The July 1 battle in which the Egyptian Armed Forces regained control of a small border town from the self-proclaimed Sinai Province of the Islamic State (formerly known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis or Supporters of Jerusalem) has heightened fear, anger, and above all self-congratulation among both the government’s supporters and its critics. Days after still unknown assailants had assassinated the country’s Prosecutor General by means of a car bomb, IS fighters attacked a series of checkpoints in the northern Sinai peninsula and appeared briefly to have taken control of Shaykh Zuwayed near the border with Gaza and Israel. The attack occurred more or less on the anniversary of massive demonstrations (30 June) and subsequent coup (3 July) in 2013 when former President Mohamed Morsi was removed from office.
Most commentary, and especially in English, has focused on the incapacity of the Egyptian armed forces to prevent such attacks and the threat to the Egyptian state of an IS insurgency. The rapidity with which IS took control of important cities in Syria (notably Raqqa) and Iraq (Tikrit, Falluja, and Mosul) as well as areas of Libya and Yemen suggest that much of Sinai and perhaps portions of the Egyptian heartland could fall easily into its grasp. The argument of many analysts is straightforward: increasing levels of repression by the Egyptian dictatorship radicalize the population and drive Egyptians increasingly to accept the use of violence to overthrow an unpopular regime and IS stands ready to provide the violence. In this argument that repression occurs in the context of the massive uprising of 2011 and the democratic elections of 2012 makes more Egyptians likely to find the regime intolerable and to sympathize with or participate in armed revolt against it.
The logic of the argument is impeccable but as with so many arguments about Egypt and the Arab world over the past four years it turns politics into a morality tale whose authors are rewarded with victory.
It is more useful and far more interesting to place the fighting in northern Sinai in the context of the last thirty-five years of Egyptian history. Seen thus, the very real limits of the IS threat to the Egyptian state and the likely continued degradation of the Egyptian political scene as the government coercively responds to the military challenge it faces becomes more apparent. As Egyptians become inured to a coarser and more violent political life, it seems unlikely they will be able to free themselves from it for at least a generation.
IS is a locally dangerous opponent and it may be true that the Egyptian Army lost more men in the first week of July 2015 in Sinai than at any time since the 1973 War with Israel. However in July 2015 the Egyptian casualties were about 1.5 percent those who died in October 1973; and other attacks in the past several years have taken dozens of lives. The violence in Sinai is real and frightening but so far it is well within the capacity of the Egyptian armed forces to repress.
To fully appreciate the meaning of the events in Sinai we need to look elsewhere. We can begin with the period between 1979 and 1981: the years in which Egypt, during the presidency of Anwar Sadat, regained control of the Sinai from Israel and during which Egypt also faced its first (and arguably most threatening) Islamist insurgency. These two processes are intricately linked, not least by the assassination of Sadat in 1981.
Although the Egyptian state presents the 1973 War as a military victory, Israel won and in the process not only regained control of the Sinai peninsula that it had first seized in the 1967 war but also a portion of the west bank of the Suez Canal. It was widely believed at the time that it would not be long before yet another Arab-Israeli war would be fought. Instead a peace process returned Sinai to Egypt in return for a peace treaty that removed Egypt from the Arab military front facing Israel and demilitarized much of northern Sinai.
Egypt regained control of Sinai through lengthy and domestically contentious negotiations coinciding with a period of economic stress best remembered for two days of demonstrations and rioting in 1977 when the government lost control of the streets in downtown Cairo. To limit political opposition to the treaty and to counter popular discontent rooted in economic distress, Sadat ordered the arrest of some 1,500 people in September 1981. Islamic activists engaged in what we would now call a Salafi-jihadi current assassinated Sadat and including members of the self-named “Islamic Group.”
