An overview of the last 6 years in Egypt (the mainland and the peninsula)
The Security threat level in Egypt has been increasing since 2011, as the Egyptian Army has waged a war against Wilayat Sinai (Sinai Province). The militant group previously known as Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis pledged their allegiance to the Islamic state in 2014, since then they have been known as Wilayat Sinai. A state of emergency has been in effect in North Sinai since October 2014, where Wilayat Sinai largely resides and operates.
On October 31st, 2015 a Russian passenger jet crashed in the Peninsula. According to Russian sources explosives were found in the belongings of passengers on the plan which was headed from Sharm El-Sheikh resort in Egypt to St. Petersburg in Russia. The crash killed 224 people who were on board. Wilayat Sinai declared responsibility for the attack, and that it was an act of vengeance against Russia’s military operations in Syria.
Following the attack, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi stated that the situation in Sinai is under control. However according to The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, militant attacks in 2015 have reached 357, which is a tenfold increase from 2012 before Al-Sisi took power.
According to analysts, the conflict started on a low-level caused by rage from poverty, and the Army’s military operations and collective punishment only led to increasing bitterness and hostility.
The Army’s military operations have increased since the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power in 2013. Military operations have targeted the brotherhood, IS, and other militant groups in the country. However, attacks are still being reported in Egypt. Recently, the group Hasm conducted many attacks including a bombing that targeted and killed six police officers in Cairo on December 2016.
Wilayat Sinai which appeared after the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak became one of the most prominent militant groups. They attacked and killed many of the Egyptian security forces’ members, urged Egyptians not to support authorities, threatened and killed women, targeted and killed many Christians as well as foreign workers, like the beheading a Croatian engineer who worked with a French energy company in Egypt in August 2015.
While in February 2017, Egyptian women have reported multiple occurrences of IS militants going on buses in Sinai and threatening that they will be punished by whipping and acid if they do not obey IS’s dress codes. At the same time, IS militants have waged attacks of kidnapping and killing against Egyptians assumed to have cooperated with the Egyptian Army.
IS militants have continuously pledged to target Christians as it continues to take over more urban areas in North Sinai. In February 2017, IS militants killed a Christian man and burned his son alive in Al Arish causing more than 100 Christian families to leave the city. IS has also targeted churches as the bombings in December 2016 and April 2017. Analysts have argued that targeting Christians was aimed at creating tension and more violence between Egyptians, and also to portray the security forces’ failure to protect them. Yet many believe that Sinai’s Province will not be able to spark a Sectarian war in Egypt.
The Situation of Sinai’s Locals
Sinai’s Bedouins, numbering approximately 400,000, have long criticized the economic depression and political isolation of the peninsula. They were annihilated when it came to tourism and energy development projects during Mubarak’s reign. Investments were concentrated and channeled towards the south including the establishment of a Red Sea Riviera. The government supported labor migration from the Nile Valley to Sinai where workers were given access to land, irrigation, and jobs whereas running water and property registration were services Bedouins were deprived of. Sinai’s Bedouins were not allowed to join the Police, the Army, and the Peninsular Peacekeeping Force the Multinational Force & Observers (MFO), hold important government positions, or form a political party. In addition, staffing in the schools and hospitals of North Sinai is neglected.
North Sinai’s Bedouins are also not allowed to work in tourism-related industries or in the services around it.
Underdevelopment and the occupation of Sinai during the 1970s gave the peninsula a unique and a different status than the rest of Egypt. But political and economical disparity between Sinai’s population and Egypt’s mainland’s population further deepened legal and social inequality as well as distances in the state of identity.
According to Egyptian Diplomat Amr Yousef, as a result of distancing Bedouins from the rest of the community and from the economy for long, black markets prospered in the Peninsula since the late 1990s and Bedouins resorted to other means for economic survival; through cannabis and narcotics production, gun running, and goods and people smuggling. They were able to evade being caught with their tracking skills, kinship bonds and thorough knowledge of the deserts terrain.
Although tribal leaders have rejected violence, Bedouins now comprise the largest percentage of militants operating in Sinai.
According to Khalil Al-Anani, an expert on Islamist movements in the Middle East, The Egyptian government must build trust with Bedouins in Sinai by treating them no differently than the rest of the Egyptian community, or else the problem will only get worse.
As for Egyptian mainland, critics have also blamed the government for attempting to eliminate opposition and restrict civil right through its military operations against militants and terrorism. 19 journalists were arrested and imprisoned in June 2015 alone as reported by The Committee to Protect Journalists. Three journalists of Al Jazeera were convicted of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, and sentenced to three years in prison. After the United Nations and the European Union denounced these sentences as an attack on press freedom, the sentences were dropped and the journalists along with 100 activists were released.
