Monday,11 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1232, (5 - 11 February 2015)
Monday,11 December, 2017
Issue 1232, (5 - 11 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Sinai: The challenges ahead

Arguments rage over how best to tackle the insurgency in Sinai. Dina Ezzat listens to three opposing views

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The military view: ‘The army not the police’

“What we are seeing in Sinai are the acts of terrorist elements that are very well organised, trained and armed, and that work under a domestic-foreign joint command,” says former senior military official Mohamed Belal.

According to Belal, intelligence identifying targets, weapons and commanders are provided by “foreign elements.” Domestic operatives are then responsible for executing the plans.

“What this means,” he argues, “is that we are facing an organisation worse than IS [Islamic State].”

“The latest attack in Sinai received a green light” when US State Department officials met with members of the Muslim Brotherhood “who are certainly involved in the attacks in Sinai.”

“The US is a factor in these attacks, and so is Turkey,” says Belal. “Washington pays lip-service to Egypt’s war on terror but it refuses to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation though the group is indistinguishable from IS.”

Were last week’s attacks, which left dozens of conscripts, officers and civilians dead, the result of failures in Egypt’s military intelligence?

“There is no intelligence deficiency,” says Belal. He refutes any suggestion extremists have infiltrated military intelligence networks but urges “more caution on the part of military units acting in Sinai.”

“Eradicating the terrorists’ sources of support” will make the job of the military easier, says Belal. Among the measures he recommends is the imprisonment of all suspected terrorist leaders.

The president’s creation of a new military command for Sinai and the Canal Zone, with General Osama Askar at its head, is “ the right military decision.”

“It is essential that operations in the area be fully coordinated,” says Belal.

Before the 1967 defeat Belal served in Sinai as a junior officer when, he says, “relations between Sinai’s Egyptian citizens — I don’t like to use the qualification Bedouin — and the army were very good.”

Problems occurred later, however, when the 1979 Peace Treaty limited the army’s presence in Sinai. “And I have to say,” adds Belal, “that many police officers were not well versed in how to deal with our people in Sinai and that did cause problems.”

Given today’s “de facto significant army presence in Sinai” those problems are now subsiding.

There is now a “new reality” on the ground, he argues.

“We don’t need to get into a debate on amending the peace treaty or anything like that. The simple fact is there is a terrorist threat in Sinai and it is in the interests of everyone that this threat be dealt with firmly. Egypt is not going to bow to pressure, whatever the source, to reduce the army’s presence in Sinai at a time of serious challenge.”

One of the tasks facing the army is to kick-start development. “Development is a crucial element in building bridges and denying the terrorists any sympathy that might help them execute attacks,” says Belal. It will be key to soothing any resentment that might accrue from the forced evictions to create a security zone along the border with Gaza “that the state had to do in these exceptional circumstances.”

Belal warns that more evictions might be needed and the curfews already imposed in north Sinai extended.

The spread of extremism across the region poses a specific threat to Sinai. “Gaza is especially significant in this respect,” says Belal, but attention must also be paid to securing Egypt’s western and southern borders. “The situation in Libya poses a direct threat to Egypt and there is also work to be done securing the northern coasts. We cannot allow maritime routes to be used to smuggle arms and militants.”

 

The development view: ‘An absence of serious work’

The Sinai Development Authority (SDA) was established by presidential decree in January 2012 and tasked with developing strategies to overcome decades of central government neglect of the peninsula. Its head, a major general seconded from the army, was assigned four assistants, three of them military and one, Ahmed Sakr, with a background in development. After a year and half of being based in north Sinai, Sakr resigned his post and resumed his job at the Ministry of Planning.

“We were based in north Sinai, and travelling back and forth between our offices in Cairo, but as far as I could see no serious work to promote development in Sinai was being done,” says Sakr.

The SDA’s only concern, says Sakr, “was not to be blamed for making any wrong decisions, with the result it avoided taking any decisions at all.”

He continues, “The SDA failed to act to attract investment which meant no new jobs were created, and employment is essential if people’s living conditions are to improve.” If anything, says Sakr, the situation has further deteriorated in the wake of “evictions and curfews that are making life even more complicated.”

