August 17, 2011
The one area of Egypt that appeared ready to explode into violence during last January’s revolution was the Sinai. Unlike the unarmed, peaceful demonstrators that filled the streets of Cairo and Alexandria, the Bedouin tribesmen of the Sinai were well armed and already engaged in a low-level conflict with Egyptian authorities over a number of issues, including Bedouin smuggling activities, a traditional occupation that has lately become politicized through Bedouin interaction with radical Islamists in Gaza, the end-user of the weapons the desert dwellers are shipping to Sinai’s eastern border. Possibly the only reason a large-scale conflict did not break out in Sinai at the time was the flight or desertion of nearly all the police and security forces based in Sinai after a number of attacks on police stations. Now, however, after a growing number of acts of militancy and the release of an alarming video allegedly depicting the formation of an al-Qaeda-sympathetic movement in Sinai known as al-Shabaab al-Islam (The Youth of Islam), Egypt’s security forces are back, this time accompanied by a significant military presence.  The release of the video and a subsequent statement followed an attack on an al-Arish police station in northeast Sinai and the fifth attack this year on a pipeline supplying natural gas to Israel
Al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula
An August 2 pamphlet distributed in al-Arish entitled “A Statement from al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula” displayed a mix of local and regional concerns, demanding an Islamic Emirate in the Sinai, an end to the exploitation of Sinai’s wealth by non-residents, the full implementation of Shari’a, an end to discrimination against the Bedouin, the revocation of Egypt’s treaties with Israel and Egyptian military intervention on behalf of the Palestinians in Gaza. It also questioned the military government’s efforts to halt drug-smuggling in the region (Youm7.com [Cairo], August 2; Bikya Masr [Cairo], August 2). Though the video was carried on jihadi websites before being taken down by its host, the declaration of a new branch of al-Qaeda in this highly sensitive and strategic region has yet to be supported by a statement from any of al-Qaeda’s known media outlets.
Still from the video released by al-Shabaab al-Islam.
Despite the influx of Egyptian security forces into the Sinai, the military-run interim government is reluctant to acknowledge the emergence of an al-Qaeda chapter in the Sinai. One state-controlled Egyptian daily described the group’s declaration as “a fabrication” (al-Jumhuriyah [Cairo], August 4).
The latest disturbances began on July 29 when tribesmen in Land Cruisers or on motorcycles attacked a police station in al-Arish, killing three civilians and two security officers as well as wounding 19 others (MENA Online, July 30). The attack occurred the same day as an estimated one million Islamists gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand an Islamic state in Egypt. Tribal sources indicated that most of the attackers came from a single village that had become a stronghold of Salafi-Jihadis who “raise the black flags of al-Qaeda” (al-Ahram [Cairo], August 1). A later statement by police said that 15 suspects had been arrested in connection with the attack, ten of them Palestinians (al-Ahram, July 31).
On July 30, an Egyptian National Gas Company (Gasco) pipeline carrying natural gas to Israel was attacked for the third time in a month, and the fifth time this year. The attackers punched a hole through the pipeline with rocket-propelled grenades. The pipeline was still out of operation following an earlier attack on July 12 (Jerusalem Post, July 31). Israeli sources indicate that a second attack on the pipeline in the early hours of July 30 was beaten off by private security forces working for Israel’s East Mediterranean Gas Company (Globes Online [Rishon LeZion], July 31).
Beside the militants’ distaste for Israel, the pipeline also symbolizes the corruption of the Hosni Mubarak regime, which is believed to have offered a contract at below-market prices to Israel in return for kickbacks. The loss in revenue to the Egyptian state is estimated at roughly $700 million. One tribal leader insisted that locals viewed such attacks by militants as little more than a nuisance: “The most they do is torch the pipeline that transfers gas to Israel and we couldn’t care less about whether Israel has gas or not” (Daily News Egypt, August 12). The steady series of attacks on the $500 million al-Arish to Ashkelon pipeline have placed the future of the project in jeopardy and Israel is already looking for alternative supplies.
Further unrest spread to the main border crossing with Gaza at Rafah, a key smuggling site, where Egyptian police turned back hundreds of people (Ma’an News Agency [Bethlehem], July 31).
