Clashes in the northern Sinai Peninsula that resulted in scores of deaths of Egyptian security forces have underscored the durability of the extremist insurgency in that region and belie the Egyptian government’s claim that it is winning this conflict. The Wilayat Sinai (Sinai province) group, which has pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State (IS), has been able to take advantage of longstanding Bedouin grievances and the backlash from heavy-handed government tactics in the area to keep on challenging security forces, even after suffering high casualties.
Although the insurgents lack public support from mainland Egyptians and are not strong enough to overthrow President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime, their ongoing violence continues to place a dark cloud over the government’s optimistic picture of Egypt—that it is on the mend, politically and economically. It is arguable that if the insurgents succeed in mounting another spectacular attack on tourists, like they did with the downing of the Russian Metrojet in late 2015, the recent rebound in tourism revenues would suffer another devastating blow that would stymie the government’s economic growth agenda and increase public dissatisfaction.
Bedouin Grievances and Terrorism in the Sinai
The Sinai is set apart from mainland Egypt not only by the Suez Canal but by its rugged and desolate terrain. In addition, most of its inhabitants are from Bedouin tribes that have never been fully integrated into Egyptian society. The non-Bedouin in the Sinai are mostly mainland Egyptians who work in the southern Sinai resort towns of Sharm al-Sheikh and Ras Mohammed and a small group of Palestinian refugees living in the northeastern corner of the peninsula in the town of Rafah, bordering the Gaza Strip.
Past and present Egyptian governments have treated the Bedouin as second-class citizens because they are seen by most mainland Egyptians as not truly “Egyptian” and because of their reputation as smugglers. In addition, having lived under Israeli occupation from 1967 to 1982, they were not trusted by the Egyptian security forces because of allegations that they collaborated with the Israelis during this period. Although the Bedouin deny this charge, this perception lingers and they are still barred from serving in the Egyptian police and military services. Moreover, except for its tourist areas, the Sinai has received a much smaller share of government largesse for social and economic programs than other parts of Egypt.
So when extremists from mainland Egypt sought refuge in the Sinai Peninsula, they often found a receptive audience among disaffected Bedouin youth. Although several groups have emerged in the northern Sinai over the past decade, the most prominent one is Wilayat Sinai, which once called itself Ansar Beit al-Maqdis. In November 2014, as IS was capturing the imagination of extremists in the region because of its battlefield successes in Syria and Iraq, Wilayat Sinai pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. In return, IS has featured Wilayat Sinai’s attacks in its propaganda campaign.
In 2016 alone, attacks by Wilayat Sinai and other groups killed 317 security personnel and 117 civilians in the Sinai Peninsula. Most of the attacks involved Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) or car bombs, but some were the result of shootouts between the extremists and security forces. The Egyptian security services have claimed that they killed hundreds of Wilayat Sinai operatives including its leader, Abu Duaa al-Ansary, and 45 of his deputies, and have weakened the group. However, Wilayat Sinai’s continued ability to stage attacks suggests that new leaders have emerged and they have been able to replenish their ranks with new recruits. In September, a suicide bomber killed 18 policemen in the northern Sinai city of al-Arish. This month, terrorists used machine guns and mortars to carry out simultaneous attacks in and around the town of Sheikh Zuwaid, in which at least six Egyptian soldiers were killed. In another incident in northern Sinai, terrorists exchanged gunfire with security guards in front of an unused Coptic church while their cohorts robbed a bank across the street, killing seven people and absconding with 17 million Egyptian pounds (equivalent to $1 million).
Government Tactics and the Boomerang Effect
One of the reasons why Wilayat Sinai is able to sustain itself and draw recruits despite incurring heavy losses is because it takes advantage of the government’s draconian tactics that have alienated much of the civilian population in the Sinai. For example, if one or two youth in a Bedouin village have been suspected of aiding the extremists, the security forces have often punished the whole village with artillery fire. Such policies clearly do not act as a deterrent; instead, they have pushed locals into supporting the extremists. Moreover, Bedouin concepts of loyalty to the tribe mean that if one’s cousin is killed, injured, or arrested by the security forces, it is incumbent on his relatives to seek revenge, and many have done so by joining Wilayat Sinai. Hence, the government’s heavy-handed attacks often act as a force multiplier.