The Egyptian government has arrested and sentenced at least 41,000 people in the period from July 2013 and May 2015, in addition to holding many without trial. As for prisons’ and Police stations’ capacity; prisons were operating at 160% capacity while police stations at 300% capacity. Arrested individuals have mainly been political activists or opposition groups.
The government’s repression of opposition and protesters since 2013 drove many young individuals into supporting armed resistance against it. Basem Zakaria Al-Samargi of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights argues that many youth who were formerly non-political now seek retaliation from the government. Jerome Devon of the University of Manchester indicted the government of paralleling Egyptian Islamists with IS, which in turn, he believes, has led them to seek revenge. Many analysts believe this contributed to a more radicalized mentality in the public.
How radicalization came into being
In January 2011, as protesters were spread in Tahrir Square and other urban centers, the security situation unraveled. Police abandoned their posts in Sinai, and the Army was concentrated on maintaining order in the Nile valley.
Bedouins started accumulating weapons in fear of the return of security forces. The trans-Sinai Israeli-Jordanian natural gas pipeline was continuously attacked by militants who believed it was a tint of Mubarak’s reign’s corruption.
In response to these attacks the Egyptian authorities dispatched more than 1000 troops in August 2011 in Sinai which is known as Operation Eagle.
However Mohammad Morsi approached the issue in a calmer manner when he was elected president. In an exceptional move, Morsi visited North Sinai after promising a new start for the relations between Sinai and the central government.
Following an attack by militants on Rafah’s border crossing in August 2012 which resulted in the death of sixteen Egyptian soldiers, Morsi removed the military’s leadership. He appointed General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) instead of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
Morsi vowed to enforce full control over Sinai and the Egyptian forces started a military operation targeting the tunnels. Even though Morsi deployed a number of troops with heavy weaponry, he was disinclined to authorize the use of force.
Amidst the volatile situation, protests in the country spread and ultimately the military seized power headed by Al-Sisi and ousted Mohammad Morsi.
Some armed groups in Sinai refused the ousting of the first Muslim Brotherhood president by the military, in addition to the attacks on Islamists by the new command, leading to an even more volatile and violent situation while others were determined to take advantage of the security vacuum.
The Egyptian new command started a “war on terrorism” through the military in an operation called Operation Desert Storm. Reporters and critics described the operation as excessive and that it had a taste of Mubarak’s regime. All tunnels were terminated except for a few, which led to an increase in the price of goods’ and intensified the electricity shortage.
Media reporting was an army-enforced one, which meant independent confirmations on any military attacks were difficult. For example; reporter Ahmed Abu Deraa of Al-Masry Al-Youm, faced charges after he published news of airstrikes which opposed the military’s official report. In addition some reporters believed the army has overstated the threats in Sinai.
According to the Tahrir Institute of Middle East Policy, the instability Egypt is experiencing currently is not the result of 2011 revolution but the product of a longstanding crisis which have not been resolved or addressed.
For example; Egyptian security forces under emergency law, which was in effect for 30 years until 2012, conducted wide arrest operations in response to militant attacks, they arrested suspects, detained and tortured them for long periods of time which essentially heightened violence in Sinai.
In the ten years preceding 2011, the political situation witnessed a number of opportunities for change and resulted in the emergence of public debates on the performance of the government. Independent newspapers and television stations, who were critical of the government, increased, generating a more varied media environment, which drew the public’s attention to political criticism, and activists’ numbers started to rise. Of these activist groups, the movement Kefaya (Enough!) that demanded President Hosni Mubarak not to seek another term in office in 2005 and intended to prevent his son Jamal from succeeding him.
The Police’s response was violent which led to the infamous public beating to death of Egyptian Khaled Saeed followed by calls for protests on January 25th, 2011 which resulted in the overthrow of Mubarak.
A political and a security vacuum was created following the revolution and protests by political parties spread throughout the country, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces received high criticism during their period of control after Mubarak.
Political parties contested in elections and the public was mainly passionate towards the process. Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party won the majority of seats in parliament and their candidate, Mohammad Morsi, won the presidency.
In late November and early December 2012, protests were held against the new constitution, demonstrators perceived the constitution to be aimed at Islamizing the country. The constitution was approved by referendum in December 2012 in spite of the violent protests and counter protests in many cities.
The movement Tamarod (rebellion) emerged in April 2013, and called for Morsi’s resignation and early elections. In addition, the youth-led movement launched a petition with these demands. Even though the movement called for the president’s resignation, it operated liberally and explicitly and with the support of the security forces as many sources have reported. Tamarod declared it has collected 22 million signatures to its petition, and called for protests on June 30th, Morsi’s first inauguration anniversary. The Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters held smaller protests supporting Morsi.