The Bedouin Struggle with the State
As the meeting point of Asia and Africa, the Sinai has always been important to Egypt’s security. Though the Sinai has been, with brief interruptions, a part of Egypt in one form or another since the time of the First Egyptian Dynasty (c. 3100 – 2890 B.C.E.), it has also been regarded as something apart from the Egypt of the Nile and Delta, a remote wasteland useful for mineral exploitation and strategic reasons but otherwise best left (outside of Egyptian security outposts) to the unruly Semitic and Bedouin tribes that have called the Sinai home since ancient times. The effect of these policies is that the Sinai Bedouin form only a tiny minority of Egypt’s total population, but retain an absolute majority in the Sinai.
In recent decades, however, Cairo has attempted to impose the deeply infiltrated security regime that existed in the rest of the country up until last January’s revolution. Many Bedouin involved in traditional smuggling activities found themselves in Egyptian prisons serving long sentences in often brutal conditions. The attempt to impose a security regime on the freedom-minded Bedouin led to a greater alienation of the tribesmen from the state, and the Egyptian uprising presented an opportunity to quickly roll back decades of attempts to impose state control on life in the Sinai. Most importantly, it opened the door for those influenced by the Salafist movements of neighboring Gaza to begin operations.
There are roughly 15 Bedouin tribes in the Sinai. In the politically sensitive northeast region (including al-Arish and the border area) the most important are the Sawarka and Rumaylat. There are also significant Palestinian populations in al-Arish and the border towns of Rafah and Zuwaid
Local Bedouin took the opportunity of storming the Sinai’s prisons, freeing an unknown number of Bedouin smugglers and Palestinian militants. In nearly all cases they were unopposed by prison staff. One of the escapees was Ali Abu Faris, who was convicted for involvement in the Sharm al-Shaykh bombings that killed 88 people in 2005. Others freed included Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners convicted more recently of planning terrorist operations in Egypt (see Terrorism Monitor, June 12, 2009). Since emptying the prisons the tribesmen have warned the police to stay out of the main smuggling centers on penalty of death and the region has been effectively operating without any type of government. Police stationed in the north Sinai have tended to be drawn from Egypt’s Nile and Delta population rather than local sources, giving the impression of an occupation force to some of the Sinai’s more-independent minded Bedouin.
One unintended consequence of sealing the border between Gaza and Egypt has been growing cooperation between Bedouin and Gazan smugglers. While goods and arms have passed into Gaza, Salafi-Jihadi ideology has crossed into Sinai in return. A new and volatile combination of Bedouin dissatisfaction, Palestinian radicalism and Salafist-Jihadi ideology erupted in 2004 with the emergence of the Tawhid wa’l-Jihad (Monotheism and Struggle) – a mixed Bedouin-Palestinian group that opposed the presence of Egyptian security forces and sought to end tourism in the region, especially visits to historical or archaeological sites, which the group regarded as idolatry. The new group carried out a series of bombings in 2004-2005 that targeted tourist resorts in Sinai (well used by Israelis) and international peacekeepers belonging to the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) (see Terrorism Monitor, May 2, 2006). The government security operations that followed cast a very wide net, killing dozens of suspects and sweeping thousands of Bedouin into detention, creating an ever more hostile relationship between the Bedouin and Egyptian administrators and security forces.
Cairo’s Military Response
Cairo addressed the emerging threat on August 12 by sending over 2000 troops from the Egyptian Second Division backed by police and border guards to al-Arish, along with a number of armored vehicles stripped of their main armaments to meet security obligations under Egypt’s treaty with Israel. Authorities were emphatic that the deployment was for defensive purposes only and that none of the troops would be “chasing anyone in Sinai’s mountains” (al-Masry al-Youm, August 12). The deployment marks the largest Egyptian military presence in the Sinai since the signing of the 1979 Camp David Accords.
The military response is hampered by Camp David Accord restrictions on the deployment of Egyptian military forces in parts of the Sinai, especially in the sensitive “Zone C” near the Israeli border, where only international peacekeepers and Egyptian civilian police were allowed to carry arms before a 2005 agreement with Israel permitted the deployment of 750 soldiers to secure the border. Al-Arish is located in Zone B, where Egypt is permitted to maintain four border security battalions, but Rafah and Zuwaid are within Zone C.
