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Crisis in northern Sinai worsens

Published in Egypt

By Afro-Middle East Centre

On 24 October 2014, an armed attack on an Egyptian security detail in the Sheikh Zuweid area of Egypt’s North Sinai Governorate left more than thirty soldiers dead and dozens wounded. Details of the attack are still unclear, but the Egyptian government immediately declared a three-month state of emergency in the governorate, and deployed additional military and security troops to the region, adjacent to Egypt’s eastern border with Gaza and Israel.

Cairo also indefinitely closed the Rafah Crossing with Gaza, and postponed indirect negotiations between Hamas and Israel, scheduled for the end of October in Cairo. Subsequently, the Egyptian authorities began establishing a buffer zone along Egypt’s border with Gaza, ranging from 400 metres to two kilometres, thus forcing thousands of residents in the area from their homes and agricultural lands.

Given the declaration by the Egyptian president, Field Marshall Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, that the attack aimed to break the will of Egypt and of its army, and that his government would take all necessary measures to combat terrorism in Sinai, it is likely that the state’s actions in north Sinai will extend further. Local human rights activists have reported that Egyptian army units have unleashed a harsh campaign against residents in the area who are suspected of embracing militant groups.

Cairo’s strategy in Sinai raises several questions. To what extent can the Egyptian government’s approach succeed in containing the escalating wave of armed violence in this highly turbulent region? Is the decision to establish the buffer zone aimed at helping counter-terrorism efforts in North Sinai, or is it designed to achieve other goals?

A troubled governorate

The recent attack was not the first against Egyptian army forces in Sinai’s north and east, but it was the deadliest. Since mid-2012, six major attacks and several minor incidents have occurred. The first, known as the ‘Rafah Massacre’, occurred on 5 August 2012, and killed sixteen soldiers at a border crossing. Shortly thereafter, the former president, Mohammed Morsi, dismissed the defence minister and the army commander-in-chief. Morsi’s political efforts and major development plans for north Sinai resulted in a period of calm in the region, which extended beyond his ouster until the ‘Second Rafah Massacre’ on 19 August 2013, which left twenty-five military personnel dead. On 11 September 2013, the military intelligence building on the Egyptian side of Rafah was bombed, causing eleven fatalities. Eleven soldiers and four military personnel were also killed in attacks in al-Arish and Rafah in November 2013 and June 2014 respectively.

According to official statements, last month’s attacker was a suicide bomber driving a vehicle. Leaked images show large-scale damage, including the destruction of armoured military carriers, which implies that this was more than a mere suicide car bomb, and might have been a mortar attack. Significantly, official statements offered no explanation for the deployment of such a large number of military personnel at a small military checkpoint. Adding to the mystery, no party has yet claimed responsibility for the attack.

The presence of Salafi groups in north Sinai, according to al-Jazeera Centre for Studies, arises from the permeation of the jihadi Salafi movement into the region during the 1990s. Most early Salafi organisations vanished or split, and, ultimately, two main groups emerged. The first aims to support the Palestinian resistance movement by attacking the Israeli occupation and its influence in north Sinai. The second believes that the Egyptian government’s injustice and tyranny against the people of Sinai, and its complicity with Israel, has made it illegitimate and it should be resisted and toppled.

Attacks by militant groups in the north and south of Sinai during the 1990s and early 2000s resulted in the Egyptian government waging large military and security campaigns in the region. However, these have worsened the situation.

Most of north Sinai’s population of less than 750 000 live in the coastal strip extending from al-Qantarah al-Sharqiyya, past the town of Bir al-Abed, to the Egyptian Rafah on the border with the Gaza Strip. The governorate’s capital, al-Arish, is the most heavily populated area.


Most of north Sinai’s population fall into two main categories. The first comprises Bedouin tribes, especially al-Tiaha, al-Sawarka, al-Turabin, al-Rumailat, al-Mesaieed, and other small tribes of Taee origin who settled in the villages and towns of the small governorate. They are involved in agriculture and animal husbandry. Some tribes have links with corresponding tribes in the south of Palestine and in Jordan, and predate the advent of Islam in the region; others are the result of successive waves of immigrants over centuries, and are strongly attached to Sinai and the land.

The second category includes the descendantsof immigrants from the Balkans and the Caucasus who were brought to al-Arish by the Ottoman Empire in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to protect the coastal road and maintain its security.

During their long occupation of Egypt, the British separated the Sinai Peninsula from the Nile Valley, and Nile Valley citizens – including government employees – had to obtain permits to enter Sinai. For reasons which have never been clear, the Egyptian Republic maintained similar administrative restrictions during the Nasser era. Such coercive separation had serious economic and social repercussions. Life in north Sinai became a real struggle for survival, and relations between local residents and those in Gaza (which was under Egypt’s rule at the time) were consolidated.

Prolonged separation and the reluctance of successive Egyptian administrations to open the doors of the military, security and bureaucratic establishments to the people of north Sinai created a cultural and social chasm between the tribesmen and al-Arish residents, on the one hand, and state officials from the Nile Valley who took control of north Sinai resources, on the other. Egypt’s state officials have been unwilling to respect the values of honour, revenge and affinity prevailing in north Sinai, and often cannot even understand the Arab accents spoken there.