Sadat’s assassination while he presided over a parade celebrating the October war as a victory is well remembered globally. Its shadow has obscured another side of the events of October 1981: the attempt to overthrow the regime by force. In the days after Sadat’s assassination, Islamist militants launched an insurrection in the southern Egyptian city of Asyut. Over sixty police personnel were killed in the fighting and ultimately the government regained control of the city by sending in Army paratroop units. Asyut is one of the largest cities in Upper Egypt and has long been an important government and economic center for the region. The Egyptian government has, on occasion, found it difficult socially or politically to dominate many urban and rural areas but Asyut is the one time in recent memory when it lost control of a major city for several days due to an armed uprising. That events in Asyut had no echoes in the rest of the country was, for some Islamist activists, a clear indication that armed uprisings were doomed as a means to confront the regime.
Sadat’s actual assassins were executed but other members of the Islamic Group, notably the cousins Abboud and Tariq al-Zumor, were handed lengthy prison sentences. They remained in jail even after they had served the judicial sentences imposed on them because the Egyptian government believed they posed a continuing threat.
Sadat made significant progress in realizing the goals of the Camp David treaty before his murder. As befits a treaty aimed at ending a series of increasingly costly and destructive wars between states, Camp David provided strong reassurances that neither party could easily launch a surprise war again. It did this primarily by limiting troop deployments on each side of the Sinai border between Israel, the Palestinian enclave of the Gaza Strip (then still under direct Israeli occupation), and Egypt. Although Egypt had regained sovereignty over the entire peninsula, Sadat had agreed that it would not station any members of the armed forces in a zone stretching from Sheikh Zuwayed on the north coast to Sharm el-Sheikh on the southern tip. Only lightly armed civil police would patrol “Zone C.”
In years since 1981 development in the Sinai has centered mainly on the tourism industry in the south. South Sinai with about 160,000 people is lightly populated but it has world-class beaches, scuba diving, and hotels. One of the few issues that divided the Israeli and Egyptian governments after the signing of the treaty was the determination of the exact boundary demarcating the countries at Taba. A court decision awarded a small slice of land and two hotels to Egypt, one of which is today the Taba Hilton. In the first decade of the twentieth century there were attacks on tourist facilities in South but these were decidedly aimed at destroying the traffic rather than in creating a “liberated zone” such as IS has in Syria and Iraq. Tourism has not done well in the years since 2011; revenues have shrunk from over fourteen billon to under five billion USD a year.
North Sinai, never the object of much investment by Egyptian governments, has suffered an even more catastrophic economic collapse than the south. Although North Sinai is also lightly populated, with 420,000 people it is much larger than the south. The largest city, El-Arish, with about 164,000 people, has roughly as many people as all of South Sinai. Sheikh Zuwayed has about 60,000. El-Arish is the largest city in Sinai proper, but it is not the largest city in the region. Almost as large is Rafah which has 150,000 inhabitants thirty miles away on the Palestinian side of the border. Not far beyond Rafah is Khan Yunis with more than a third of a million people and eighteen miles further north is Gaza City with another half million.
Much has been written about the tunnels under the Egyptian-Palestinian border. They have supplied Gazans with cement, medications, and food (most of which is ordinary and some of which is luxurious). They have been used for weapons (which became cheap and available after the collapse of the Libyan regime) and drugs such as tramadol (an opiate medication). They have been viewed as engines of growth, survival and incubators for entrepreneurship as well as security threats and lifelines. Less frequently has the estimated 700 million to one billion USD that passed through them been evaluated as vital to the economy of Egyptian North Sinai. An impoverished area with little industry, however, would inevitably orient its economy toward the largest market in the region. North Sinai may be part of Egypt politically but eastern North Sinai is necessarily connected to the Gazan economy.
In addition to goods, the North Sinai economy includes traffic in human beings. By some estimates tens of thousands of Eritrean and other African citizens have attempted to illegally enter Israel through the Sinai border crossings. Although it is impossible to accurately measure the number of people involved, international human rights organizations have described large numbers of people pressed into servitude, tortured, and held for tens of thousands of dollars in ransoms. As is clear from the American Southwest, lengthy borders in desolate regions are difficult to police even for a strong state; where the state has withdrawn it is effectively impossible.