Says Sakr, “National security is about securing the land not about deflecting serious development from the peninsula. Yet apart from a limited zone of tourism development in the south nothing has been achieved.”

While it is true that the SDA did not command lavish resources “the state did allocate funds but they were squandered in setting up luxurious offices or just put aside rather than being used to finance productive investments,” complains Sakr. Yet “there are ample opportunities for investment in Sinai — in the north as well as the south and in many projects other than the tourism sector.”

“The sad truth is there was no real will to pursue serious development work in Sinai,” says Sakr who, during his year and half at the SDA, spearheaded the building of new roads in cooperation with a number of the peninsula’s tribes.

“The residents of Sinai want better infrastructure, better roads. They are desperate for decent education and health care and job opportunities.”

Sakr worries that their hopes will remain just that. No competent study of investment opportunities in Sinai has been undertaken, and schemes to pursue investment priorities remain pie in the sky.

To leave things as they are, warns Sakr, compounds the difficulties of winning the battle against extremists. “Development strategies have to be considered alongside military and security strategy,” he argues, “and that means taking the needs and expectations of the people of Sinai into account.

“Some officials view the people of Sinai with inexplicable scepticism. If you continually treat people as fourth-class citizens then you shouldn’t be surprised when they begin to act like fourth-class citizens. It is essential to put an end to the discrimination from which Sinai’s residents have suffered for far too long.

“There is a tendency on the side of officials to assume a handful of tribal elders represents the entire population of the peninsula. This is a colossal mistake. Sinai’s population is diverse and the younger generation has a very different perspective from its parents.”

It is also time the media “stops casting the people of Sinai in an unfavourable light.” The media’s consistent bias, says Sakr, “is not just offensive but intimidating.”

“To consistently portray half a million people in a negative light doesn’t just antagonise them, it erodes any sense of trust.”

The people of Sinai have been denied even the most basic share of development “and this is a mistake that has to be recognised,” say Sakr.

“Even worse,” he warns, “the war on terror now exposes them to security hazards. Following last week’s devastating terror attack a military aircraft bombed what it thought was a terrorist base but which was the house of a poor family. Two infants were killed in the operation.

 “We cannot hold the entire population of Sinai hostage for a few hundred — in some estimates, no more than 200 — militants. We need an alternative security approach, one that is more sensitive to the topography and anthropology of this part of Egypt. We also need a mindset that recognizes that development is not some added extra but central to winning the war on terror.”

Since the late 1980s and early 1990s,” says Ali Bakr, an expert on Islamist movements, “disparate parties, many returning from Afghanistan, found their way to Sinai.” They coalesced into a number of groups that, though they included a handful of Palestinians from Gaza and some Egyptians with dual nationality, were made up mostly of Egyptian citizens.

“The leader of Al-Twahid WalJihad, which was behind some of the bloodiest terror attacks in the 1990s, was a doctor born and brought up in Sinai. We should not think of all the groups now operating as being manned by foreign fighters.”

This first generation of extremist groups was “significantly weakened, or else nuetralised, by the heavy-handed security operations conducted under Hosni Mubarak.”

“But they did not vanish completely,” says Bakr, “and the roots from which they sprang remained.”

The collapse of the police following Mubarak’s overthrow saw those roots throw up new shoots.

“Egypt’s borders were left exposed at the same time the region was becoming prey to a new wave of extremism. It has been suggested that this new wave was encouraged by some governments. I have never come across any evidence to support that assertion.”

The official narrative is that, once president, Mohamed Morsi actively encouraged the newly emerged radical groups. The reality, says Bakr, is that Morsi “turned a blind eye to their presence.”

“Perhaps he thought their presence would come in useful if he found himself in confrontation with the state.

“Many of these groups didn’t consider Morsi an Islamic leader. Some even considered him an infidel. Yet he was better, in their eyes, than his predecessors, which is why, when he was removed, they decided to fight a war against those who had removed him.

“The aim of these groups goes far beyond the avenging the ouster of Morsi. They want to topple what they see as infidel regimes across the Muslim world.”