After the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and despite the involvement of many Sinai residents in resisting Israeli occupation, the Israelis treated the tribal chiefs with a degree of respect. They provided health and education services, opened Sinai markets to those in Gaza and other parts of Palestine, and introduced new technologies in agriculture and animal rearing which contributed to tangibly improving social and economic conditions. After the Israeli withdrawal and Egypt’s retaking control of the peninsula, Sinai residents expected Cairo to honour its pledges of comprehensive development in the region. However, the only projects implemented by President Hosni Mubarak’s government were related to tourism development, mainly in south Sinai.

Tourism, which is linked to large foreign companies, provided limited economic opportunities to locals, and also surprised Sinai communities. It allowed the entry of foreign and unacceptable moral values, ignited conflicts over land ownership and exposed the Egyptian government’s complicity in keeping Sinai open to the Israelis – all of which paved the way for the entry of religious groups, especially Salafis.

Egyptian military campaigns launched in the 1990s and 2000s were characterised by excessiveviolence and disrespect, which reflected and exacerbated the enormity of the existing cultural and social distance between the establishment and Sinai society. Inevitably, they failed to eliminate militant organisations which have become well-established within the local community.

In the post-2011 uprising period, the religiosity of Sinai society and the gap that had existed between it and the Mubarak regime meant that most Sinai voters supported Morsi in presidential elections. After the first Rafah incident, Morsi realised the need for a new relationship between Cairo and Sinai, and intensified interaction between his office and tribal figures, heads of families and human rights and Islamic activists in Sinai. The government of Prime Minister Hesham Qandil also embarked on a comprehensive Sinai development project costing more than four million Egyptian Pounds.

Real war situation

The coup d’état against Morsi caused suspicion and re-established the previous fear-based relationship between Cairo and Sinai residents. With the launch of large-scale military operations after the second Rafah incident, which are still ongoing, and the regime’s vow to destroy the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt, which have long been a major economic resource for Sinai citizens, Sinai has become a battlefield between the state and local communities.

The most influential organisation currently operating in Sinai is Ansar Bait al-Maqdis (ABM), which emerged in late 2011. For a number of reasons, the group gained many supporters after Morsi’s overthrow. First, the military campaign in north Sinai used similar tactics of repression and humiliation to those used by Mubarak’s regime, but in a more destructive and provocative manner. Second, the coup reinforced the belief among Sinai militants that using political and democratic means for dialogue with Cairo would lead nowhere, and that weapons were their only recourse. In the post-Morsi period their operations extended beyond the Sinai Peninsula, to targets in Cairo, Dakahlia, Port Said, Ismailia and Suez. ABM also claimed responsibility for the bloody incident that led to the death of twenty-eight military personnel in Farafra Oasis in Egypt’s western desert on 19 July 2014.

There are various factors behind the scourge of attacks against military and security targets in north Sinai, and the intensification of war between ABM and the state in the past year.

  1. An increase in the number of ABM militants since Morsi’s overthrow. Video footage of Eid prayers and funeral prayers for ABM members shows hundreds of militants, dozens of four-wheel drive vehicles and relative freedom of assembly and movement in isolated areas of the peninsula.
  2. Taking advantage of the mass education establishment, the social cohesion provided by stable residential communities and its Islamic background, ABM has been able to break tribal barriers, recruit militants from most northern Sinai tribes, and enjoy the benefits provided by various tribal protectors.
  3. The harsh security pressure on ABM has obliged many of its militants to return to their villages and towns in the Nile Valley where they began forming armed groups which appear to have played a major role in attacks on some cities in the valley.
  4. ABM has benefited from foreign expertise, particularly from the Islamic State group (IS), with which it appears to have forged a relationship, though it is likely limited to internet communication. In an interview with Reuters on 5 September 2014, an ABM official confirmed the relationship and exchange of expertise with IS.
  5. The Egyptian government’s troubled relations with Libyan rebels, and its keenness to cut the arms supply to Gaza has, paradoxically, ensured an increasing supply of arms, ammunition and explosives to north Sinai.

ABM recently adopted the deterrence methods employed by IS against its opponents, including the execution of collaborators with the Egyptian and Israeli security services, and explicitly claiming responsibility for the killings. If it is confirmed that the recent attack on Sheikh Zuweid was through a suicide car, that would prove that ABM is using similar methods as those routinely used by IS.

The oppressive and humiliating nature of the state’s military campaign in Sinai since July 2013, combined with recent measures following the Sheikh Zuweid attack, will deepen resentment of the Egyptian government’s approach in Sinai. Recent measures include lengthy curfews, restrictions on communications, public insults, and the destruction of houses, farms and property, resulting in the mass displacement of Sinai residents. Sinai is becoming a wider battlefield between the Egyptian state and part of its people. Whenever repression and collective punishment escalate, the gap between state bodies and residents widens, and opportunities for insurgents to recruit followers and provide protective environments increase.

Gaza blockade and Israel’s security

Sinai armed groups have posed a major threat to Israel since the 1990s, as they tended to pursue Israeli tourists and other targets near the border. The Israelis dealt with this in their habitual manner, forming a Sinai network of agents who assassinated numerous local militants.

