Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1123, 22-28 November 2012-
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1123, 22-28 November 2012-

Ahram Weekly

The state of Sinai

During a tour of Rafah, Ahmed Eleiba talked with Sinai tribal elders about the security problems threatening the area

Al-Ahram Weekly

Al-Ahram Weekly accompanied Islamist parliamentarians Hassan Abu Hassaan, representative of the Salafist Nour Party in the former People’s Assembly, and Mosallam Ayad, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) representative in the Shura Council, on a tour of the northeast corner of Sinai near the border at Rafah.
The discussion covered the history of the impoverishment of Sinai’s political and security environment and the consequent removal of Sinai’s prospects for the future, which, to many, now appears murky. According to Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Manei, a senior sheikh of the Sinai tribes, the tribes would soon be returning to normal as a result of necessity.
Al-Manei, together with other independent tribal elders not appointed by the government, had threatened to launch a “Sinai Revolution of Anger” on 20 November if their demands were not met. However, because of the current situation in Gaza the scheduled uprising was called off, and the leaders agreed to meet at a later point in order to address the failure of the Egyptian government’s military, security and political policies in Sinai.
Driving through the border strip, the effects of the bombs that Israeli F-16s had fired to destroy the border tunnels could be clearly seen. The streets of Rafah were deserted, and many of the city’s residents had fled further into Sinai after experiencing the damage done by bombs that could be felt all the way to Sheikh Zuwaid and Arish.
The windows in most buildings had been shattered, and the ground was strewn with shards of glass. A missile had fallen near international signpost number seven south of the Rafah crossing, even though there was no apparent target. Many in Sinai believe that these missiles are not strays, but are deliberately intended to send a message to certain parties in the area.
Sources attest to the presence of a large number of Palestinians in Sinai, and there have been reports that the area will be receiving more of them in the event of Israel’s launching a land offensive into Gaza. Hossam Al-Shatni, a resident of Gaza, told the Weekly that the majority of Palestinians in Sinai were visiting relatives. Many Gazans own apartments in Arish, and some of them have obtained Egyptian nationality.
Sources confirmed that no tents had been brought into the area to create refugee camps, although government officials were preparing to receive refugees in the event of a land offensive. In a statement to the Weekly, the governor of North Sinai warned of the danger of a large influx of refugees both to Egyptian national security and to the Palestinian cause.
Other sources in Sinai feared that Egyptian military officials might try to push the idea that if war flares up international law would oblige Cairo to accommodate refugees for the duration. However, the sources also stressed that the people of Sinai strongly opposed this idea, and tangible confirmation could be seen in the form of a large concrete wall on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border and barbed-wire barriers elsewhere to prevent the movement of people in both directions.
The jihadist groups that have proliferated in the area are another headache for the people of Sinai. Abu Hassaan told the Weekly that these groups represented different schools of Islamic theological and legal thought. “It’s ideology that steers them. The arms come later. Many ordinary inhabitants of Sinai carry guns. Why haven’t they pointed them against the government,” he asked.
Abu Hassaan said that there were Islamist fundamentalist groups elsewhere in Egypt, such as Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, and that these engage in politics in the same way as their peers in the rest of the country. They do not bear arms or issue fatwas (religious edicts) urging insurrection against the state, and they oppose violence against civilians and army and security personnel.
But two other types of groups have become active in Sinai: the Jihadist Salafis and the Tawhid and Jihad groups. “These two groups began with the idea of taking up arms against the enemy [Israel], but now no one can control their ideas or their arms,” he said.
Those that do not turn their guns against the security agencies today may do so tomorrow. For the Sinai tribes, the problem is that either these agencies are not there to protect them, or they revert to the same behaviour that occurred under the previous regime. According to Abu Hossam, “the security environment in Sinai does not bode well, and we should expect the worst. We said it was urgent that we talk with the Islamist groups to convince them not to take up arms against society. When we did speak with them, we told them that if they did, we would support the use of armed force against them because arms have to be confronted with arms whereas ideas are confronted with ideas.”
Abu Hassaan said that the dialogue conducted by the president’s office with jihadist groups in Sinai had failed, a view echoed by Nazar Gharab, a former Salafi MP and a member of the Sinai Tribal Dialogue Forum. Although there have been calls to renew the dialogue, Abu Hassaan said it would fail again if it was held within the same framework.