Mohammad Morsi was driven out of the office by the Army on order from the then-head of the Armed Forces Abdul Fattah Al Sisi. Al Sisi along with the coalition of politicians who supported him shut down all Islamist television channels and clashes erupted between security forces and pro-Morsi protesters leaving around 1000 protesters dead in Rab’a Al Adawaiya and Nahda Squares. In addition, almost every renowned member of the Brotherhood was incarcerated.
The Tribes’ Role in the War
Militants have existed in Sinai since the 1970s, and so it is not unexpected that militant groups such as Ansar Beit Al Maqdis, which emerged after the 2011 revolution, to be entrenched in the culture and well aware of the social structure. They also realized the significance of developing relations with the local population in the areas in which they operate, whom are mostly Bedouin tribesmen. Wilayat Sinai considers the tribesmen an important source of manpower that could assist or hinder the group’s activities, and also as citizens in the Islamic State.
Wilayat Sinai spoke to Bedouins through social media in a respectful manner usually accompanied by admiration for their devotion to Islam and Bedouin values; however the group’s approach towards Bedouins is not without patronizing and hostility. Given that Wilayat Sinai battles the Egyptian authorities without consideration or respect for Sinai’s population created tensions between the two. The group also does not mind executions (like executing locals for cooperating with the Egyptian Army) or harming their sustenance in order to achieve its goals.
It is important to mention that before pledging its allegiance to ISIS in 2014, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis were more cautious of clashing with the Bedouin population and were even more respectful to them and their traditions, but changes in the organization ultimately led to deviation from this path.
The Egyptian Army constantly urged Bedouin tribes to cooperate with them in their fight against the organization especially after its penetration of Al-Arish which was the Army’s stronghold in North Sinai, and indeed some tribes cooperated. On the other hand attempts to unite all tribes against the group failed.
Similarly, Wilayat Sinai tried to take advantage of the Bedouins’ resentment towards the Egyptian Army after its crackdown on Sinai’s population following the ousting of Mohammad Morsi, to draw them towards the organization, however most of them took a neutral stance towards the conflict. Many of the tribes’ dignitaries argued that participating in this conflict endangers the tribal structure and method for the possibility of igniting a civil war amongst the tribes, and that counter-terrorism falls under the Army’s responsibilities not theirs.
Hatem Al-Balak, a social activist from North Sinai, argued that Wilayat Sinai takes tribal customs into consideration when it comes to executing collaborators, with the aim of preventing blood feuds: "The organization defers to tribal [customs] in the act of killing, in the sense that if it condemns someone to death for collaborating with security forces, then the execution is carried out by a member of his tribe, so as to not give the event a tribalist nature. If the execution is carried out by an armed man from another tribe, the dead man's tribe will seek to avenge him by killing a member of the executioner's tribe”. But Wilayat Sinai’s attitude towards the Bedouins changed as new recruits came from outside Sinai and reached high ranks in the organization; disregard to the tribal structure increased, and intensified the tension between them, in addition to executing many of the tribes’ members and leaders for cooperating with the security forces or for violating Sharia Law. Furthermore, as Wilayat Sinai’s operations expanded it became more destructive and added to the already difficult economic situation of the peninsula.
In late April 2017, Al Tarabeen tribe ( One of the largest and influential tribes in Sinai) released a statement declaring war on Wilayat Sinai, and that the mission will be in coordination with the security forces to eradicate the group’s influence from North Sinai. Tension reached its highest after the group kidnapped and flogged several tribe members in mid April. The tribe’s members in turn captured three of the group’s members in Al Barath 25.09 km S Rafah and released one of them, the tribe later burned one of the other captives alive after members of Wilayat Sinai killed four tribesmen in a car bomb at a checkpoint installed by Al Tarabeen. Other tribes soon followed Al-Tarabeen in its fight including Al-Sawarka.
“The collaboration between the military and tribes is not new, and there is a department in the Egyptian General Intelligence that deals with tribal affairs,” Al Tarabeen spokesperson, Mousa Al-Delh, told Daily News Egypt. He added that the tribes in North Sinai have been clashing with militants since 2015, however after contentious debates about arming tribes, Al Tarabeen ceased the fight and restricted cooperation with the Army to providing information only. Al-Delh affirmed that weapons are only being used in the fight against Sinai Province and that once the fighting has ended, the weapons will be removed.
While the Egyptian authorities praised the alliance between the tribes and the Army, many journalists and political leaders criticized and opposed it. They argued that this alliance indicates that the state is unable to control the situation in Sinai and is failing in countering terrorism and turning to the tribes to assist in performing the Army’s job. Others feared the tribes’ participation in the conflict will only increase Sinai’s instability.
On the other hand, Abdul Rafe’ Darwish, a military expert addressed these arguments and stated “necessity knows no law” according to the Daily News Egypt, and that “flexibility is needed in such a situation”.