Egypt’s Lost War in the Sinai

For the last eight years, the Egyptian armed forces have been fighting in the Sinai, with little success, against what is at once an Islamist insurrection and a tribal rebellion against the central state. After having failed to eradicate social and economic poverty among the Bedouins of the region, Egypt now seems to favour an alliance with certain tribes but has still not been able to subdue the guerilla movement.

July 26, 2018. — Egyptian policemen stand guarding at a checkpoint on a road leading to the North Sinai provincial capital of El-Arish.
Khaled Desouki/AFP

In the final season of the French TV espionage series Le Bureau des Légendes, the sheik of the Tarabins, a major tribe in the Sinai, is approached by the DGSE. He agrees to cooperate with the French secret service in exchange for information about the Islamists and demands military backing and employment for the young men of his tribe. The sheik describes the ills which plague Sinai youth: drugs, delinquency, unemployment, Islamism. His own son is no exception. Out of work, he collaborates with the Islamic State (IS) and ultimately organises a terrorist attack on a Cairo hotel. This episode roughly sums up what is at stake in the peninsula: ambiguous tribal manoeuvres, young people drawn to Islamism, intelligence services’ scheming…

At the junction of Africa and Asia, crossing point and buffer zone, the statute of this strategic territory bears traces of the various powers that have administrated it –Ottoman Empire, Anglo-Egyptian administration—, Israeli occupation and its transfer back to Egypt in 1982.

It was mostly the period of Israeli occupation which established an image of the area in the minds of the peoples of the region. The Sinai is perceived as a rampart against the “the Zionist invader,” a recovered portion of the motherland. Yet paradoxically that region of resistance and of great poverty is neglected by the central power structure. Cairo sees the Sinai as a land of backward Bedouins, rebels always ready to consort with foreigners and act as a “fifth column” undermining the country’s unity. As for the Bedouins, they see the Egyptian State as an umpteenth occupant (ihtilal masri).

The Sinai Peninsula is made up of deserts, barren mountains and deep valleys, coastal towns, an area where the tribes reign supreme: in short, an ideal geography for guerilla warfare. Having enjoyed relative peace since the treaty of reconciliation between the Tiyahas and the Tarabins in 1889 which had established boundaries separating the tribal lands and divided up the trade routes, the peninsula, ever refusing to bow down to a central government considered illegitimate, rebelled in 2011. This began as a classical tribal insurrection but quickly turned into guerilla warfare when criminal and transnational terrorist groups took it over.

Now that it has become an outlaw zone where the State is ineffectual, an unstable Sinai endangers the whole region. Terrified by Islamism, Egypt has deployed its troops in the Sinai since 2012 to restore peace and order. However, these goals are not about to be achieved: the fighting goes on and the Egyptian army has been unable to make allies of the tribes and local population.

The vicious circle of lawlessness and violence

North Sinai, one of Egypt’s poorest governorates, suffered the full brunt of the country’s neoliberal policies under the Mubarak presidency. The Egyptian State does not recognize common or tribal property and has dispossessed the Bedouins of a sizeable share of their land, converting it into tourist resorts in the south and industrial estates in the north. What are the choices left to them? In the south they manage to scrape together some of the crumbs from the tourist trade. In the north, the situation is more difficult: half the population is unemployed. The newly created jobs are taken by Egyptians from the Nile Valley, and by Sudanese or Chinese workers. Moreover, Bedouins are not allowed to join the army, the police or any other public service.

In the face of this economic and social marginalisation, the Bedouins resort to smuggling, especially since 2007 when Israel’s Gaza siege began. Tunnels were dug and they used them to supply the Palestinians with whatever they needed (food, concrete, cars, household appliances). This activity earns them between 300 million and 2 billion dollars per year and provides about a thousand jobs. Hence this smuggling has become as important for the survival of the Bedouins as for that of the Gazaoui.