Despite attempts to downplay the extent of the deployment in Sinai, the inclusion of two brigades of Special Forces (1,000 men) would indicate significant operations are planned. Security sources claim the deployment is called “Operation Eagle” and is designed to restore security in the Sinai in three phases:
- Supported by armored vehicles and warplanes, the troops will restore security in northern Sinai and crack down on organized crime and smuggling rings in al-Arish.
- Security forces will then deploy in the border towns of Rafah and Zuwaid, where they anticipate strong resistance. Salafists have already destroyed the shrine of Shaykh Zuwaid in the town that bears his name, an action typical of Salafist ideology.
- The last phase of the operation will be a coordinated ground-air offensive in the mountains of central Sinai, particularly the Mount Halal area, which is believed to be a haven for militants (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], August 13; Egyptian Gazette, August 13).
So far, the deployment has not impressed many tribesmen. Of the disarmed armored vehicles, tribal leader Shaykh Hassan Khalaf remarked: “They look stupid and are completely useless in facing Islamist groups who carry machine guns and heavy artillery. Israel has tied the army’s hands.” North Sinai governor al-Sa’id Abd al-Wahab Mabruk has denied the existence of “Operation Eagle,” insisting that the newly arrived security forces will be limited to protecting individuals and buildings (Daily News Egypt, August 12).
The return of the Egyptian military to sensitive areas of the Sinai has been encouraged in some quarters of Egypt as a necessary step to allay fears of Israeli military action designed to protect Israel’s security in the border region (al-Ahram [Cairo], August 12). Typical of the suspicion regarding Israeli intentions is a report in a Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily that said Egyptian security sources claimed to have intelligence regarding contacts between the militants and Israel’s Mossad in relation to obtaining material support for further terrorist operations that would give Israel an excuse to stop the opening of the Rafah border crossing with Gaza (al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 12).
The Salafist Denial
Reports are circulating that claim Sinai’s Salafist community intends to replace traditional Bedouin councils with courts run by Salafist shaykhs, their writ enforced by 6,000 armed men. According to a leading local Salafist, Shaykh Sulayman Abu Ayyub, the Salafists “will work to serve justice between people, even if we have to use force through youth members” (al-Misri al-Youm [Cairo], August 10). Local Salafist leader Shaykh As’ad al-Beek has denied the reports, however, maintaining that the Salafists do not conduct any armed activities (Daily News Egypt, August 12).
The leader of the Salafist movement in al-Arish, As’as Bey al-Arish, denied that the Salafis had entered into any confrontations with police in Sinai, claiming that such rumors originate with Israel’s Mossad, which “propagates such rumors to foster instability in Sinai” (Youm7.com [Cairo], August 12; Bikya Masr [Cairo], August 12). Other Salafist leaders have denied that the movement had any part in the attack on the al-Arish police station (MENA Online, August 2).
The near collapse of Egypt’s internal security forces has opened to Egypt to a resurgence of Islamist violence that would have been inconceivable a year ago. There are now concerns within Egypt that the nation’s sizeable but divided Islamist community intends to usurp the secular revolution to impose an Islamic state in Egypt.
Aside from suspicions of Israeli involvement in instigating the unrest, some Egyptian commentators see the hand of HAMAS behind the disturbances in the Sinai (al-Akhbar [Cairo], August 10). However, there seems to be a general reluctance to discuss the specific grievances of the Sinai Bedouin or their place in Egyptian society. Thousands of years of Egyptian occupation have failed to integrate the native peoples of the Sinai Peninsula into Egypt, whether socially, politically or even economically. The persisting sense of alienation provides fertile ground for the growth of militancy, conditions easily exploited by Salafist-Jihadi groups that see themselves fighting two enemies in the region – the apostate regime in Cairo and the Zionist regime in Israel. While the enhanced security force now in the Sinai may be able to restore some semblance of security in the urban areas of the northeast, it will almost certainly be insufficient to tackle the militants should they decamp to the wild, cave-ridden mountain region of central Sinai.
1. The video was posted to YouTube (www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYuKeeIVFzM ) on July 27, but has since been removed “as a violation of YouTube’s policy on depiction of harmful activities.”
This article was first published as a Jamestown Foundation Special Commentary on August 17, 2011