Sinai insurgency: Why Egypt is launching an attack on its own territory

By Rohit Bhatachaarya

The Egyptian air force launched an attack for a second consecutive day against militants in central and northern Sinai early on Saturday. This attack was part of an operation to end the insurgency that has caused the deaths of hundreds of people since 2013.

Operation Sinai

The military noted that its fighter planes struck “terrorist concentrations and hideouts” in the region throughout the night and into the wee hours of Saturday, specifically targeting weapons, warehouses, and areas of logistical assistance.

According to a statement released by military spokesperson Colonel Tamer al-Rifai, special forces in coordination with the police also conducted raids on the ground within cities in Sinai to capture militants. However, no exact details with respect to casualties or arrests were announced, although it was clarified that the attacks would continue. “The armed forces and the police assert their determination to uproot terrorism and to achieve peace and stability,” Rifai said.

The statement also mentioned that border guards along with the navy were engaged in the process of securing the Suez Canal to ensure that there was no hindrance to navigation through the international waterway. The Suez Canal Authority chairman insisted that the waterway was functioning normally. He said that forty-eight ships had traversed the canal on Saturday amid the presence of the additional security.

The Egyptian forces stated that, apart from the action in Sinai, operations would also be extended to encompass certain areas of the Nile Delta and the western desert. Other rebels have orchestrated assaults from these areas, with some believed to be acting out of neighbouring Libya. The state broadcast media televised news on Friday, confirming that all schools in Northern Sinai had been ordered to remain shut from Saturday until further notice.

The continued rise of the Sinai insurgency

The Sinai insurgency is an ongoing battle taking place in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula between the Egyptian military forces and Islamic militants, which has resulted in several attacks upon innocent civilians. The insurgency was born after the beginning of the Egyptian Revolution, which led to the downfall of long-time President Hosni Mubarak. This was ultimately followed by the ousting of President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood by an army led by then-army chief Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who has since become the President following mass protests against the Mursi regime.

The Sinai insurgency was initially orchestrated by local Bedouin tribesmen, who took advantage of the volatile political situation and the weak central authority in Egypt to launch a number of assaults on official forces in Sinai. In 2014, certain elements among these militants affiliated themselves with Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) and proclaimed themselves to be the autonomous governors of the Sinai Province.

President Sisi, who is seeking re-election in March, commanded the Egyptian military in November which defeated the militants within three months. This victory only came in the aftermath of a devastating attack on a mosque west of the city of Al-Arish that resulted in the deaths of more than three hundred Sufist devotees.

The effectiveness of the military’s latest offensive will probably not have an impact on the result of the forthcoming election, which is scheduled to be held from March 26 to 28. It is largely expected that Sisi will coast to a victory as all opposition leaders who were considered to pose a substantial challenge to the incumbent president have withdrawn from the race.

Proxy presence and international actors

Between 2011 and 2013, Israel approved of two Egyptian military buildups in the Sinai Peninsula beyond the troop limits established by the Camp David Accords. According to CNN, as part of a ploy to enhance security in Sinai, assist Morsi, and pacify Israel, former American Defence Secretary Leon Panetta provided Egypt with classified intelligence-sharing capabilities to assist Egypt in the process of identifying militant threats in the region. The United States has also offered additional intelligence sharing technologies to Egypt, such as satellite imagery and drone flights, as well as cell-phone intercepts and other communications between militants who have been suspected of plotting attacks.

Moreover, the Multinational Force and Observers in Sinai, a 1,650-strong international organisation established in 1979 during the Camp David Accords with peacekeeping duties, had also maintained a low profile in the area. This was particularly true during the Egyptian military’s Operation Eagle in 2012, which marked the first phase of the counter-insurgency.

A never-ending war on terror

According to a report compiled by the National Council for Human Rights, the problems faced by the locals as a consequence of the Sinai insurgency range from the demolition of hundreds of homes and displacement of families to the absence of schools and health services due to gross government negligence. Since the beginning of the conflict, numerous civilians have been killed either in military operations or kidnapped and then beheaded by militants.

The repeated failures of the present administration in combating the insurgency have become glaringly apparent. This is a regime that justifies its policies of mass repression on the basis of security and the war against terror. In the absence of deep structural and fundamental reforms, the insurgency will only become even more deadly.

Recently, the government arrested a satirical blogger on the grounds of him having ‘terrorist’ ties. While it is convenient for Sisi to label anyone who opposes him a terrorist, he cannot bomb terrorism out of existence. For that to happen, he must commit to and invest in antidotes against the menace of extremism, especially job growth. So far on all these fronts, Sisi has failed the Egyptian people.

Featured Image Source: Wikimedia Commons