Quiet before the storm
Military experts tell Ahmed Eleiba that operations against extremists and criminal gangs in Sinai are continuing, though in a lower key
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Jihadis protest against targeting their fellow members in the ongoing Sinai operation
An uneasy calm prevails over the Sinai. Though the military situation is less volatile than in recent weeks tensions continue to seethe and the future is uncertain.
Military expert General Mamdouh Moussa attributes the relative calm on the military front to the "surgical operations" currently being conducted by army command in the Sinai which are targeting criminals while ensuring innocent lives are not lost in the crossfire.
However, the social and political situation is becoming increasingly fraught. Prominent Sinai political activist Musaad Abu Fajr explains that the proliferation of militant jihadist and takfiri groups, which espouse violence against states, societies and individuals they brand as heretic, has caused a sharp rise in extremism in Sinai society in general. Among the latest manifestations of this surging extremism is the campaign to drive out Christian families from Rafah. Abu Fajr says that these families, whose roots in the area date back more than five centuries, have been receiving threatening letters. While security agencies have been taking measures to allay fears, a member of one Christian family told Al-Ahram Weekly "we want to be able to walk in the streets of our city without military protection."
According to Abu Fajr in the 1950s and 1960s a Sufi society of unknown origin but reportedly supported by the government acted to prevent the autonomous development of Sinai and attempted to dismantle the tribal system. Following the restoration of the Sinai to Egypt after Camp David, other groups assumed the same role, working to prevent the assertion of Sinai culture. With the 25 January Revolution local structures began to reassert themselves but central government continued to block the political and cultural horizons of Sinai Bedouin inhabitants. Abu Fajr predicts that tensions will continue, and intensify, as the government seeks to reassert its control over the territory through outdated means.
Frustration in the Sinai runs deep. In the wake of the revolution many youth groups glimpsed the possibility of a brighter future in which they would be able to contribute to the development of Sinai. Young people expressed their determination to roll up their sleeves in order to make their dreams for the future of Sinai come true.
The Freedom and Justice Party was emerging as a force to be reckoned with in the political arena. Initially, security control hampered the Muslim Brotherhood party's ability to muster grassroots support in the peninsula. Even after its successes elsewhere it failed to make inroads in Sinai.
"Muslim Brothers have become an object of pity in the Sinai. They arrived with a catalogue of prescriptions that they wanted to force on society here, without realising that societies with their own cultural structures and identities do not change by prescription, even when it is cloaked in the name of religion," says Abu Fajr. "Soon the people of the Sinai will dance on the grave of this wretched reality... The suffering of our parents and their parents keep pressing us to work for the day in which we will strike our own currency which no one else will be able to trade."
Police and military agencies are continuing the drive to arrest those suspected of involvement in attacks against police stations in Arish. According to one source, two people were arrested last week in connection with the confrontation last year between police in the second Arish precinct department and jihadist groups. In July 2011 some 100 masked gunmen staged a nine-hour siege of the police station using rocket propelled grenades. The assailants killed an army officer, a police officer and three civilians, and wounded 21 others. The same source says that the treatment of suspects who have already been tried for alleged involvement in the attack has provoked concern in Sinai, with many shocked at the sentences delivered last week by a court in Ismailia. Fourteen defendants were sentenced to death, others to life imprisonment.
"You cannot equate people who hurled stones at the police department with those that attacked it with artillery. Yet both have received death sentences. The court, rather than dispensing justice, is being used to send a political message to serve as a deterrent."
Announcement of the sentences prompted two days of demonstrations in Arish. The situation, complain many, is worse than in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in the Sinai in the 1990s. Everyone feels threatened in the current climate, says the source, and it's not just the security forces they fear. Christians are frightened to leave their homes, and there are signs that journalists are beginning to be targeted. One, who asked to remain anonymous, said that an explosive device had been planted in his house simply because he covered the bloody confrontation in Arish. Tribal elders are being accused of working with the government which takfiri groups say is anathema until Sharia law is imposed.
The security agencies, says one expert, needs to come up with a more effective way to deal with the people of the Sinai "who still bear scars from their treatment by the former security regime".
In some quarters the possibility of arming the Bedouin tribes to enable them to share in the task of safeguarding security in the Sinai is being mooted. Critics of such an approach point out that arms are already part of Sinai culture and strategies should be put in place to decrease the number of weapons not increase them.
Mohamed Hammad, son of a tribal chief in Bir Al-Abd, argues that the idea has less to do with arming the Bedouins than with empowering them to become stakeholders in the security system and offering appropriate training to counter groups that try to impose their control over the land. But he warns that traditional tribal structures have begun to disintegrate and arming the tribes is unlikely to be a solution to current problems.
General Mamdouh Mursi believes there is room for some fresh thinking and believes parallels can be drawn between the US border with Mexico and Egypt's eastern border.
"No country can make their borders 100 per cent secure," he says. He stresses nonetheless that the anti-terrorist operation in the Sinai will forge ahead and that, contrary to some reports, there is no military ease-up or withdrawal from the Sinai.
"Reports to this effect are inaccurate. What is happening now is precision pursuit, dictated by the changing situation on the ground. The targets in the Sinai are operating in four different kinds of terrain: populous areas in Arish, Rafah and Sheikh Zuwaid; agricultural areas in the vicinity of these towns; desert terrain; and mountainous areas with caves and rugged trails. Each of these areas requires different types of attack and confrontation tactics."
The shift in strategy in the Sinai is consistent with the government's directive to develop a formula for contained confrontation.
"We now approach the Sinai as a developmental question, as opposed to a purely military/security matter," says General Mursi. "Extreme care is taken to deal with targets with the cooperation of honest citizens and the civil police, with the support of the Armed Forces and with respect for human rights. There is also a commitment to narrowing the scope of suspicion so as to avoid accusing or causing harm to innocent people. This is why operations appear low key. This relative calm is consistent with the idea that we are not facing a standing army but rather gangs that operate in mountains such as Gabal Al-Halal, Gabal Al-Wajir, Tifla, Yalak and Lubna. These areas have caves and hidden arms caches that terrorists come to when they want to carry out an operation, after which they descend the other side, disappear into the tunnels and emerge to be received by members of their groups in Gaza."