Northern Sinai is also the route of a pipeline that until 2012 was the major export artery for Egyptian natural gas. A main line connects the central Egyptian network to El-Arish on the northern Sinai coast where it splits into two parts: one, underwater, connects with Ashkelon in Israel; the other, significantly larger, connects to Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. The gas connection with Israel was highly controversial and the pipeline, which provides little direct economic advantage to North Sinai, has been bombed more than twenty-five times since the 2011 uprising. Increased demand for gas in Egypt prompted the government to end the contract with Israel in 2012 and reduce supplies to the Arab countries. The Egyptian government has recently decided to allow the import of natural gas via a reverse flow from Israel through the same pipeline.
Before returning to connect the strands of the argument so far, it is worth pondering what would happen if Gaza could trade freely with its Israeli and Egyptian neighbors. Gaza City alone has roughly the population of the four largest nearby non-Palestinian cities combined: Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Beer Sheva in Israel and El-Arish in Egypt. The 1.8 million people of the Gaza Strip (or Gaza province of Palestine if you prefer) are the largest concentration of human beings in the Sinai and southern Israel region and probably the largest supply of labor.
North Sinai is a gateway for Gaza as long as its 1.8 million people can neither import directly through their own port or trade with Israel. The northern towns of Shaykh Zuwayed, El-Arish, and ultimately Rafah (on the Egyptian side) have provided the otherwise absent gateway. Egyptian governments from Mubarak through Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi to now-President Sisi have limited legal economic exchange with Gaza and frequently closed the official border crossings. Trade has thus required transport through tunnels; that is, as a form of criminal activity. This is a trade that initially the lightly armed police were not equipped to deter and were sometimes paid to ignore. Morsi’s government placed more pressure on this trade but governments since his ouster have been even more assiduous in shutting it down.
Returning where we left off: as the 2011 uprising in Cairo and other major cities grew and the police forces collapsed, the maintenance of public order devolved to the Egyptian Armed Forces. This required pulling troops into central Egypt, especially the cities, and left the borders unguarded. The Supreme Council of Armed Forces did negotiate a very early agreement with the Israeli government to send troops in South Sinai partly to prevent attacks that would have damaged the tourist industry but North Sinai receded even further from effective government control.
Unlike other equally impoverished areas of Egypt, North Sinai in the wake of the 2011 uprising did have one important economic sector: illegal trade. It was precisely its illegality that made it rewarding.Illegal trade (in the north) and tourism (in the south) are important drivers of the economy and politics in these two areas.
Foreign mass tourism in Egypt is a post-Sadat phenomenon and it has provided regime opponents with a soft target. The most famous and still the most murderous incident is the 1997 attack on Hatshepsut’s Temple in Upper Egypt in which sixty-eight people (including six attackers) died. The attack was carried out by members of the Islamic Group who opposed a truce some of their leaders had arranged with the Mubarak government. In 2004, 2005 and 2006 hotels and tourist attractions in Taba, Sharm el-Sheikh, and Dahab in South Sinai were attacked and more than 150 people killed in total.
Salafi groups claimed responsibility for the attacks in South Sinai although the Egyptian state and many external observers see them as the work of North Sinai Bedouin who hoped to affect the tourism industry. One aspect of the attacks that differentiates them from 1997, is that they all occurred on holidays associated with the Egyptian state or Egyptian society broadly speaking. The 2004 Taba attack occurred on 7 October (a day after the anniversary of the start of the 1973 War and Sadat’s assassination) and the Sharm attack occurred on the anniversary of the 1952 revolution. The 2006 attack in Dahab occurred on Sham El-Nessim (the only holiday celebrated by both Christians and Muslims), which occurs in spring and whose origins are pre-Islamic and pre-Christian. These attacks thus struck at the economic roots of the state as well as its cultural and social claims to legitimacy.
It is not surprising that within weeks of the beginning of the 2011 uprising some North Sinai residents had also attacked the gas pipeline. In May 2011 unknown attackers used a rocket propelled grenade to attack the tomb of the eponymous Sheik Zuwayed during a period in which attacks on Sufi shrines created mounting tensions in Egypt. These attacks also made it clear that not all the arms that traveled through the region had been sent to Gaza: rocket propelled grenades, high explosives, and automatic weapons were widely available. In mid-summer of 2011, in addition to the earlier attacks on the gas pipeline and the shrine, the police station in El-Arish was attacked and six policemen killed. In November 2012 an RPG was used to attack a cement factory in El-Arish.
