The Sinai peninsular has become a hotbed of jihadi groups since the Egyptian revolution of 2011. But solving the problem will take more than military measures. And failure to do so could destabilise the country and the region, says Peter Welby.
Despite the Egyptian army's April announcement that it had taken "complete control of the Sinai", operations in the peninsula have continued. Since 2011, violence in the Sinai has increased to become a severe thorn-in-the-flesh for the Egyptian government, as a recent report from the Henry Jackson Society (HJS) shows. The security vacuum that followed the revolution allowed the region – a sparsely populated, large and rocky desert – to become a haven for jihadi groups. Of course, the Sinai has never quite been the paragon of law-abidingness, but its Bedouin community has traditionally engaged in smuggling rather than terrorism. However, longstanding economic and social grievances on the part of the peninsula's inhabitants hamper the fight against jihadi groups that live among them. The failure of the Egyptian government to control the insurgency – which also threatens Israel – poses a serious threat to its position and regional stability, as Presidential candidate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi acknowledged last week.
The conflict has been subject to a media blackout since the 1980s. One of the few experts on the Sinai is an Egyptian journalist, Mohannad Sabry (others include Mohamed Fahmy, currently on trial for association with Al Jazeera). At a recent briefing in the UK parliament, Sabry's emphasis on the social and economic grievances of the Sinai's population was telling, and he argued that settling these grievances – a lack of power and water, and inadequate schools and hospitals – was as important as a military response. The majority of Sinai's residents, he argued, "have no problem with counter-terrorism, but they want economic opportunity and justice as well", and that providing these would be the best way to end the conflict. Its history and development seem to bear this out.
The Sinai is a province apart in Egypt, and its history over the past few decades has progressed rather differently to the rest of the country. Captured by Israel in 1967, and held in 1973, it remained under Israeli control until 1982. During this time, there was significant development in the province, but on its reversion to Egyptian control its population – which had benefited under Israeli rule – were seen to be collaborators. Since then, though the resorts and religious sites of the Sinai have been a good source of revenue for the Egyptian government, there has been very little in the way of development targeted at the Bedouin. What development there was has been undermined by the deteriorating security situation, as has any trickle-down effect from the tourism and pilgrimage sights of the peninsula.
Peace in the Sinai has traditionally been kept through cooperation between Egypt's security apparatus and the Bedouin tribes. However, the growth of the insurgency combined with the lack of development has created significant disincentives for tribal leaders to help the government. Threats from both the government and jihadist groups, and pressure from their own people has put them in an impossible situation. With a lack of any serious investment in the region, a long history of cooperation with whoever was in power in Cairo has also undermined their authority among their tribes.
However, Bedouin tribal interests and those of jihadi groups are not the same. While dizzying unemployment rates and military pressure are pushing many young people into the arms of jihadis, traditional tribal culture is not favourable to the extremities of conservative Islam that they impose. Yesterday's killing of the leader of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, a militant group, has been linked in some reports to a tribal feud. They are involved, as they always have been, in the smuggling routes – including the tunnels into Gaza – which may link them to the militants, but will also link them to the supply of baby milk and other such innocuous contraband. Meanwhile, jihadi groups operating in the peninsula have become adept at using the language of Bedouin grievance combined with Islamism to garner support.
The current Egyptian government has tied much of the terror in the Sinai to the Muslim Brotherhood, which it has also declared a terrorist organisation. The group has denied any links to terrorism, but the regime has pointed to the huge spike in attacks – both in the Sinai and on the Egyptian mainland – after the July 2013 coup against President Morsi. However, the HJS report shows that while the rate of attacks has increased since July 2013, jihadi attacks on government and security forces was a persistent fact throughout Morsi's presidency too.
The events in the Sinai, as in much of Egypt, are largely linked to the events following the Revolution. Sinai's turn towards jihadist terror can be tied to the release or escape of thousands of prisoners from the Mubarak era, including many, such as Muhammad Jamal or Mahmoud al-Mowafi who were prominent figures in the international and Egyptian jihads of the 1980s and '90s.
If the Egyptian military succeeds in defeating the jihadi groups, this victory will have to be supported by economic development within the peninsula to be sustainable. But pressure on the insurgents is likely to move them around rather than crush them completely. The presence of Gaza – which has provided many of the fighters – creates a haven that the Egyptian military has no access to.
However, the greater threat to Egypt's government is if failure to control the Sinai leads to more obvious Israeli intervention. The peace treaty is not popular on the Egyptian street (though unlikely to be overturned by any Egyptian government), and any perception that Egyptian sovereignty is being violated, or that the Egyptian government needs to turn to Israel to control its own territory could prove extremely costly.