Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1121, 8-14 November
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1121, 8-14 November

Ahram Weekly

Shifting sands

As Sinai is caught in a spiral of violence the government’s first priority appears to be to reassure the public regardless of the facts, writes Ahmed Eleiba

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Hardly does Sinai calm down than violence flares. Most recently the peninsula has witnessed a police patrol ambush, claiming the lives of three policemen, the abduction of a female secondary school student and a male engineering student and the kidnapping of the sheikh of the Al-Aghwat tribe. As local people took to the streets to protest against the violence Sinai rights activist Islam Kuweidar said the situation was becoming intolerable.
In the wake of last week’s attack, the ministers of defence and interior visited Sinai and army units were deployed to secure government buildings, police stations and court houses. Following a brief meeting with North Sinai governorate officials the minister of defence left and the minister of interior issued a statement announcing that security director General Ahmed Bakr would be replaced by his deputy, General Samih Bashadi. The minister also said that security check points had been reinforced. The moves were insufficient to ward off fears that the situation could deteriorate further and many would agree with Ashraf Al-Hifni, a political activist from the Revolutionary Socialists Movement, when he said that Sinai appears to be heading towards heightened tension.
Increased military deployment was obvious during the visit of the defence minister who delivered a brief speech to soldiers.
“We will never slacken efforts to defend this important part of the nation,” he said before urging soldiers to cooperate more closely with their counterparts in the police.
Military spokesman Colonel Ahmed Ali moved quickly to refute reports that Sinai had been declared a military zone or that a curfew would be imposed, saying the rumours were an attempt to make political capital out of increased security following the recent attack. He noted that the rumours had begun to circulate at the same time protesters blocked traffic in northern Sinai and demanded that sentences passed by civilian courts in several cases be revoked.
Ali insisted the situation in northern Sinai was normal and the police were working alongside the Armed Forces to safeguard security. He added that visits by the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces and the minister of defence and military production were proof of the government’s commitment to safeguarding the peninsula.
Such reassurances carry little weight with Kuweidar. “The crisis has gone beyond what might be termed aggravated,” he says. “There is no security and conditions are more dangerous than anyone imagines. If the president’s office and the security authorities continue to handle Sinai in this way the second revolution will erupt here. The armed groups have extended their reach beyond the areas in which they were operating, Arish, Sheikh Zuwaid and Gabal Al-Halal. The army’s response to the attack against the police patrol has aroused suspicions among ordinary people in Sinai. Why hasn’t any security agency pursued the attackers or cordoned off the areas to which they fled? Why was no action taken after they abducted the sheikh of a tribe, after they began opening fire on people in the streets right in the middle of the city?”
Kuweidar questions the veracity of information released by the government and security agencies. Much of it, he says, is geared to reassuring public opinion.
“We met with the governor [of North Sinai] on Sunday,” he says. “The governor told me that the tunnels [between the Sinai and Gaza] had all been closed. This infuriated us. I said that just days before I had witnessed a transaction between a young Palestinian and a tunnel operator who coordinated his transit with the tunnel operator. No one here believes 1,300 tunnels have been closed.”
Ashraf Al-Hifni attended the same meeting.
“Security officials and the governor keep telling us that all these groups are under surveillance. But why aren’t they arrested? It’s obvious that Operation Eagle has failed and that the government has started to negotiate with the leaders of extremist groups. And the groups, discovering the government is weak, are using the blood of martyrs as currency to reinforce their negotiating positions.”
Al-Hifni also believes Israeli hands are at work in Sinai.
“It is very important to follow up on such suspicions because they give jihadists an excuse to confront the state or fabricate a crisis for the state on the grounds that there has to be a fundamental change to the Camp David treaty.”
Not all Sinai activists share the view that the provisions of the Camp David accord are a central concern for the people of Sinai or of Egypt at the current juncture. Musad Abu Fagr believes that the way forward is to open the field to free and open democratic participation and to anchor Egypt on solid political foundations through a constitution acceptable to all Egyptians.
“Abrogating Camp David means stationing 250,000 soldiers in the Sinai. Are we able to do this?”