Although the army and the Egyptian media have recently alleged these weapons arrive in Egypt from Gaza, it earlier recognized that their primary source was Libya. After the collapse of the regime there weapons became widely available for export. Controlling the border with Gaza is probably more important as a way of draining financial resources from the state’s opponents in northern Sinai and also preventing them from having a safe haven from the Egyptian army.
By August 2011, regaining control over the border area had become a priority for the Egyptian Armed Forces after a series of cross-border attacks from southern Sinai into Israel. Who was responsible for these attacks remains unclear but they did provoke the first serious exchange of gunfire between Israeli and Egyptian troops in decades. Five Egyptian soldiers were killed when Israeli soldiers crossed the border pursuing the attackers. Coupled with the earlier attacks on the gas pipeline, the police station, and the threat to the tourism industry Sinai became more prominent to the government. Few if any Egyptians were sympathetic to Israel’s security needs but equally few wanted the decision about whether renewed war would break out to pass into the hands of North Sinai Bedouin and guerrillas.
A year later, on 5 August 5 2012, armed men again attacked an Egyptian military outpost, killing sixteen soldiers, stealing armored vehicles and attempting to enter Israel where they were killed. In the days after the attack, then President Morsi asked General Mohamed Tantawi to resign as Defense Minister and replaced him with Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi who later mounted the coup that overthrew Morsi.
In mid-May 2013, as the Egyptian political crisis that ended with the coup deepened, seven Egyptian soldiers were kidnapped. They were freed but not before a video in which they appealed for help was shown on the web. Their freedom came after negotiations between tribal leaders and the kidnappers during which the Armed Forces appeared to be irrelevant and powerless.
In late October 2014 armed men launched yet another attack on army checkpoints in northern Sinai with car bombs, explosives and automatic weapons in which twenty-seven soldiers died and twenty-six more were injured. This was the largest guerrilla attack on the armed forces in the history of North Sinai to date although this, along with the incidents mentioned above, are only a few of the stream of violence occurring in the area.
The Egyptian Army, like most militaries, has few tools other than overwhelming force with which to re-establish control over North Sinai. Opening the border with Gaza would have antagonized Israel and empowered the Hamas government but it would not have solved the economic problems of North Sinai; it more probably would have exacerbated them as the smuggling trade diminished. Of course neither did directly attacking the smuggling trade endear the military government to the inhabitants of North Sinai. Specific investments in North Sinai would take years to result in significant economic growth and the overall Egyptian economy was shrinking any way as foreign and domestic investment stalled and then declined. Even had the central government been willing to pay fees to allow gas exports to transit the national territory, there was no politically appropriate way to allocate them to local inhabitants.
Armed elements in North Sinai have proclaimed allegiance to the Islamic State and asserted that they are the nucleus of a “Sinai Province.” How exactly does a region whose insurgents are, even if loosely, connected to smuggling goods and trafficking people, fit with the creation of a state-building enterprise whose core is in eastern Syria and western Iraq? And how does it relate to a project whose leaders claim it to be based on “strict” Islam?
One obvious connection is that the Islamic State has emerged in areas where structures of governance have been destroyed by war and where existing elites have been politically marginalized. IS itself is not an armed insurgency against an existing government. It was not organized in the wake of a popular uprising. It exists where the old state ceased to exist and few if any structures of governance are in place. In Iraq the American invasion and occupation effectively destroyed the old Iraqi state and the army. The reconstruction of institutions of governance in the Kurdish north and the Arab south left the Sunni Arab center largely adrift. A prolonged and exceptionally destructive civil war in Syria abetted by external actors accomplished an even more severe result there. In both places armed Sunni militias competed for influence and control. The details of how the Islamic State defeated its rivals are unclear but in the absence of a functioning army able to defend the national territory those are unimportant. The existing militias (which in Syria include the Lebanese Hizbollah and the remains of the former Syrian Armed Forces) can defend themselves and their territories. The Islamic State has been unable to move into ethnically or religiously different areas and its opponents have shown little willingness or ability to defeat it on its home ground. The Islamic State itself survives, as the late scholar of state-building Charles Tilly would have recognized, by engaging in racketeering. It operates a “protection racket” against competing militias and enforces its own power with displays of ruthlessness on a par with those of the Zetas and other drug cartels. The Islamic State has clearly, as its name implies, created state or state-like institutions but it continues to require external aid (in the form of recruits and finance), external trade (in oil and looted goods) as well as internal political acquiescence if not support.
