The unprecedented offensive pitting the Egyptian army against jihadist groups in northern Sinai continues unabated. But can the military option really offer a sustainable solution?
While the military uses war weapons, including attack helicopters, in its crackdown on Islamist militants in North Sinai, terrorist groups have also intensified their attacks against the army and the police. Due to the strong pressure exerted by the military, the jihadists, avoiding direct confrontation, have increasingly resorted to suicide attacks. Sign of the difficulty of its task, the army is establishing -- for the first time in Sinai -- a buffer zone three-kilometres- wide along the border with the Gaza Strip, to better prevent the smuggling of weapons and infiltration of Islamist militants.
North Sinai has become, since the 25 January 2011 Revolution, a stronghold of takfiri (an ideology that labels society and the government as infidels) and terrorist movements. Taking advantage of the security vacuum resulting from the fall of Mubarak, these groups have swarmed and been reinforced by weapons -- mainly from the traffic of the Libyan army's arsenal during that country's civil war and following Gaddafi's fall -- and men.
These Islamist militant groups derive from three main sources. The first is the mass escape of Egyptian prisoners, among them terrorist elements, during the security chaos that accompanied the beginning of the fall of the Mubarak regime. This, in addition to the following regime – that of the Muslim Brotherhood – purposefully releasing a number of other jihadists perceived as potential allies in the face of rising internal opposition.
The second source is the return to Egypt, under former Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, of hundreds of Egyptian jihadists from Afghanistan, Albania and elsewhere.
Finally, Arab terrorists -- mainly from the Arabian Peninsula, but also Palestinian militants from the neighbouring Gaza Strip -- rushed to Sinai after Morsi's deposition to lend a hand to fellow jihadists against what they perceive as a war against Islam waged by the Egyptian army and police.
The fall of Morsi added a regional dimension to the issue which led to an influx of Arab jihadists from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria, Sudan and elsewhere. Al-Qaeda branches in other Arab countries, such as Iraq and North African states, also point to the growing interest in partaking in the armed struggle against the Egyptian army and police.
Although these jihadist groups regarded the Muslim Brotherhood's application of Sharia as too moderate, or too soft, they perceive the latter's overthrow by the military as tantamount to an attack on Islam itself justifying waging war against the army. The intensity of this war is also due to the fact that Morsi's dismissal brought an end to the then existing policy -- with mixed results -- whereby military restraint in operations against jihadists was returned with their halting attacks against the army and the police.
Al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad is the oldest and most dangerous jihadist group in Sinai. Ansar Al-Sharia, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, Maglis Shura Al-Mujahideen Brigades and Al-Furqan are also among the most active in this area. The coordinator between these different groups – which makes him the most wanted man -- is Ramzi Mwafi, Bin Laden's former doctor who escaped from an Egyptian prison during Mubarak's fall. Mwafi was described by an Egyptian court in June as "Al-Qaeda secretary-general in Sinai."
Despite being ideologically different, these Al-Qaeda-inspired jihadist groups are linked from an organisational viewpoint and have closed ranks, after the 3 July overthrow of Morsi, in their fight against their number one enemy: the Egyptian army.
Some of these groups have developed a close ideological, political and economic relationship with Palestinian Hamas, thanks to the illicit trade carried out via underground smuggling tunnels between Sinai and the Gaza Strip, which explains the important presence of Palestinian militants in Sinai.
Most of the armed groups' recruits, however, hail from Sinai's main Bedouin tribes -- Al-Sawarka, Tarabine and Breikat -- who ensure their protection and facilitate arms trafficking. The tribes are thus divided between families supporting the jihadists and others cooperating with the army and the police to hunt down terrorists.
Sinai has always posed a security problem for various reasons. The first is related to geography. This region borders the Gaza Strip and Israel, bane of the jihadists, which gives them a gateway to attack Israeli targets. The control by Hamas -- which adopts armed resistance against Israel -- of the Gaza Strip since June 2007, has reinforced jihadist groups in Sinai, establishing a multifaceted cooperation with the Palestinian Islamist movement.
The topography of the peninsula makes it ideal for jihadists. The large 60 000 km2 desert region is only sparsely populated by 600 000 inhabitants – 70 percent of whom are Bedouins mainly living in the coastal areas. This scenario leaves the field open for jihadist groups to multiply and find refuge in the rugged northern and central areas of Sinai, such as the Al-Halal Mountain, difficult to access by security forces and the army.
Given the strategic importance of Sinai, due to its border position with Israel and the Gaza Strip, the Egyptian authorities have always maintained a predominantly security- and military-oriented vision of this expanse, neglecting the local population, which consequently suffers from a delay in economic development compared to other regions of the country. Even the flourishing tourism industry in South Sinai only slightly benefited the Bedouins, who continued therefore to rely on smuggling with the Gaza Strip.
The accession of several Bedouins to jihadist groups, their links with Hamas and their involvement in the illicit trade with the Gaza Strip, reinforced the suspicions of the army and the Egyptian authorities against them, which aggravated their marginalisation. At the same time, discrimination and abuses suffered by the Bedouins at the hands of the police and the army in their search for jihadists, fuel resentment and hostility from at least some of them, thereby strengthening the ranks of jihadist groups.
In this context, the military option cannot be a sustainable solution to the multifaceted problem of the Sinai population. The key lies in a better integration of the Bedouins in Egyptian society through various means, including the phasing out of the discrimination they are subjected to and the implementation of major development projects which warrant their participation in the development of the local economy.