Second, when the Egyptian government—under pressure from Israel, the United States, and much of the international community—closed down hundreds of tunnels from the Sinai into the Gaza Strip to stop the smuggling of weapons and other illicit items, not enough thought was given to providing economic alternatives to the Bedouin tribes in the area. Many of these tribes over the years have supplemented their poor economic livelihoods from herding and subsistence farming by smuggling, and when the tunnels were closed down, they lost significant income. This only served to compound their anger at the government and probably made some of them more susceptible to recruitment.
Furthermore, because Bedouin are barred from serving in the police and security forces, the government often lacks good intelligence on extremist activities because the security forces are seen by the Bedouin as outsiders and, as such, do not elicit trust among them. It must be said that the terrorists, through their brutal tactics of killing and sometimes beheading informants, have also deterred many Bedouin from cooperating with the security forces. But without a change in government tactics—treating the Bedouin as people to be protected, not targeted, and allowing some of them, after proper vetting, to join the police forces—the government is not going to be able to obtain reliable information on plots, let alone to thwart them.
Hence, despite the addition of thousands of Egyptian security personnel into the northern Sinai region—a deployment that was coordinated with the Israelis because the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty limits the number of security personnel and military equipment in different zones of the Sinai—the Egyptian government has not been able to end the threat there.
The Impact of the Sinai Security Challenge on the Rest of Egypt
Ongoing activities in the northern Sinai may be less damaging to Egypt if they represented an isolated and localized phenomenon. However, instability there has proven to have an economic and political impact beyond the Sinai Peninsula.
First is the impact on tourism. In late October 2015, Wilayat Sinai was able to place a bomb onboard a Russian Metrojet departing from Sharm al-Sheikh airport in the southern Sinai, killing all those on board after takeoff. Not only did Russia discourage its citizens from traveling to Egypt thereafter, but other European countries like Britain followed suit. This incident had a devastating effect on tourism in Egypt overall. In 2016, tourism revenues fell to $3.8 billion, almost half of what they were ($7.4 billion) in 2015.
Egypt is in the middle of a painful economic reform program that has included a floating of the exchange rate that led to a sharp devaluation of the Egyptian pound, the introduction of a value added tax, and the lifting of energy subsidies and deregulations of some industries in return for a $12 billion loan (paid over a period of years) from the IMF. The aim of the program is to cut government expenditures, boost tax collection and exports, and create private sector jobs. At the same time, the government hopes that its traditional foreign exchange revenue sources, like Suez Canal tolls, worker remittances, and tourism, would increase over time and help boost economic growth rates to 7 percent (which was 4.3 percent in 2016). But because Egypt is a major food importer, the cost of food for the average family has increased substantially in the past year because of the devaluation of the pound, causing widespread discontent, especially among the salaried middle class.
With Suez Canal tolls not increasing because of a slowdown in maritime trade, and with worker remittances up only slightly, the government has been banking on tourism to stage a rebound—though it will likely be far below the peak year of 2010 when tourism revenues reached $12.5 billion. The absence of a major terrorist attack on tourists since October 2015 and the devaluation of the Egyptian pound (making a vacation in Egypt relatively inexpensive for foreigners) have indeed helped to increase tourism revenues this year. For example, for the first seven months of 2017, revenue from tourism was up 170 percent compared to the same period in 2016. However, if the terrorists are able to stage another spectacular attack against tourists, such trends can easily be reversed. In addition, if attacks were to be mounted on ships passing through the Suez Canal, that would also negatively impact Egypt’s economy, as revenues from Canal tolls average about $5 billion a year.
