The Sinai Question: Economy or Ideology?

Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula has witnessed a wave of militant attacks against army and government posts since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. The rate and intensity of attacks, together with the fatalities, however, have increased since the military coup that ousted the country’s first elected president Mohamed Morsi on July 3. The military-led government responded with an extensive operation against what it claimed were terrorist groups with links to the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite an increase in military activity (the most extensive in the peninsula since the end of the 1973 war) the situation in Sinai remains opaque; the identities of the attackers, their demands, the exact extent of the operations and causalities are shrouded in mystery. Army restrictions compounded by the tribal formation of the area renders reporting by outsiders impossible at times. Notwithstanding the opacity of the situation, a few patterns in the conflict stand out.

The first pattern is also the most obvious, that is the geographic distribution of the attacks, the majority of which are localized in a small area in the northeast along the Gaza border, namely the Arish-Rafah-Sheikh Zuweid triangle. This might be interpreted as an indication that radical elements from Hamas are exercising influence in order to wield power vis-à-vis Israel and Egypt. This view, which has been perpetuated by Israeli and American commentators since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2005, argues that Egypt’s reluctance to control its border has resulted in Sinai becoming a safe haven for various jihadist groups with ties to Hamas and al-Qaeda.

This leads us to the second pattern. The attitude of the military-led government with respect to the tunnels stands in sharp contrast with Egypt’s position under Mubarak. Since 2005, until Mubarak’s overthrow, Egypt has either denied the existence of the tunnels or simply ignored the issue altogether, in the face of continuous American and Israeli pressure to control the border. In contrast to that, one of the main objectives of the current military campaign in Sinai, as proclaimed by official media outlets, is to destroy the tunnels.

The third pattern to be noted is the radical shift in the official, as well as popular attitudes towards Hamas and what could be called “Sinai’s sovereignty discourse,” which argues that by setting limits on the extent of Egyptian military presence in Sinai, the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty chained Egypt’s ability to combat organized crime in the vast wilderness of the peninsula. That discourse completely dissipated after Minister of Defense, Abdel Fattah al- Sisi launched his “war on terror” soon after Morsi’s ouster. The mainspring of the security crisis was transposed from the Camp David Treaty to Hamas with the latter being accused of training Sinai militants in collusion with the Muslim Brotherhood.

This argument falls short on a number of fronts. Firstly, while the number of attacks has increased since the  Morsi’s ouster, insurgency has been taking place since 2011 including during Morsi’s time in office. Secondly, there is little to support the claim that the insurgency is ideologically motivated—a claim that has become a standard talking point for the Sinai punditry. Despite the fact that the Jihadist group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) has claimed responsibility in a handful of attacks, the vast majority go unclaimed by any entity. Nor are the identities of the alleged perpetrators disclosed, either by the militants or by the army for that matter. ABM is shadowy entity and a relatively recent name on the political scene. It would be overwrought to attribute an insurgency of such a scale to the little-known group.

The most significant feature of the Sinai insurgency is the militants’ choice of targets. They target army, police and government property. The fact that the militants never target tourists is curious, particularly when consider that in the past, terrorists have targeted tourists, and almost exclusively. From an ideological point of view, one would expect those who are driven by the goal of “establishing an Islamic state in Sinai” (as what is claimed by ABM) to target the ‘hedonistic’ tourist destinations in the south with its western tourists. Tactically speaking, the touristic south is Egypt’s Achilles heel, not the wastelands of the north. This begs the question: What is it that stops militants from carrying out attacks in the South?

The Sinai militants (including ABM) take the Egyptian army as their primary enemy and target. This bespeaks not ideological motives but rather reflects a certain perception of a threat on the part of the militants. To this end the economy of smuggling should be taken into account. The tunnels have generated an underground mafia-like social economy hard to dismantle. In this deprived region of the country, many are dependent on the tunnels for their livelihood, and would resist the army’s attempts to destroy them. It is possible that a large percentage of the current attacks are aimed at deterring the government from destroying more tunnels. The insurgence could be seen as an attempt to maintain a certain equilibrium between a smoothly operating underground economy and a degree of government complacency. Indeed, the violence in Sinai has a cartel-like character: targeted operations against the state’s security apparatus that seem to be well organized and efficient (the number of causalities among security personnel is surprisingly high). Propaganda is also surprisingly minimal in comparison to the typical al-Qaeda-type YouTube spectacles. Of course that does not rule out the possible existence of ideological motives, but these are most likely ancillary and opportunistic.

In conclusion, the standard view that the insurgency is motivated by jihadists has become the standard narrative of the Sinai insurgency; endorsed by political commentators, probably out of convenience, as well as the military-led government in order to rally the nation against the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi’s supporters. This orthodoxy, however, needs to be questioned. The patterns don’t fit. It is more likely that the current violence reflects a chronic condition tied to an underground social economy of smuggling. What is needed is an analysis of that economy and its complex relation to the state’s security apparatus and the means by which the state (especially under Mubarak) managed to mitigate the threat of violence. Without such knowledge the Sinai insurgency will remain a domain for speculations.

Ahmad Hosni is an Egyptian physcian and photographer based in Cairo and Barcelona.

Image: Photo: Mosaab El-Shamy