The Egyptian government is struggling to counter an increasingly violent insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula targeting Egyptian police, security forces and Christians.
Several militant groups, including Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group, are controlling large swaths of Sinai, which borders the Gaza Strip and Israel, and have established rule separate from the government in Cairo.
“The insurgency reflects a breakdown in fundamental relationships between a portion of the people in Sinai and the Egyptian government,” David Des Roches, a professor at the National Defense University in Washington, told VOA.
The militant campaign in the peninsula accelerated after the Egyptian military overthrew elected Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013.
President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who as defense minister led Morsi’s ouster, declared a state of emergency in northern Sinai in 2014 and “launched a bloody offensive” against the militants. Hundreds of soldiers and police officers have been killed in the conflict, and hundreds of houses in the Rafah region have been razed by the Egyptian military, displacing about 10,000 people.
Analysts say the insurgency is gaining strength, partly because of the government’s military tactics and actions that have alienated and angered the local population. The locals accuse the government forces of indiscriminate bombing of their villages as some militants hide among the local population.
“There seems to be a significant civil-military problem in the Sinai Peninsula. Unfortunately, the people who live there tend to regard the Egyptian government as a foreign occupying force,” Des Roches said. “The relations have gotten so bad that you are in an almost insurgency situation. It really is a difficult and dangerous situation for the Egyptian government.”
Sinai is one of the most underdeveloped regions in Egypt and has largely been neglected by the central government in Cairo. Local tribes recently threatened to start a civil disobedience movement to protest the harsh military actions and the poor economic situation with which they are faced.
“The Bedouin in the Sinai never fully benefited from membership of the Egyptian state. Unfortunately, the crackdown seems to be indiscriminate and obviously has led them to signal their displeasure with the Egyptian government,” Des Roches said, adding that the crackdown is likely to be indicative of counterproductive Egyptian security forces’ action. “If you crack down on the entire population, what you wind up doing is alienating them, driving them away from the government, towards the other side.”
The volatile security situation in Sinai has also provided a fertile ground for the emergence of IS in the region, which capitalizes on the regime’s alienating policies in Sinai, analysts say.
“The group [IS], which emerged after the 2011 uprising that overthrew Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, has already established itself as a formidable player in its own right,” Khalil Al-Anani, an expert on Islamist movements in the Middle East, told VOA. “In recent months, it has staged devastating attacks on Egypt’s police forces and claimed responsibility for a series of suicide attacks on military facilities in Cairo and the Sinai Peninsula.”
IS militants also have targeted local Coptic Christians in Sinai, causing more than 100 Christian families to flee from the city of el-Arish. The group recently vowed in a video message to step up a wave of attacks on the Christian minority in the region.
Experts say by targeting the Christians, IS is attempting to promote sectarian tensions and violence in Egypt. It seems “a very bold strategy bidding on extremism, bidding on hatred,” Alberto Fernandez, former director of the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications at the U.S. State Department, told VOA.
To curb terrorism in Sinai, the government needs to regain the trust of Sinai people by treating them as full citizens. Otherwise, the problem will get worse, according to Al-Anani.
“The violence there indicates that the Egyptian tactics, which are rather heavy-handed, are not achieving their aim and they probably won’t achieve their aim. I think a strategy that focuses more on engaging the population, addressing their needs, is likely to be more effective in the long run,” Des Roches said.
Regional effects seen
Some analysts say the government’s heavy-handed military approach, without pursuing a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy, is backfiring. “The new regime’s policy has been proven counterproductive and created a fertile ground for terrorists by targeting ordinary people and the Bedouins,” Al-Anani said. “The regime relied only on a security approach that alienated the local people and increased their grievances.”
Analysts say if Cairo fails to properly handle the insurgency in Sinai, the consequences of IS’s attempts to ally with local militant groups will be felt regionally. “Even if ISIS is defeated in Iraq and Syria, a foothold in Egypt could provide access to safe havens in North and sub-Saharan Africa, as well as in the Arab Peninsula,” according to Al-Anani.
The government should reset its relations with the Sinai tribes to obtain their support against the militants by apologizing to them and compensating them for the “war crimes” it committed against them, Egyptian blogger and Sinai activist Massaad Abu Fajr wrote on his Facebook account.
“If the problem of alienated people in Sinai were adequately adjusted by the Egyptian government, ISIS would not be a consideration,” Des Roches said.