Says Bakr, “It is too simplistic to assume that the groups operating in Sinai are somehow directly linked to the Muslim Brotherhood or act to implement Brotherhood policies.

“Their attacks might target those the Muslim Brotherhood see as its enemies but the links these groups maintain are with other ultra-radical groups across the region.”

Even so, he says, “it is not like there is any direct coordination between terrorist groups in Iraq and those in Libya or in Mali or in Sinai.

“Links exist but there but is no joint command that issues orders.” IS, says Bakr, is in essence a shared philosophy rather than a coherent, transnational organization.

Terrorist cells in Sinai may have access to arms coming from Sudan, training in Libya or logistical support from militants in Gaza but they remain “local groups acting on their own agendas which often overlap with those similar of similar groups elsewhere.”

The radical ideology to which these groups subscribe spread during the battle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and has its roots in the Wahhabism promoted by Saudi Arabia.

There is no short-term solution to halt the spread of these groups which have benefited from the “rise then fall of the Arab Spring”, or of the ideology they propound, says Bakr, for it is the absence of justice and freedom, he argues, that serves as the catalyst for the recruitment of young men into their ranks.

It is necessary to defuse the sense of injustice that motivates young recruits and this, argues Bakr, means adopting policies that provide better social services, overhauling education, and promoting a non-extreme religious discourse.

A start has to be made, “and the sooner, the better.”

Security initiatives, he warns, will never succeed alone. “And the authorities need to realise that these groups are not restricted to Sinai. They exist elsewhere in Egypt. They may find it easier to act in Sinai but this is not a specifically Sinai problem.”

 

An Islamist view: Integration vs extremism

The Sinai Development Authority (SDA) was established by presidential decree in January 2012 and tasked with developing strategies to overcome decades of central government neglect of the peninsula. Its head, a major general seconded from the army, was assigned four assistants, three of them military and one, Ahmed Sakr, with a background in development. After a year and half of being based in north Sinai, Sakr resigned his post and resumed his job at the Ministry of Planning.

“We were based in north Sinai, and travelling back and forth between our offices in Cairo, but as far as I could see no serious work to promote development in Sinai was being done,” says Sakr.

The SDA’s only concern, says Sakr, “was not to be blamed for making any wrong decisions, with the result it avoided taking any decisions at all.”

He continues, “The SDA failed to act to attract investment which meant no new jobs were created, and employment is essential if people’s living conditions are to improve.” If anything, says Sakr, the situation has further deteriorated in the wake of “evictions and curfews that are making life even more complicated.”

Says Sakr, “National security is about securing the land not about deflecting serious development from the peninsula. Yet apart from a limited zone of tourism development in the south nothing has been achieved.”

While it is true that the SDA did not command lavish resources “the state did allocate funds but they were squandered in setting up luxurious offices or just put aside rather than being used to finance productive investments,” complains Sakr. Yet “there are ample opportunities for investment in Sinai — in the north as well as the south and in many projects other than the tourism sector.”

“The sad truth is there was no real will to pursue serious development work in Sinai,” says Sakr who, during his year and half at the SDA, spearheaded the building of new roads in cooperation with a number of the peninsula’s tribes.

“The residents of Sinai want better infrastructure, better roads. They are desperate for decent education and health care and job opportunities.”

Sakr worries that their hopes will remain just that. No competent study of investment opportunities in Sinai has been undertaken, and schemes to pursue investment priorities remain pie in the sky.

To leave things as they are, warns Sakr, compounds the difficulties of winning the battle against extremists. “Development strategies have to be considered alongside military and security strategy,” he argues, “and that means taking the needs and expectations of the people of Sinai into account.

“Some officials view the people of Sinai with inexplicable scepticism. If you continually treat people as fourth-class citizens then you shouldn’t be surprised when they begin to act like fourth-class citizens. It is essential to put an end to the discrimination from which Sinai’s residents have suffered for far too long.

“There is a tendency on the side of officials to assume a handful of tribal elders represents the entire population of the peninsula. This is a colossal mistake. Sinai’s population is diverse and the younger generation has a very different perspective from its parents.”