This brings us to the events at Shaykh Zuwayed in mid-2015. On 16 May shortly after deposed President Mohamed Morsi was sentenced to death, three judges in north Sinai were murdered in a drive-by shooting of the mini-van carrying them from their homes to court. The execution the following day of six men convicted of membership in a terrorist cell provoked some domestic outrage and international concern. Far less attention was paid to events in North Sinai itself where, according to the daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, the army and police “eliminated seven takfiri jihadists.” The newspaper described the killings as revenge for the deaths of the jurists. Government spokesmen began to walk back the claim that the Armed Forces and the police are involved in a vendetta rather than enforcing the law, but the immediate perception of the headline writers may be quite accurate. Something similar happened after the October 2014. Headlines in the daily Al-Masry Al-Youm proclaimed in large type “No Mourning Before Retaliation” which may have reflected sentiments in the Armed Forces but was not itself reported as official policy.
Unofficially retired generals, who had taken up posts as security advisers and experts, such as Sameh Saif al-Yazal, Hamdi Bekheit, and Gamal Abu-Zikri called for clearing the population from the area so that the army could eliminate its opponents. Since the fall of 2014 the Egyptian government has followed this policy and created a buffer zone up to a kilometer wide on its border with Gaza, razing hundreds of residences in the process.
The coordinated attack on several army checkpoints indicated that the Sinai Province fighters have the capacity to engage in such operations against stationary and lightly held positions. Reports about casualties vary and the Egyptian government has been careful to limit much news of the operation but it is generally agreed that dozens of people—soldiers, insurgents and civilians—died. Unlike the Syrian or Iraqi armies, the Egyptian Armed Forces are extremely well-armed due to years of aid from the United States and they have retained their operational capacity and institutional chain of command. It is, therefore, neither surprising nor the cause for particularly great congratulations that, using armored vehicles and jets, they rapidly overwhelmed the fighters of the “Sinai Province.” Nor is it surprising that the army’s operation took civilian lives as well as that of the IS combatants.
Less obvious is how events in Sinai play out on the broader stage of Egyptian politics. The fear of many foreign (and some but fewer domestic Egyptian) analysts is that Sinai is the beginning of a larger Islamist insurgency against the nominally civilian but essentially military dictatorship that now rules Egypt. The reasoning is, as noted above, straightforward and certainly has merit. The military ousted the democratically elected president of Egypt,
Mohamed Morsi and outlawed the party he represented that was itself the political expression of the Muslim Brotherhood. The MB is now outlawed, its members are being arrested, tortured, and (most recently) killed out of hand. Consequently it will (and some of its younger members already have) turn to violence against the state. Given that the MB had mass support, a membership of perhaps a million Egyptians, and that Morsi won millions of votes an insurrection that it leads will be more powerful than even the ones led by other (Salafi) Islamists in 1980 or the early 1990s. The fighters of the “Sinai province” are one pole around which a larger insurrection might ultimately coalesce.
This is a powerful scenario but it deploys an overly simple psychology to underpin a policy argument based on an understandable normative antagonism to dictatorship. Existing states, whether democracies or dictatorships, rarely lose to insurgencies. Egypt may be an exception but it is unlikely. The Egyptian state retains significant international support—from a superficially unlikely coalition that includes the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia—while Egyptian insurgents (whether former members of the MB or the “Sinai Province”) have little. It is rare for insurgencies to win when they have little or no external support and while the central government retains international allies who provide it with arms and financial support.