However, Israel’s major concern was not the groups’ attacks against Israeli targets, but their role in supplying arms to Palestinian resistance organisations in Gaza. Israel stepped up its pressure on Egypt to close the border tunnels, which had been allowed by the Egyptian authorities in order to reduce the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza since the 2008-2009 war. Since Egypt and the USA played a key role in brokering the ceasefire, the pressure on Egypt did not emanate only from Israel, but also from Washington. It is likely that US security delegations which visited the Egyptian border with Gaza in early 2009 proposed such measures as the establishment of a buffer zone, the building of an iron wall, and digging a canal to put an end to the tunnels.

However, Egypt’s readiness to cooperate in closing the tunnels was somewhat disingenuous. The Mubarak government had been aware that the complete closure of the tunnels would lead to a large-scale security disruption in the border area, so Egyptian politics revolved around keeping the tunnels partially open to help provide basic necessities for Gazans.

After the 2011 uprisings, the number of tunnels increased dramatically, and the smuggling of goods and weapons from the Egyptian side to Gaza flourished. Simultaneously, pressure on the military council to address the situation increased, from both Israelis and Americans. It is believed that the military council had already taken a decision to establish a buffer zone prior to the 2012 presidential elections. However, Morsi’s accession to power removed the buffer zone plan from the Egyptian government’s agenda, especially since he quickly realised the negative impact of such a move both on the situation in Gaza and on his relationship with Sinai residents.

Since Morsi’s overthrow, and the deterioration of the relationship between Hamas and the Egyptian government, the Egyptian and Israeli stances towards Hamas and the Gaza Strip have become strikingly similar, with the common objective of both sides being to weaken Hamas and contain its influence within the Gaza Strip.

The Egyptian intelligence and military organs are aware that the tunnels are used to convey goods and weapons from Egypt to Gaza, and not in the other direction. They also know that while Egyptians living along the border are linked to the tunnel economy, they are not involved with terrorism, since their main concern is trade with Gaza. But with each attack against the military or security forces in Sinai, the pro-coup media campaign against Hamas mounts, with Hamas members accused of supporting Sinai militants, or of planning and participating in attacks. Recent Egyptian allegations that the Sheikh Zuweid attack was perpetrated by Hamas military commanders Mohammed Abu Shamala and Raed al-Attar, who were both martyred in the recent Israeli onslaught on Gaza, best exemplify the Sisi regime’s intention to taint the Sinai with false accusations of infiltration by Hamas.

Thus the decision to establish a buffer zone on the border, which is presented by the regime as a solution to address the security failures exposed by the Sheikh Zuweid attack, has nothing to do with the fight against terrorism in Sinai, nor with efforts to deal with armed groups there. Rather, the buffer zone was originally an Israeli-American demand, and is related to the new Egyptian policy towards the Gaza Strip and the Gaza resistance. It will have little effect, positive or negative, on the ongoing war between the government and armed groups in northern Sinai. US support for the buffer zone, expressed by a State Department spokesman on 30 October, despite its constitutional, human rights and humanitarian problems, clearly indicates that Egypt has responded to Israeli-American demands in this regard.


No armed challenge that a country faces can be as serious as that based on socio-political and ideo-cultural grounds. The Egyptian regime’s problem is no longer restricted to a few dozen Salafi jihadis, but encompasses a broad section of Sinai society. Cairo has had several opportunities to bridge the historical gap between the people of Sinai and the central government, but successive regimes have failed to respond appropriately; they have instead adopted policies that exacerbated the situation. The short-lived Morsi administration did begin to implement a comprehensive development approach to restore north Sinai, and it was able to win the confidence of most people in Sinai. However, Morsi’s toppling re-established the old relationships between Cairo and Sinai, and reinforced the most radical and extremist opinions among insurgents.

The government’s recent actions in north Sinai indicate that it has dropped the development and dialogue approach, and is increasingly using repressive security policies and collective punishment. Also, the rapprochement between the Egyptian security establishment and its Israeli counterpart will reinforce the hostility of the discourse, lending credence to the Salafi jihadi accusation that the Egyptian regime lacks integrity. Because these repressive policies have failed in the past, toughening them is not expected to yield better results. On the contrary, the social incubator for militancy will widen, and more individuals from the Sinai tribes in particular will join militant groups. In addition to the emerging evidence of links, albeit indirect, between ABM and IS, it is worth noting that many ABM members arrested by the security bodies belong to Nile Valley governorates. With the collapse of the fragile central government in Libya, and the growing hostility between Libyan rebels and the Egyptian regime, rapprochement between armed groups in north Sinai and their Libyan counterparts (with whom they share ideological common ground), is not improbable.

Sinai is likely to remain a source of concern and a challenge to Egyptian authorities, whose current approach to addressing that concern and containing the consequences of that challenge appear to be misguided, at the very least. More seriously, Sinai armed organisations are evidently capable of also establishing a solid fulcrum in Nile Valley governorates, which would pose a new future challenge to the state.

Last modified on Thursday, 19 February 2015 11:07