It is also time the media “stops casting the people of Sinai in an unfavourable light.” The media’s consistent bias, says Sakr, “is not just offensive but intimidating.”

“To consistently portray half a million people in a negative light doesn’t just antagonise them, it erodes any sense of trust.”

The people of Sinai have been denied even the most basic share of development “and this is a mistake that has to be recognised,” say Sakr.

“Even worse,” he warns, “the war on terror now exposes them to security hazards. Following last week’s devastating terror attack a military aircraft bombed what it thought was a terrorist base but which was the house of a poor family. Two infants were killed in the operation.

 “We cannot hold the entire population of Sinai hostage for a few hundred — in some estimates, no more than 200 — militants. We need an alternative security approach, one that is more sensitive to the topography and anthropology of this part of Egypt. We also need a mindset that recognizes that development is not some added extra but central to winning the war on terror.”

Since the late 1980s and early 1990s,” says Ali Bakr, an expert on Islamist movements, “disparate parties, many returning from Afghanistan, found their way to Sinai.” They coalesced into a number of groups that, though they included a handful of Palestinians from Gaza and some Egyptians with dual nationality, were made up mostly of Egyptian citizens.

“The leader of Al-Twahid WalJihad, which was behind some of the bloodiest terror attacks in the 1990s, was a doctor born and brought up in Sinai. We should not think of all the groups now operating as being manned by foreign fighters.”

This first generation of extremist groups was “significantly weakened, or else nuetralised, by the heavy-handed security operations conducted under Hosni Mubarak.”

“But they did not vanish completely,” says Bakr, “and the roots from which they sprang remained.”

The collapse of the police following Mubarak’s overthrow saw those roots throw up new shoots.

“Egypt’s borders were left exposed at the same time the region was becoming prey to a new wave of extremism. It has been suggested that this new wave was encouraged by some governments. I have never come across any evidence to support that assertion.”

The official narrative is that, once president, Mohamed Morsi actively encouraged the newly emerged radical groups. The reality, says Bakr, is that Morsi “turned a blind eye to their presence.”

“Perhaps he thought their presence would come in useful if he found himself in confrontation with the state.

“Many of these groups didn’t consider Morsi an Islamic leader. Some even considered him an infidel. Yet he was better, in their eyes, than his predecessors, which is why, when he was removed, they decided to fight a war against those who had removed him.

“The aim of these groups goes far beyond the avenging the ouster of Morsi. They want to topple what they see as infidel regimes across the Muslim world.”

Says Bakr, “It is too simplistic to assume that the groups operating in Sinai are somehow directly linked to the Muslim Brotherhood or act to implement Brotherhood policies.

“Their attacks might target those the Muslim Brotherhood see as its enemies but the links these groups maintain are with other ultra-radical groups across the region.”

Even so, he says, “it is not like there is any direct coordination between terrorist groups in Iraq and those in Libya or in Mali or in Sinai.

“Links exist but there but is no joint command that issues orders.” IS, says Bakr, is in essence a shared philosophy rather than a coherent, transnational organization.

Terrorist cells in Sinai may have access to arms coming from Sudan, training in Libya or logistical support from militants in Gaza but they remain “local groups acting on their own agendas which often overlap with those similar of similar groups elsewhere.”

The radical ideology to which these groups subscribe spread during the battle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and has its roots in the Wahhabism promoted by Saudi Arabia.

There is no short-term solution to halt the spread of these groups which have benefited from the “rise then fall of the Arab Spring”, or of the ideology they propound, says Bakr, for it is the absence of justice and freedom, he argues, that serves as the catalyst for the recruitment of young men into their ranks.

It is necessary to defuse the sense of injustice that motivates young recruits and this, argues Bakr, means adopting policies that provide better social services, overhauling education, and promoting a non-extreme religious discourse.

A start has to be made, “and the sooner, the better.”

Security initiatives, he warns, will never succeed alone. “And the authorities need to realise that these groups are not restricted to Sinai. They exist elsewhere in Egypt. They may find it easier to act in Sinai but this is not a specifically Sinai problem.”

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