By Amr Khalifa
“Egypt is undergoing an existential battle.” That booming sound you heard was tantamount to a declaration of war by Egypt’s president Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi.
“There will be blood…there will be a price to pay,” said Al-Sisi after a day of devastating attacks in Sinai on the Egyptian army that saw at least 30 killed. Al-Sisi is correct: a heavy price will be paid, but Sinai residents will pay the steepest price of all. The newly minted president arrived at the helm with the promise of securing stability. Because of said promises, it is not Egypt’s existence which is at stake; rather it is Al-Sisi’s regime at risk should he fail in controlling jihadist elements lurking in the hills and valleys of Sinai. To blast away with a military iron fist, Al-Sisi must expend much political capital. In the balance is Al-Sisi’s popularity counterweighted by his ability to decimate a growing insurgency in Sinai?
To galvanise public opinion behind a fiery nationalistic rhetoric, Al-Sisi must mobilise the populous behind a post 9/11 like platform centred on the dichotomy of ‘us against the terrorists’. The people, the army and the security forces against the ‘terrorists’ goes the logic.
There can be no question Egypt has a terrorism problem: Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis (ABM) and Ajnad Masr, to name two groups, have been significant thorns in the side of the security apparatus. But the calculus is nowhere near as neat or as easily deconstructed as Al-Sisi would like all to believe.
At the heart of the matter is a failure by the state to apply a policy of inclusiveness regarding Sinai and its residents. A modern nation state which systematically ignores a local population should not be surprised when large sectors of that population is potentially recruitable by a terror group espousing, as its cause, a correction of injustice.
For many years, Egypt ignored the economic needs of a largely Bedouin population that has grown by nearly 20% in the last decade, from 493,000 in 2006 to 554,000 six years later (likely nearing 600,000 now). It is important to note that two thirds of that population resides in northern Sinai where the vast majority of terrorist attacks have occurred since the unfolding of a military coup on 3 July 2013. With the onset of the revolution in 2011, the numbers of the employed in northern Sinai plummeted from 162,000 to 156,000 and there are no indications that trend has ceased. It is understandable then, with a picture so bleak, that locals express an undeniable feeling of detachment from the Egyptian nation state to the point of ‘not considering themselves Egyptian’.
With the increase in population and limited opportunity, especially since the destruction of the majority of tunnels connecting Sinai to Gaza, there has been increased acrimony between local population and security forces. Where trust lacks, and in this case it is mutual, you will find a dysfunctional dynamic between the Bedouins and the state. Without national or international investment in northern Sinai, the chief propellers of the local economy are illicit drug trade and arms trade. It cannot be stated enough: this puts the tribes in direct conflict with the government. Moreover, and no less problematically, the paradigm increases distrust of the locals by Egyptians at large. The simplistic dichotomy that Al-Sisi chooses to adopt breaks down under the searing saw of scrutiny.
Two other factors serve to darken the political painting in Sinai: the security solution on one hand and life threatening menace posed by Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis (ABM), on the other. The local population is between two immovable objects, the army and the terrorists, with no room to manoeuvre or retreat.
It was the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) who released over 30 times as many jihadi elements that Morsi released into Sinai. Yet, government narrative insists on a history that squarely places blame on a Muslim Brotherhood that released a mini army of sleeper cells into Sinai.
But rather than co-opt a local population that the central government needs in its fight against a growing insurgency, Al-Sisi and the army have chosen to employ a scorched earth policy that has only made enemies of the local populous. On 29 July, when a 9 year-old girl from Sinai was killed by a rocket strike, it was blamed on a terrorist rocket gone astray, and the same happened earlier that month when seven more civilians were killed. But the issue that receives far less coverage is civilian deaths due to army error.
Understandably, with very limited press coverage due to government restrictions, civilian casualties receive less attention but cause greater sensitivity. Gruesome images of dead children strewn about in the Sinai desert as a result of army strikes are not the tale of heroism the army wants painted, nonetheless, that is the bloody dynamic in Sinai. But if you are a resident of northern Sinai you are also in crosshairs of ABM. The terror group, said to be considering pledging allegiance to ISIS, has shown proclivity for the blood of government informants.
Cairo has chosen the military path over co-option and that imbalance, alone, is an error. Compounding the situation is a central strategic error of presumption and misidentification of ABM. While, at its core, ABM is a jihadi group, its attacks are not those of an organised militia but of a guerrilla group.
“Whereas in conventional war, either side can initiate the conflict, only one – the insurgent – can initiate a revolutionary war, for counterinsurgency is only an effect of insurgency,” asserts David Galula, a leading expert on counterinsurgency, whose theories are the bulwark of US policy in Iraq and Afghanistan.
That crucial point seems to have escaped planners in the Egyptian army who have chosen to rely on Apaches, drones, missile strikes. Poorly trained army conscripts are sitting ducks for organised, well trained ABM cells who, according to local news reports, plan for weeks and strike quickly with limited casualties. Another cog in Galula’s theory of counterinsurgency is the winning of hearts and minds. He identifies that step as crucial to turning back the tide of an insurgency: “The battle for the population is a major characteristic of the revolutionary war.” With a Sinai population that views the government as detached, and in many cases hostile, that battle may be more difficult than the crushing of ABM.
Al-Sisi went on record, shortly after the 24 Octobermassacre, suggesting that ‘foreign assistance’ brought about the tragedy. If Egyptian leadership insists on pushing forth on the basis of conspiracy theory as the guiding force behind its Sinai operations, both its strategy and its bullets may continue to miss the mark. An insistence on politicising the scene with actors, who may or may not be involved, will only hamper Cairo’s efforts to tamp down the momentum being gained by a fierce and organised insurgency. Razing 680 homes of locals will not win Cairo any popularity contests in northern Sinai at a time when it desperately needs the support of locals against terrorists.
For the sake of innocents throughout Egypt Al-Sisi needs to use both hands: one with a stick and the other with a carrot.
Amr Khalifa is a freelance journalist recently published by Ahram Online, Tahrir Institute, Muftah and Mada Masr