If the MB is indeed moving from confrontation to violence, several of its presumed harder-line Salafi allies have been conspicuously absent from joining it. The move toward violence by younger members of the MB may be accompanied by increasing use of Salafi-Jihadi rhetoric but neither the Salafi Al-Nour Party nor the Islamic Group have yet broken with the regime. Nor, despite significant criticism of the government, have some of their better-known sympathizers such as the daily newspaper Al-Misriyyun. This may be the last legacy of the Sadat era and a final irony of the way in which contemporary politics has developed.
In the year after the uprising of 25 January 2011 the Armed Forces freed hundreds of members of the Islamic Group and other Salafi trends in the same part of the political spectrum who had been imprisoned by both Sadat and former President Mubarak. Whatever political calculations the generals made, at the time it was presented primarily as accepting court orders mandating the release of prisoners who had served full sentences. Holding them in indefinite preventive detention was not, the courts had said in previously ignored orders, in accord with the law or the constitution. These men, including the Zumor cousins who had been part of the conspiracy to assassinate Sadat, re-emerged into political life. Some have been associated with both Al-Nour party and others with the Building and Development party, linked to the Islamic Group.
The experience of many of these leaders with armed conflict against the Egyptian state was bitter. It had begun with the uprising in Asyut and continued sporadically until it developed into a medium insurrection in the early 1990s. This period culminated with an attack on a Pharaonic temple and prominent tourist destination in the Upper Egyptian city of Luxor in 1997. This attempt to destroy the tourist industry eliminated what remaining the popular support the Islamic Group had. Thousands of Egyptian police, soldiers, political activists and ordinary citizens died and those leaders appear, for now at any rate, to have little desire to resume the bitter conflict that they survived and lost. Whether this is a counsel of prudence or commitment to public order we cannot know but they continue their peaceful (if often politically controversial and extreme) political activity. They write articles for newspapers, give interviews, and organize their supporters for what they hope will be parliamentary elections in the future. They also claim to desire an Islamic state but evidently not the Islamic State on offer.
The Sinai Province of the Islamic State will no doubt continue to trouble the border region of northern Sinai. Until some agreement is made between the government in Cairo, Hamas in Gaza, and Israel it will be difficult to catch the Islamic State between the anvil of the border and the hammer of the Egyptian Armed Forces. But that agreement will, tacitly or openly, probably come. Until that time the Sinai Province may manage to survive in a region where the Egyptian state is structurally weakened by its international commitments, its absence of local support and alienation caused by its violence and political missteps.
Two decades ago the Egyptian state fought one war with Islamists in Upper Egypt where they had far more local support in a relatively large population. IS in its incarnation as the Sinai Province has less support in a far more marginal area. It is not likely to be the place from which a successful assault on the Egyptian state is launched nor will it easily become, like the IS provinces in Syria and Iraq, a “liberated zone.” That IS and perhaps other opposition groups have been able to use car bombs in Cairo and Suez is not necessarily indicative of widening support for a popular insurgency. On the contrary, as Russian revolutionaries realized a century ago terrorist violence can legitimate the state for many citizens and demobilize a popular movement. Whatever else they have done, President Sisi and the generals have worked tirelessly over the past two years to demobilize Egyptian civil society. It is instructive in this regard that IS may have paid more attention to the anniversary of the coup than did the government it brought to power. That Egyptian have become used to much higher levels of open political violence than at almost any other time in recent history, however, is a sad reality.
The lasting threat to the Sisi government lies elsewhere, among core elements of Egyptian society and the state. These will include general officers in the Armed Forces if they come to believe that they have lost control of the way coercion is deployed in society. Loss of control occurs as the forces of order come to think of their task as the work of vendetta not the provision of safety. And then there will be those with important economic interests who come to feel threatened by policies that have ceased to work and who want a larger say in how government is run as well as a growing sense of fatigue with a military regime. That, however, is likely to be a long time in coming.
This piece is published jointly by Jadaliyya and Nisr Al-Nasr.