The policies being pursued by President Mohamed Morsi, he says, are “an assassination of the state” and lack any coherent vision of how Sinai should be handled.
The government, he says, is consistently failing to address real and pressing concerns.
“Where are people going to get their water from? Where are they going to plant their crops and build their houses? Where is the infrastructure that the government said it had planned for the Sinai within the framework of LE1 billion development initiative? At one point LE49 billion was supposedly earmarked for Sinai, money said to have been collected from sources at home and abroad during the Mubarak era for the purpose of developing the peninsula. Well, it vanished into the desert.”
Last week’s attacks in the Sinai coincided with the visit by a US military delegation to inspect the border area in coordination with the MFO. Although military officials say the visit was a regular inspection tour, the timing led to speculation that the US was in the process of reviewing its position on the Sinai.
Military expert General Adel Suleiman insists there is nothing out of the ordinary in the visit and no one in Egypt is entertaining an idea of military cooperation with the US in Sinai.
“Egypt has no need for this at present. What it does need is equipment from Washington or elsewhere in order to maintain security in the Sinai,” he says.
Military affairs expert General Ahmed Bilal rejects claims that the crisis in Sinai has been contained.  
“The opposite is true,” he says. “The crisis is being exported outside Sinai. It’s clear that the Nasr City terrorist cell is part of this spread.”
CIA chief David Petraeus’s visit to Cairo last week occasioned further speculation over the US role in Sinai. Bilal said that recent leaks to the effect that a list of the cell members’ names had been handed to the US official suggests that the level of security cooperation with the US had been notched up and may increase.
In an interview with the German Press Agency Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya leader Tarek Al-Zomor said he could not imagine his group reverting to violence because the revolution had created new conditions which ruled out the notion of Islamists using arms even against those who differ in opinion, and regardless of whether the differences were with the government. Although Al-Zomor acknowledged that there was a Salafist and jihadist trend in Sinai, he believes that they are committed to respecting the laws of the state and that they will not rebel against President Morsi however much they disagree with him. As for those who do err and resort to arms, they should be brought to justice, he said, adding that he doubted any Islamist trend would defy Morsi on the pretext of him not applying Sharia law.
“I believe that the Islamist movement as a whole accepts the legitimacy of Morsi as an elected president. The majority of the Islamist trend sees his presence in power as a victory for the Islamist project and supports him,” said Al-Zomor.
A security expert who has taken part in recent interrogations told Al-Ahram Weekly that it is important to distinguish between radical Islamist groups that had issued ideological revisions and the new groups that are operating in Sinai. The latter, he says, are very different from the groups that emerged at the time of Gamaa Al-Jihad and Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya.
“Leaders of the old groups, such as Al-Zomor, imagined that they could influence the new groups to revise their ideology. But the dialogues conducted to that end failed precisely because the participants had divergent outlooks. What this suggests is that the confrontation must be handled by the government and that to pursue dialogue in the manner of the 1980s and 1990s is unrealistic.”
Bilal believes that what is happening in Sinai today is a direct result of the security policies pursued by Habib Al-Adli, Hosni Mubarak’s long serving Interior Minister. Compounding the dilemma, say Sinai political activists, is that intelligence and state security officers have now resurrected Al-Adli’s policies and procedures.
Suleiman agrees. “We need a new security and political system that prioritises the right of the people and that realises that it is there to serve the people, not to take revenge against them or brutalise them.”
Egypt’s government and security apparatuses face a formidable task amid increasing indications that attempts are being made to coordinate a network of terrorist organisations to prepare for a major terrorist attack. Ali Bakr, a researcher on Islamist groups, believes some groups are now adopting the ideology and methodology of Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb. The Nasr City cell is a prime example, he says. Ideological inspiration is one thing, material supplies another. The huge arms cache that was uncovered, says Bakr, suggests support from Gaza and Libya.
“These Salafist jihadist and takfiri groups and cells are very radical and very violent. They pronounce fatwas [religious edicts] that, to their minds, justify the killing of hundreds of innocent people simply to target a single individual. Ultimately, we are looking at a wave of violence and terrorism that could spread very wide,” says Bakr, should the various groups coalesce beneath a single umbrella.

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