By Amr Khalifa
If Sinai sinks so will Al-Sisi. At least 30 Egyptians, mostly soldiers, are dead in Sinai because Egyptian leadership couldn’t protect them. We inhabit a bottom line world and the bottom line is: Thursday, 29 January 2015, marking the second time in under one hundred days that a major attack by Wilayat Sina (State of Sinai) (previously known as Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis) has shaken the Egyptian nation and taken precious lives. Forty eight hours later, there are questions ringing so loudly in the ears of the public they threaten deafness.
What are the final casualty figures for the terror attack – unknown still 48 hours later? How large is this enemy that threatens Egyptian stability? Are Egyptian army tales of successes against the militants a fallacy? And the most important question of all: what needs to be done to turn the tide against a maniacal psychopathic enemy now aligned with ISIS?
“So long as Egypt is one heart then there is no other problem,” said Al-Sisi in an angry, emotional speech devoid of any structural solutions to problems that persist in Sinai and elsewhere. As news of the Al-Sisi speech hit the wires, the macabre reality of Egypt today was on full display: three more security forces injured – this time in Fayoum by an explosive device. Scene is not pristine: Egypt is ruled, autocratically, by a man who believes he came to rule the land via divine intervention as foretold in a dream. But life in Egypt is anything but a dream and in Sinai it is positively nightmarish.
Nearly 100 operatives, three suicide car bombs – one of which was a massive water truck carrying tons of explosives – ended the lives of at least 30 soldiers. The death toll itself remains an issue of much contention, as some sources say it is as low as 29 and yet other put it near 50, but the credible BBC puts the toll at 40 as of 30 January. This brings up the crucial notions of transparency and accountability and the structural lack of both at the heart of disastrous mismanagement of the crisis by Egypt’s leadership.
If a shaken public – and rest assured, based on many indications, the public is both shaken and angry – is to trust that its leaders have a rational, well-constructed plan there must be both transparency and accountability. The fog regarding final death toll embodies the lack of both. “The numbers will not be announced,” said a representative of the military spokesperson’s office. Problem is double fold: withholding the information will increase fears that causality figures are monumental and closer to those figures claimed by the militants – hundreds.
Secondly, the first step in the process of any issue confronting a nation state is admitting a problem exists, and by refusing the public access to information concerning its military sons, the army’s leadership risks public perception, of its hierarchy, as the ostridge with its head in the Sinai sand.
When it comes to responsibility for the latest Sinai massacre, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi appears to understand that someone must pay and in this case it is to be: 2nd army commander major general Mohamed El Shahat. Unifying the commands of the 2nd and the 3rd army has only been undertaken once, during the 1973 war, which underscores the seriousness of the current scenario. But how does replacing one MG with another, namely 3rd army commander Osama Roshdy, solve the complex issues on the Sinai ground?
The painful answer is it does not. You cannot answer the same questions with the same answer 10 times and expect 10 different answers. After every terror attack, whether 4 are killed or 40, the answer is, Al-Sisi style, a security paradigm and nothing else. This, in no uncertain terms, is a creative, strategic and intellectual failure which is costing Egyptian lives at every turn. Though Sinai is kept in a virtual informational black hole, with strictly enforced news blackouts, it is abundantly clear, from the few credible reporters working there, that the combination of forced immigration, civilian casualties, and the capital’s continued shunting of Sinai to bottom of priority list, is making a dark scenario an explosive one.
Indeed, the ascendency of Roshdy to the head of the strategic table for the highly volatile governate will likely signal an elevation of the language of guns, APC’s and unmanned drones over that of reasoned discourse with the local population. It is a problem central to the Al-Sisi regime: the world viewed in a dual prism, either black or white, and in his universe, Sinai residents are terrorists till proven otherwise.
A strong correlation can, in fact, be made between Al-Sisi’s world vision, post-coup, and that of Bush post 9/11. In both narratives, the commander in chief viewed the problem at hand in absolute terms and the response was nearly identical. “We came upon an organisation in its strongest state [referring to the Muslim Brotherhood]… this is a difficult and nefarious confrontation and it will take a long time,” said Al-Sisi today. But what if Al-Sisi is as wrong as Bush was about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? What if his one size fits all focus on the Muslim Brotherhood is an inaccurate portrayal of political reality?
Sinai State, ideologically, is in bed with ISIS and not the Brotherhood because, in crude terms, the latter is nowhere near radical enough for the former. There can be no doubt that, politically, the Brotherhood, and Islamist camp in general, stands to gain from the instability created by the jihadist element. But any analyst following the current conundrum well knows that there are zero hard facts that prove a link between the Brotherhood and Sinai State, despite the best efforts of the Egyptian deep state. To chase this dynamic of a direct link between political Islam and jihadists, to continue to brainwash a willing public with such fallacy, is to create the mirage of honesty where none exists. More importantly, to do so does not save lives or solve the Sinai puzzle. This tactic, in short, is political misdirection by Al-Sisi – not direction.
So where do we stand? Where do we go from here? For many months, and on a nearly daily basis, the Egyptian army has forged ahead with tales of the killing, injuring and arrest of Sinai State terrorists in the largely desert governate. Unless the original size of Sinai State numbered in the many thousands, contrary to all military intelligence and analysts specialising in the region, those tales of military success are untrue. But the army insists these ‘successes’ are fact and said so definitively hours after the attack. “Due to the successes of the offensive undertaken by the military police and the army” the army was under attack by suicide cars and rockets by terrorist elements, insisted the army spokesperson on 29 January. Any watcher of Egyptian history knows that during the first days of the painful defeat of 1967, all Egyptian media portrayed a picture of heavenly successes by the military. Such systematic dishonesty only made a brutal defeat more psychologically crushing for the public.
The road to a semblance of a practical, realistic for Sinai must hinge upon three crucial corner stones. A balanced strategy in Sinai which incorporates a flexible security narrative for the governate sans humiliation for the local population coupled with concrete economic steps that build rather than destroy. Honesty in dealing with the public must be the bedrock of all future military communiques because if trust is a missing currency in this equation, the consequences will be dire for all. Finally, a combined civil and military committee, which includes local representatives from Sinai must be formed so that long term solutions can be found to insure Egyptians citizens in Sinai are not second class citizens.
These militants are not a mirage, hours after Al-Sisi’s speech six more Egyptian soldiers were injured in yet another attack. Fail again in Sinai and the pressure will only increase many folds on an Al-Sisi regime under siege. Al-Sisi should feel free to ask rulers who preceded him in Egypt and elsewhere about the success of such a track. Though it should be pointed out very few of them continue to rule. If Sinai sinks so will Al-Sisi.
Amr Khalifa is a freelance journalist recently published by Ahram Online, Tahrir Institute, Muftah and Mada Masr