The Egyptian army has escalated operations in Sinai over the past few weeks, inflicting major losses in the ranks of extremist militants. Military activity has given the impression that the entire peninsula is engulfed in warfare.
But visitors to Sinai discover this is not the case. In the south, around Sharm El-Sheikh, Uyun Moussa and other tourist resorts, and in the mountains of St. Catherine’s, there is no sign of a military or security confrontation.
Last week’s visit by the prime minister and nine other ministers to El-Tor and Sharm El-Sheikh had a positive impact on several levels, not least on the development projects that are key to the government’s agenda in the region.
In northern Sinai there is a vast difference between the situation now and the situation immediately preceding and following the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood last year. Today, entering the Suez Canal governorates there is a great sense of security. A stone wall running the length of the canal, currently being made higher, and heavy security measures have minimised the possibility of attempts to sabotage the international waterway.
Patrols and combing operations carried out by the army and security forces have eliminated that possibility of the canal being targeted by crude missiles fired by terrorists. An informed source says the army is currently installing surveillance cameras to protect the Salam Bridge which links Ismailiya to northern Sinai, and the bridge will soon be reopened.
Ferry 9, which transports traffic to and from the Sinai, may seem rudimentary but it works well. Vehicles are searched more than once. While this reporter was waiting to cross on a recent visit an entire security team converged on a pickup truck transporting the belongings of a family of salafists — identifiable by the untrimmed beard of the husband and the burqa of the wife. Everything was inspected, piece by piece.
On the road to Al-Arish, some 160 km from the canal, there are no security problems at present. The security and military presence is clearly visible at checkpoints in Balouza, Al-Shuhada, Beir Al-Abd and Al-Masaeed and the inspection of vehicles and persons is thorough. All traces of the attacks against checkpoints have been removed.
In Beir Al-Abd we met tribal elders, young men and some officers. There was a sense of anticipation, as though they were preparing for some confrontation, but no anxiety or tension.
Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Atawna confirmed this in a lengthy interview with Al-Ahram Weekly. He told us that the tribal elders in the governorate hold a regular monthly meeting to discuss the situation.
“I can tell you, from discussions that have taken place during the past three months, that the armed forces, in collaboration with tribal chiefs, have instilled discipline and Muslim Brotherhood bases and youth are now only a limited protest movement,” Ibrahim said.
“The real problem is with takfiri thinking. It is still strong in areas near the border, from Sheikh Zuweid to Rafah. That is the rectangle of tension and will remain so for a long time because it has only just emerged from decades of reppression."
“The current situation had its beginnings in the 1990s. I saw how extremist youths turned against their fathers and condemned them as heretics and how no amount of advice or tribal mediation could bring them back to their senses.”
The sheikh took us to the greenhouses behind his large home where he grows tomatoes. From there you can see the road and the trucks that transport the tomato crops. He told me that the army had supplied many of these poly-tunnels.
A military source, speaking on condition of anonymity, described the areas of Al-Mahdiya and Al-Ahrash in Rafah and Sheikh Zoweid as the danger zone. It is where the military battle is most intense. We brought up the subject of the Ahrar (Freemen) of Sinai, a recently declared militant group that has threatened to kill tribal sheikhs who cooperate with the army and security forces, distributing flyers to that effect in local markets.
The military source dismissed the organisation’s significance. “The takfiris are a single school of thought, a single group that stems from the same source. The names and banners may different, but the thinking is the same,” he said.
Jazi Abu Faraj, a member of the Tarabin tribe who lives in Al-Arish, agrees, though he accuses the government of negligence in its duty to protect tribal leaders. Around 25 sheikhs have already been killed, he said, complaining and that the government has not even compensated their families. He added that takfiri groups had drawn up a blacklist of tribal sheikhs to be targeted.
Approaching Al-Arish you hear nothing but praise for what the security forces are doing. Some might voice reservations about the tightness of the security grip, but Mohamed Hamad, a young man from the area, argues it is necessary given the takfiri “mafia” that remains in the shadows. He claimed the mafia receives financial and political backing from a power that wants to generate tension in this part of the Sinai.
The oil emirs who fund extremists, he adds, are no different to the warlord emirs, the drug trafficking and tunnel emirs, or the espionage emirs who spy for Israel. He has vowed never to forget or forgive any of them.
Terrorism cannot be uprooted from the Sinai by arms alone. The very idea of terrorism has to be uprooted, says the sheikh of the Al-Atawna tribe. Ultimate hope resides in education and a return to responsible religious discourse. But confrontation is still necessary, he said.
According to the same tribal leader, much needs to be done to promote cooperation with the tribes and to strengthen the relationship between them and the government and its institutions in the Sinai; both are fighting the same battle, and development of the Sinai is no longer a luxury or a subject to be brought up annually in the celebrations to mark Sinai Liberation Day.
This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly