army and police forces have significantly intensified their operations in the peninsula, particularly in North Sinai, which was accompanied by a media blackout. The media until today is unable to investigate or even superficially cover what is really happening in these military operations, and are told to only use military statements as a base for reporting. However, in the age of social media, a media gag on any topic is nothing more than a poorly-thought tactic that belongs to the pre-internet world. Many graphic videos of army and police violence against ordinary civilians of Sinai have been spreading on YouTube and other networks. Very quickly these videos have become rich material for IS recruitment propaganda. Recently, major social media platforms have started banning graphic footage, but the damage was already done. And it seems, from Friday’s operation as well as earlier ones, that despite the intensified military operations in Sinai, IS is only getting bigger and stronger.
The state’s war against militant groups in Sinai, and other parts of the country, should not only be seen from a military perspective. Military operations in the absence of the rule of law, human rights, respect for the local populations, transparency and media access on the ground, unfortunately serve as perfect material for militant groups’ recruitment.
A few hours after this massacre, the Union of Sinai Tribes issued a statement in solidarity with the al-Sawarka tribe, on whose territories the attacked mosque is. It says: “No condolences will be accepted for the victims of this attack until vengeance from these Takfiris is achieved. We will kill you without mercy. And we don’t have trials or prisons for you.” Participation of locals in the fight against Wilayat Sinai shouldn’t mean the lawless retribution suggested by this tribal union statement. If the Egyptian state allows such lawlessness in their military operations to continue, then this will be the beginning of a militia war, where no one will ever win. And Mubarak’s bloody snowball, which received a significant boost under al-Sisi, will only get bigger.
About the author:
Maher Hamoud is a Brussels-based academic researcher in Middle Eastern studies at Ghent University, former editor-in-chief of the Cairo-based Daily News Egypt and author of Chocolate Filling: Notes From Under The Belgian Crust. Follow him on Twitter @MaherHamoud1.
Another version of this article was published by the Cipher Brief.