In addition to this trade there is illegal trafficking, chiefly run by the Islamists. The peninsula serves as a way station for Libyan or Iranian weapons and for a despicable traffic in Erythrean and Sudanese migrants fleeing their war-torn countries, who are kidnapped and held for ransom ($30,000 per head). If the traffickers can’t get a ransom, they turn them into slaves or sell their organs. This hostage-taking business is said to have brought them 600 million dollars between 2009 and 2013.1

The extent to which Bedouins actually have a share in these criminal activities, which are not part of their culture, remains for the moment an open question. Be that as it may, their eventual dependence on them makes them inapt to collaborate with the central government … and discredits them in the eyes of the Egyptian public.

Tribal uprising and Islamist guerilla tactics

The Tahrir Square revolution in January 2011 marked a turning point and created a security void. The Bedouins took advantage of this situation to renegotiate the social contract, i.e., to demand greater political and economic autonomy. They were not the only ones. The movement was led from behind the scenes by dissident Salafist clerics preaching rebellion against Egypt and Israel. Local or transnational radical groups come together on this lawless territory and prosper: al-Qaida in Sinai, Tawhid wal Jihad (Monotheism and Jihad), Harakat Hasm (Movement of Decision) , and Takfir wal Hijta (Excommunication and Exile), an offshoot of a radical branch of the Muslim Botherhood. The most active group, Ansar Beit al Maqdis (The Jerusalem Partisans) proclaims its objectives in no uncertain terms: liberate Jerusalem and carry on the jihad against the Egyptian army, “ guardians of the Jews” and “soldiers of Pharaoh Sisi”. In November 2014, it changed its name to Wilayat Sanai (Sanai Province) and swore allegiance to Daech, adopting its methods as well: clientelism and manipulation of local rivalries.

Bedouins and Islamists have discovered common interests, especially economic ones. The tribes are opportunistic, they control the smuggling routes, organise the trade with Gaza and provide refuge for the Islamists who maintain a state of lawlessness favourable to their business dealings, provide them with weapons if necessary and share their financial earnings. In order to make allies of the Bedouin society, the Islamists exploit its sense of injustice and its desire for vengeance against the Egyptian power structure. If this is not enough, they pay for Bedouin support or resort to violence to enrol them by terror. And yet for the Islamist groups this is no more than a happenstance partnership. Indeed they have only contempt for the tribal structures of command which they associate with the Jahiliyya (period of ignorance before the advent of Islam).

While the Sinai has not been immune to the process of islamisation which has spread throughout the Arab-Muslim world over the past three decades, it still boasts powerful Sufi communities. The Bedouins are influenced both by their regular contacts with Islamist ideologues and Salafist preachers. It is the young men, poor as they are and with no jobs in view who are most easily drawn to radical Islam. Indeed, that egalitarian ideology challenges the patrilineal structure of Bedouin society and makes it attractive to Bedouins who hold no power within the tribe. And the discredit cast upon tribal chiefs appointed by the government in order to control the rank and file has decisively weakened the tribal structure. A number of Bedouins turn their backs on their Sufi upbringing and adopt Islamist ideas, thus blurring the boundaries between tribes and jihadi groups.

The failures of successive military campaigns

The flow of Libyan arms into the Sinai after the fall of Ghadafi, the convicts who made their escape in 2011 and the rise of Islamism form an explosive cocktail which has destabilised the peninsula and fuelled the uprising. After a truce under the Morsi presidency in 2012-2013 motivated by more lenient government policies (development projects, new property rights, negotiations with armed groups), the attacks are picking up again. At first, they were quite elementary (suicidal attacks, home-made bombs, pipeline raids), but became more sophisticated when the jihadist procured Russian-made ground-to-air missiles from Libya and were able to strike flying targets. In 2015, Sinai Wilayat used an anti-tank missile against an Egyptian ship off the coast.

The armed forces are not their only target. In January 2017, Sinai Wilayat posted on the Internet a propaganda video promising to take for its new target ”the infidels and apostates of Egypt and elsewhere.” There followed many attacks in the churches of Cairo, Alexandria and the Nile delta. In 2017, after many threats, hostage taking and executions in their homes, all the Copts in Al-Arish, the largest city in North-Sinai, simply fled. Nor are Muslims spared: they are subjected to Islamic law and prevented from celebrating their Sufi rites. In 2017 an attack on a Sufi mosque in Bir al-Abd, at the north end of the peninsula, left over 300 dead.

