Five months ago, after another massive attack, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi declared the situation to be an existential struggle. Months later, Al-Sisi is a student in desperate need of a Sinai strategy tutorial. North Sinai experienced three attacks on 12 April: the first, left six dead in an IED attack on an Egyptian personnel carrier, the second was a massive car bomb left 7 dead and 44 injured in Arish and the last saw one dead and two injured in attack on a Rafah checkpoint. Terrorism in Sinai, by no means, was solely created under the Al-Sisi watch but as currently constructed the dichotomy is the ‘Sisi State’ versus the ‘Sinai State’.
While the Egyptian president has made gains in controlling both the size and the breadth of Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations throughout Egypt, stability remains a distant goal. Even those who maintain a safe distance from the latest gruesome details, occurring daily in Sinai, understand the Cairo central government has an organised insurgency on its hands. Yet, on a nearly daily basis, Egyptian media trumpets what, it purports, are the many successes of the Egyptian army in rooting out terrorists in Sinai. In one such story, last week, the army claimed to have killed 100 terrorists in only 24 hours . But also last week, in a significant development, 12-13 locals, among them at least six from one family, were killed by two errant rockets of unknown origin, according to western press and by ‘State of Sinai’. This attack, termed murder of innocent civilians by the Egyptian army by multiple Islamist and local Sinai accounts on social media, is emblematic of the quagmire of blood that Sinai has become.
That “Sinai residents will pay the steepest price of all” should be self-evident to Egyptian decision makers. But it appears Al-Sisi and his military intelligence, the head of which he dismissed shortly before Sunday’s attacks, while busy trumpeting the many successes of the regime at a PR-heavy Economic Conference in South Sinai last month, neglected that all important point. The government continues a policy of stick first, second and third sans carrot and that is a central reason why insurgency rages in Sinai. Others are:
- A security first strategy that leaves locals at the wrong end of army and police weaponry makes peaceful Sinai residents angry ones.
- Humiliation of local populous at checkpoints and during dealings with security forces leaves local population with feelings of second degree citizenship. This, in turn, leaves wide sectors vulnerable to recruitment by Wilayat Sinai (formerly Ansar Beit Al Maqdis), who claimed all three attacks on Sunday.
- A positioning of the Sinai narrative as one where the army wages a highly efficient, successful campaign even if facts on the ground belie such tales of heroism. Propaganda, while effective in the short term, does immeasurable harm to the credibility of the state.
- The argument for the security belt was stop the flow of arms and suspected Hamas militants – per government narrative – through the Gaza tunnels, and you will stop terrorism. The last five months say otherwise.
To be clear, State of Sinai is no rag tag group of angry locals with minimal armament, amateur discipline and strategy. Sunday’s attacks show a deadly arsenal of guerrilla tactics at the disposal of the group. The first attack, killing six and injuring two, on the APC, near the strategically important Sheikh Zuweid, utilised an Improvised Explosive device (IED). The major attack on the police precinct in Al-Arish, according to most news accounts and multiple security sources, was a massive truck bomb which left a large crater, killed 7 and injured 40 as well as destroyed multiple buildings surrounding the precinct. Finally, the Rafah attack, on a checkpoint, which killed one and injured another, was a sniper shooting. State of Sinai has, previously, also has killed by drive-by, kidnap and intercepting security forces at checkpoints of the militants themselves.
Contrary to official statements that speak of huge advances against hardened militants in Sinai, a recent Reuters piece pointed to a highly troubling framework: State of Sinai is gaining followers in the very Egyptian army fighting it. “A small but highly dangerous succession of former Egyptian army officers are joining Islamist militant groups…”. Aside from the discipline and organisation they bring to the militant cornucopia of danger, they also pose a danger with “their knowledge of the Arab world’s biggest army”, clarified the news agency. Even though officers are, typically, monitored by army intelligence a small minority continues to trickle to the extremist camp. That fact, on its own, poses a great risk to the stability on which Al-Sisi built his platform. More polemically, the regime continues to do a poor job of understanding that state terrorism will only continue to provide kindle for Islamist terrorism. While it is a deadly cycle of tit for tat bloody violence that continues to provide political cover for the strongman’s iron fist policy, it is the resultant radicalisation of the many which may ultimately prove to be deadly for the Al-Sisi regime.
Punishing tunnel diggers with life sentences will surely not solve the puzzle of the Sinai insurgency. Those at the political and security helm know this and yet the political expediency of short term solutions continues to be a sexy option for the militarily minded Al-Sisi. There are hundreds of thousands of Sinaites who can easily become the backbone of an armed insurgency that threatens not only the Al-Sisi regime but the stability of the nation. In brutally honest terms, Al-Sisi recognises a continued loss of control over North Sinai will embarrass him before his all important US and Israeli allies. His nervousness shows and haphazard moves such as changing head of military intelligence, head of Ministry of Interior, a failing security belt, haphazard shelling of civilians and life sentences for the tunnels show more desperation than decisiveness. Rather than apply a tourniquet around the Sinai wound, Al-Sisi appears to be tightening a noose around his political, and some would argue, literal neck.
To stop the bleeding in Sinai, the following steps may serve to move stagnant waters of governance:
- Economically viable options for local populous aren’t optional. They are a must.
- You cannot fight an insurgency with conventional war tactics and weaponry.
- It is time for ground troops in Sinai. An agile, well-armed, Special Forces laden force needs to be a central player against an enemy growing in force and possibly in numbers.
- Locals must be represented in both security forces, they are currently not, and in the political machinery – otherwise army risks appearance of an occupying force. Alliances with local leaders are not a luxury but a necessity. Such alliances, under previous regimes, have served all sides well in an informal but effective manner.
- Communicational transparency must be the new rule by both army and police. Cairo cannot afford to have a major attack that kills and maims tens while the Ministry of Interior still insists that it successfully stopped the suicide bomber. Trust of government narrative is at an all-time low and this must change.
- The way to combat extremism is to improve education in a region suffering from a deplorable lack of it.
Terrorism is a mortal danger to the Al-Sisi regime but the domestic jingoism employed by the regime is an even larger danger. Never has a nation paved its way out of a river of blood via the creation of more riverlets of red.
To survive politically, Al-Sisi needs the mind of a chess player, the strategy of Machiavelli, and the gentle hand of a surgeon to manoeuvre the minefields of Sinai.
Amr Khalifa is freelance journalist and commentator recently published by Ahram Online, Mada Masr, Muftah, Tahrir institute and Arab Media Society. You can follow him on Twitter @cairo67unedited