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Islam

If Egypt No Longer Controls Sinai

An overview of the origins of jihadism in the peninsula: from the quietist Salafism of the 90s up to the creation of "Wilayat Sina'", the group that claimed responsibility for the downing of the Russian plane

People in the Sinai region Photo: ibtimes.com

Sinai and its terrorists are the subject of many discourses - those of the Egyptian state, those of human rights organisations, those of Islamists, and those of the "indigenous" and Bedouin population, especially after the downing of the Russian plane at the end of October, a few weeks before the bombings in Beirut and the simultaneous attacks in Paris. A problem and therefore a challenge that raise different issues, but that is also exploited by discourses of delegitimisation of the regime proclaimed June 30, 2013, or of radical critique of the practices and ways of acting of the Egyptian state, whatever élite is in power.

 

 

Sinai was occupied by Israel after the Six Day War (1967) and was gradually returned to Egypt as part of the peace agreements negotiated by Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin. In retrospect, management of the territory by Hosni Mubarak's regime was catastrophic. Although various projects and plans were developed, in practice Egypt ended up developing tourism and seaside resorts in the south-west, an industrial and oil zone in the south-east, several projects in the north-west and in the centre, abandoning the north-east (and centre). The south is not as poor as the north, which is home to two-thirds of the population. Tens of thousands of Egyptians from the Nile Valley went to work in the peninsula while the Bedouin populations were marginalised. The latter had no access to property, were subject to systematic discrimination when it came to hiring them and, worse, the lands that they owned by virtue of common law were often expropriated for the interest of personalities within the central power circle. The territory was managed by Security Services, which decided who could invest, what and where. The Bedouins created an informal, not to say criminal, economy based on any kind of traffic: drugs, human beings and, later, weapons.

 

 

This was the situation in 2004 when Egypt was surprised by jihadist attacks and discovered that Salafism had inserted itself in the peninsula during the 90s. The latter was generally quietist and did not arouse the suspicions of the authorities (which sometimes helped it). "Takfirist" groups also emerged. They considered society apostate, or non-Muslim, having lost all ties with the religion of the Prophet, practised internal exile and retreated into the desert to found a community of true believers. They did not cause any particular disorder. At a certain point, however, exchanges between some Islamists and Palestinian Salafist jihadists led several dozen Salafists or Takfirists to slide towards violence; they founded an extremist organisation and resorted to the tactics normally adopted by such groups: hitting tourists, symbols of impurity and, despite themselves, supporters of the wicked State.

 

 

The State's answer to this (2004/2006) was terrible and could be considered the cause of what happened next. Nothing was known about the Bedouins and the native population; but an emergency was under way. The State proceeded with the brutality that it is accustomed to use in emergency situations: blind mass arrests, violence against detainees, including women, arrests of relatives of suspects, and so on. The government won this round, but at a high price: the Bedouins never forgave what they suffered.

 

 

The Salafist jihadist group was decimated but did not disappear: a core of about a hundred men remained. The Salafist and Takfirist quietist groups continued to proliferate. Mubarak handled the problem through expedients: he let the Islamists of Gaza dig hundreds of tunnels to bypass the '"siege" and let the Bedouins trade with the Palestinian enclave.

 

 

We do not know what happened during the revolution, the transition and the power of Muhammad Morsi (2011/2013), but these were lost "years" for the State. The Salafist jihadist movements took advantage of these two years to recruit, expand their troops (they increased from 150 militants to several thousands – estimates range between two and eight thousand), arm themselves and develop contacts and exchanges with the their "counterparts" in Gaza.

 

 

Several groups were to merge together becoming Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis and later the Sinai Province of the Islamic State. During the transition led by the SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces), some groups multiplied attacks on pipelines. Many were local actors, Islamist and non-Islamist, who tried in 2011 to take advantage of the insecurity, which reinforced the prejudices of the Egyptians of the Valley and the central power. During Ramadan in 2012, some jihadists attacked Egyptian troops, committing the first "Rafa massacre" (which was followed by others). Given this situation, the Muslim Brotherhood in power opted for negotiations and, even without knowing the terms of the agreement, we know that the Sinai enjoyed a period of relative calm. Violence experienced a surge after the ouster of Morsi, which the jihadists interpreted as follows: if they did not want a president who called himself Islamist although it had really been seen that he had not applied the sharia, what will they do to us?

 

 

Today the situation is that the jihadists are concentrated in one-sixth or one-fifth of the north-eastern territory. The tribes of Sinai are divided: some (the Tarabin in particular) support the central government, others (especially the Sawarka) jihadists, with internal minorities that, in both cases, act differently. The allied tribes often criticise the central government as being ready to make promises (relating to land ownership, water, curfews, access to services, compensation for displaced persons) which it does not keep. They ask to be armed but for the moment the State refuses because it fears the phenomenon of militias. Tribal notables often complain of being treated as mere informants, and they do have a point. The jihadists demand just one thing: not to give information to the central power, and severely punish those who disobey.

 

 

For the State, the problems are different. According to some of our sources, the tribal chiefs are asking the State not to try to thwart their trades in exchange for their support, but it is clear that the authorities cannot accept that market. For a long time, those in power did not have information on the jihadist groups, hence its propensity to insist with the notables.

 

 

The operational capabilities of the army are improving, as shown by the recent clashes between the military and jihadists. However, there are still many flaws, especially in the context of recognition. At the same time, government forces seem unable to secure the triangle area (al-Arish, Rafah, Sheikh Zuwayd) in which the jihadists operate.

 

 

In the middle ranks, many officers express the desire for an escalation of violence "to get it over with". But the top brass are sensitive to the criticism of Western media and activists, which emphasise the importance of "collateral damage" in terms of civilian casualties, destruction of homes and forced emigration. There is reason to believe that the State can hope to redeploy Egyptian troops permanently in regions where access was prohibited to them by the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, except if authorised by Israel.

 

 

Most non-institutional discourses underline the need for a counter-insurgency approach and speak of human security. They recall, for example, that the death of an innocent (or non-innocent) victim potentially radicalises the victim's family.

 

 

It is clear that the Egyptian state and its agents are far from mastering the instruments, language, concepts and practices of this combination.

 

Concerning the jihadists, there is little reliable information. We know they are mostly sons of the tribes of Sinai (more specifically, the Sawarka) – but there is also an important minority of people from the Valley and there are foreign fighters. We know that each jihadist formation in Sinai has its "double", its "counterpart" in Gaza, and that the two help each other. We know that an important component of the troops is made up of criminals who have found the way of God, and that criminal activities finance the fighting. For their part, experts discuss to understand if this organisation is "really" affiliated to the Islamic State or instead maintains links with al-Qaeda; what is certain is that those who have ensured or ensure the military training of recruits belong to the sphere of Ayman al-Zawahiri.

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