“The fundamentalist Islamists who are negotiating on behalf of the government only speak with the people they know in their own groups. To make matters worse, the jihadist Salafis and takfiris regard the negotiators as heretics and the ideological revisions they made under the former regime as treachery. They believe that these negotiators have made a pact with the security agencies, and they refuse to fall into the same trap.”
Sheikh Al-Manei said there was some hope in dialogue, but not via the government. “The numbers and capabilities of these groups have been exaggerated. By remaining calm and speaking to them reasonably, it is possible to bring them back to moderation and, indeed, many of them have already responded positively.”
“Dialogue with the jihadists is better than confrontation. Some have already renounced violence and returned to the tribal order. As for those that have not, we caution them in our own way. There is no need for the government to intervene because that only stirs up a hornets’ nest and gives them cause for revenge.”
A Sinai activist said that extremists were using olive groves for training camps. According to Abu Ayad, there have been problems of this sort, “but they are limited in number. The problem is not in the numbers: it’s in the possibility that they will increase. The area has become a playground, even for players from outside Sinai. Mossad is there with agents and units monitoring the border. It’s even staging operations, such as that which killed Oweida Barakat [a jihadist who died in a village near the border], and its planes are crossing into our airspace. The Americans are present in the multinational forces and in other ways. Hamas is here, and the tunnels serve as the best testimony of this. Fatah is also present via the Mohamed Dahlan group, though this presence has shrunk a bit. And Iran is here, and there has been a dangerous increase of Shia in Sinai, especially in Arish. The Egyptian government is the only party that is absent.”
The search for a solution is being undertaken in Cairo and in other capitals, perhaps Washington and Tel Aviv most of all. What can an area that has become Egypt’s Tora Bora offer to its regional environment? If this analogy suggests a military solution, reading between the lines of US sources suggests that Washington does not share it. Instead, thinking in the US holds that the solution resides in comprehensive development, though the US is also willing to supply Egypt with arms and equipment, but not in ways that go against the Camp David accords.
Brigadier General Al-Zayat said that certain parties want a war against the regime in Sinai, using this as a bargaining chip. Among the signs of this was a tribal convention held in the Lawyers Syndicate on Sunday, in which the participants held the FJP responsible for the problems of Sinai. Abu Hassaan appeared to share the participants’ opinion.
“Five months have passed, and there is no sign of a revival in Sinai. The president has courted all of Egypt with his Nahda [Renaissance] Project, but where is it?” From the left came the same question, including from activist Ashraf Al-Hifni and liberal Islam Quwaider.
Al-Zayat also said that some factions were using Camp David as a means to advance their own political interests. “In different times and under a different regime, we pressed for changes to Camp David. But today we have stopped calling for changes because the circumstances have changed for the worse, demanding that we reorder our priorities. We have to be pragmatic. We need to coordinate with Israel on security as long as the US is present. Under current circumstances, Egypt has no choice but to seek stability and avoid complications. What’s important is that we win the Americans to our side, so that we can work with Israel in a broader framework.”
According to leaks from military sources, the army has no intention of entering into dialogue with the jihadist groups, seeing them as the guilty parties that need to be handled firmly. Some military sources charge that the government is appeasing these jihadist elements. It might differ with them in ideological detail, but it shares with them a broader ideological heading. “The regime is Islamist, and it fears confrontation with the Islamist hornets’ nest,” said one military official.
One official believed that the Sinai question required a new historical starting point. “One idea is to create a special division of the Armed Forces and police that would be equipped for guerrilla warfare, as opposed to conventional combat. The US could fund such a project, especially given that it has been working with Egypt in the anti-terrorism programme for some time now. However, it’s crucial that this solution should only be a part of a comprehensive development plan for Sinai with specifically designated goals to be achieved within set timeframes.”
“We have to realise that Camp David emerged at a particular time in the regional and international power balances. Much has changed since then. It is important for all parties to sit together and agree on significant revisions to the agreement, because it is no longer able to meet political needs.”
This, he said, was all the more the case in view of the major changes in the regional geopolitical environment and the need to review security arrangements. “The Egyptian president has urged working in this direction, and the security agencies have supported him. Certainly, the treaty has lost its aura of sanctity, and there are no grounds to fear submitting it for a revision that would serve the interests of both sides on the basis of mutual interests and in the light of pressing developments.”

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