To deal with this uprising, the Egyptian army launched its own “war on terror”: once Morsi was ousted and the Botherhood banned, Sisi’s government has been fighting Islamism on every front. An Egyptian TV series, shown during Ramadan, El Ikhtiyâr (The Choice) sings the praises of the Egyptian army and tars with the same brush the Islamists who were democratically elected in 2012, and the Jihadists of Daech in the Sinai.

Since 2012, Cairo has launched one campaign after another in the region. In 2015, it launched Operation Eagle, establishing a buffer zone along the border with the Gaza Strip meant to cut supplies to the rebellion –a low-cost alternative to direct intervention– and unleashed that same year Operation Martyr’s Right, with the unofficial backing of the Israeli air force and then, in 2018, Operation Sinai. The methods used were borrowed straight from Israel: imposition of curfews, multiplication of checkpoints, random house search, destruction of “terrorists"’ homes, burning down whole villages… The effects of these mass punishments were the opposite of those intended. The army’s violence alienated the inhabitants and the Bedouins who sided with the armed groups.

The fact is that the army is using an outdated doctrine and conventional, inefficient methods to cope with an uprising in an unfamiliar region where it is incapable of gaining the upper hand. The Islamists, on the other hand, know the layout of the land and benefit from the passive support of the local population who consider the national army as a force of occupation: the perfect recipe for successful guerilla-fighting, as already described in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by Lawrence of Arabia apropos the 1917 Arab revolt.

The army forms an alliance with two tribes

The attack on the Bir al-Abd mosque had the effect of an electric shock on the tribes. Some regarded it as an outrage. In 2015, Sinai Wilayat executed a sheik belonging to the powerful Tarabin tribe which responded with a declaration of war: “We will have our revenge and will not rest in peace so long as we have not avenged those whose houses were destroyed, whose wives were killed, we shall get them alive or dead.” The Bedouins witnessed the tragic fate of the tribes in Iraq and Syria, victims of the rivalries orchestrated by Daech who manipulated the weaker and excluded tribes, placing them in a position of dominance the better to oversee the larger, powerful ones.

Which is why, in 2017, the Tarabins and the Suwarkas, two powerful North Sinai tribes, announced their alliance with the Egyptian army, and urged young people to abandon the Islamists. Concretely, they offered the army logistic support and intelligence. In exchange, they asked to be treated with respect, that their prisoners be freed and that the State cease to interfere in the designation of tribal leaders. The Tarabins have paid a heavy price for this struggle against the Islamists. Sinai Wilayat has destroyed the home of Ibrahim Al-Arjani, the sheik at the origin of that declaration, and each month they kidnap or kill tribe members (500 in all, of whom 300 have been decapitated since 2017).

In the meantime, the fighting doesn’t seem about to stop. The Islamists have grown stronger during these years of guerilla warfare. In May, Sinai Wilayat claimed responsibility for an attack on a vehicle which caused the death of ten soldiers at Bir al Abd; Egyptian security forces responded by killing 18 Jihadists. All of which is proof that a military treatment of the insurrection will not suffice. Something has to be done about its causes, i.e., the economic, social and cultural marginalisation inflicted on the Bedouins. A genuinely local tribal policy has to be defined. For indeed, this first alliance between the state and the tribes remains fragile. It concerns only a few tribes which are themselves fraught with internal divisions. The leaders of the largest tribes have their own agenda: restoring their diminished authority.

Without a real tribal policy, Egypt could easily lose control over the region altogether. In that case, there is a danger that the rivalry between the Egyptian power structure and the Islamists will become the key polarisation of the region and that the Sinai will become a new terrain for proxy confrontation between the various regional powers, considering the peninsula’s strategic location for trade, maritime transport, and oil and gas exports.

1Baptiste de Cazenove, “Sinaï, le désert des tortures”, Libération, 2014.