Politically, the ongoing attacks in the Sinai have shown that the government’s efforts at eradicating terrorism have fallen short. This is significant because President Sisi has staked his legitimacy on his ability to accomplish that mission. After being sworn in as president in 2014, he affirmed that combating terrorism was his number one priority. Moreover, he has justified a harsh clampdown on civil society and has restricted political space, all in the name of countering the threat—very loosely defined. Thousands of
political prisoners languish in Egyptian jails, most of whom are affiliated with, or accused of being members of, the Muslim Brotherhood (which was designated a terrorist organization at the end of 2013). Many other prisoners, however, are secular political activists demanding political freedoms.
In addition, the staying power of Wilayat Sinai has probably encouraged other groups operating in the Egyptian mainland to continue their own activities. These include another IS affiliate that has targeted Coptic Christians as well as regime officials, and smaller groups such as Liwaa al-Thawra and Hasm, which may include younger, former members of the Muslim Brotherhood who came to disagree with their elders’ policy of nonviolence. These groups have also targeted government officials and police.
Indicative of their own resilience in the face of government crackdowns, extremists from the Egyptian mainland killed at least 55 policemen on October 20 during a raid on a terrorist hideout in an oasis town about 80 miles southwest of Cairo. The perpetrators, who local media described as members of Hasm, employed rocket-propelled grenades and bombs in addition to guns. The Egyptian government denied the high number of policemen who were killed in the raid and claimed that 15 terrorists also died in the firefight. That the government wanted to minimize the number of police casualties suggests it is worried about public opinion.
What does all this mean for Egypt’s political future? Such attacks as well as economic austerity measures have contributed to a downward slide in Sisi’s popularity—based on anecdotal evidence—but this does not mean that there is a groundswell of support to oust him from power. His saving grace is that Egyptians are opposed to terrorism and do not want such groups to take over the state. Nonetheless, ongoing attacks and the government’s inability to stop them can have a corrosive impact on the country politically and economically. This means that for the foreseeable future, Egypt remains in the doldrums: the economy hobbles along but is not able to achieve high growth rates, and youth unemployment (currently at least 33 percent) worsens. Free political debate that includes criticism of the government is also stifled. If such trends are not reversed, an upheaval like the one in 2011 may be approaching—though it is not likely in the immediate future, as the majority of Egyptians at this point simply want to avoid chaos and return to economic stability.
Implications for US Policy
The key question for US policymakers is how to aid Egypt in conducting effective counterterrorism operations not only in the Sinai but in other parts of the country. At the same time, they should try to convince the Sisi government that repressive policies like the draconian NGO law (which restricts the ability of nongovernmental organizations to operate) and the arrests of dissidents are counterproductive for Egypt’s reputation and stability. The Trump Administration seems to have an inconsistent policy—praising Sisi on one day and suspending a part of military assistance to Egypt on another.
The recent US decision to hold Bright Star military exercises in Egypt—which were in abeyance for eight years—and their new emphasis on counterterrorism were steps in the right direction because they showed both the Egyptian government and populace that Washington wants to help Egypt defeat the terrorists. It would be important for such joint exercises to continue into the future and for the Egyptians to be mindful of the lessons learned regarding practices that may undermine the anti-terrorism campaign; these should be applied at the very least to policy in the Sinai. On the broader question of moving Egypt out of its current morass, however, a more holistic approach is advisable. As the Obama Administration learned, simply suspending aid does not make Egypt buckle and end repression. Frank discussions need to be held with Egyptian officials about how to stop terrorist recruitment, which continues unabated. And if targeted economic assistance is deemed appropriate in some areas, then the Trump Administration should work with Congress to reconfigure US economic aid to Egypt instead of cutting or redirecting it toward other countries. Certainly, many of Egypt’s current problems stem from the policies and decisions of the Sisi government, but Egypt is too big to fail. Although a tough-love approach by Washington is required, using aid as a punitive tool against Egypt may not be an effective policy.