Countering terrorism in Sinai: Towards a comprehensive strategy

Ziad A Akl
Sunday 2 Aug 2015

So far, the state has chosen to deal only with the operational dimensions of terrorism in Sinai. A more effective strategy would deal with causes as well as symptoms, which in nature are multi-dimensional

I have written about the situation in Sinai more than once over the past three or four years. My approach in these various writings was mainly based on the idea of the nature of the threat of terrorism in Sinai, and how the state’s chosen course of action does not reflect a full grasp of the multi-dimensioned problem. I have often stated that the state uses a single-track strategy built on mere security and military measures, which only handles the operational dimension of the problem.

While operational aspects are of grave importance, and hence the security and military approaches to counter them are necessary, they remain a symptom of the problem and not a root cause. Meanwhile, the state’s recent move towards new legislation exclusively addressing terrorism is a continuation of a pre-emptive legislative discourse that the Egyptian state adopted in the post-30 June era under the banner of prioritising national security over equally important and adjacent social and political issues. So far, this pre-emptive strategy has exhibited a major expansion in executive powers without thorough consideration of using and utilising those powers in a productive manner.

Since criticising state discourse in issues of national security in general and Sinai in specific is being stigmatised in the media day after day, and since there is an obvious growing trend inside intellectual circles (pro-state ones in particular) that attacks those who criticise without offering alternatives, this article attempts to offer an alternative strategy towards countering terrorism in Sinai.

First, the Egyptian state has within its structure a large number of security institutions, like the National Security Agency, General Intelligence, the State Security apparatus, Military Intelligence and other apparatuses and institutions that are not subject to public exposure, neither in their structural situation nor in their jurisdiction. These different institutions operate in Sinai with various degrees, despite the fact that overlap is highly possible and the undetailed diversity is likely perplexing, especially in light of the absence of a clear context engulfing the notion of “separation of powers” within the Egyptian state structure as a whole.

Therefore, specifying a single institution capable of coordinating the flow of information between different parts of Egypt’s sophisticated matrix of security institutions is important. Handling the security dimension in Sinai through an overarching security apparatus will definitely create a more efficient and effective decision-making mechanism, and at the same time act as an institutional infrastructure for an ongoing state presence in Sinai.

Second, the terrorist threat in Sinai endures due to a geopolitical tendency inherent in Sinai’s terrain. Abandoned land and underdeveloped regions constitute the majority of Sinai, making it easier for radical entities to utilise Sinai as a hub for terrorism. A detailed strategy of Sinai’s economic development has not been developed by the Egyptian state so far, even as a hopeful vision or mere wishful thinking. The National Agency for the Development of Sinai, which operates under the banner of the cabinet, stated recently that LE5.6 billion worth of investment has been put down, and that LE4.7 billion worth of agreements have been signed for Sinai’s development and that 90 percent of these agreements has been realised. Now I do not know to what extent these statements are accurate or true, and if they are, I do not know why they have not been publicised well enough. But Sinai’s current situation requires a single committee responsible for formulating a long-term strategy for the economic development of the region, a committee that entails under its banner the different ministries and institutions concerned with the issue, like the Ministry of Water Resources, the Ministry of Electricity, the Ministry of Housing and Development, the Ministry of Planning and the Ministry of Finance.

The economic development of Sinai is not by any means less important than the recent expansions in the Suez Canal, which were nurtured by ongoing presidential pressure and thorough governmental monitoring. Similar attention ought to be given to Sinai’s economic development, specifically in the context of a counter-terrorism strategy.

Third, the ethnic and tribal dimensions of society in Sinai remain underrated and incorrectly handled. Tribal dynamics do not necessarily mean vulgar patriarchy, and they do not have to be handled with policies of exclusion and alienation. The Egyptian state has recurrently dealt with the tribal dynamics of Sinai in a context that excludes all conceivable notions of citizenship and equal access to opportunities. Reaching out to the tribes of Sinai never exceeded a ritual process or a protocol of gathering state officials with tribe leaders on an irregular basis, and the ongoing results of such meetings usually never surpassed flashy statements to the media highlighting future avenues of cooperation, ones that never came to be realised.

What state officials must understand is the fact that tribal leaders are not in utter control of Sinai’s Bedouin society, and that there is a growing trend towards a more horizontal and less patriarchal dynamic among the tribes of Sinai. In many instances, the role of tribal leaders is becoming a matter of heritage and ritualistic folklore more than an actual reflection of power and authority. Therefore, state institutions like the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Education and Al-Azhar need to work together on a strategy for Sinai’s cultural integration. At the same time, civil society should be allowed to work in the region, raising awareness and designing training and youth empowerment programmes for Sinai’s inhabitants. But most importantly, a parallel policy of inclusion and equal access to opportunities in state institutions must be developed and implemented.

Fourth, secrecy in waging wars against terrorism has proved to be an ineffective strategy in countering terrorism over the past few years, not only in Egypt but also in other parts of the world. The strain of terrorism that we are facing at the moment does not aim at direct confrontation or territorial occupation as much as it aims at spreading a general state of fear among the public, fear that would later develop into a belief held by the people that the state is no longer capable of providing the citizens’ most basic needs of security. This strategy is what motivates and empowers post-9/11 terrorism, and also what explains the large number of terrorist attacks targeting non-vital locations and using homemade, low-impact explosives. Therefore, the state needs to work towards reassuring the public that tangible security is present and that efficient steps are being taken to eliminate terrorist threats.

This process of reassurance requires credible and diversified media coverage and ongoing professional exposure of truths about what is happening in Sinai and what is being done to confront the threat of terrorism in it. Monopolising information about Sinai will only limit the credibility of the coverage and provide more room for inaccurate speculation.

Finally, what I attempted to propose in this article is nothing but some scattered ideas that are premised on the notion that an effective process of countering terrorism is by nature a multi-dimensional one, and its success is tightly linked to political, economic and social factors that must be coordinated together and receive equal priority as security and military factors. A long-term comprehensive strategy to counter the threat of terrorism in Sinai is very possible, but implementing it requires political will to address root causes rather than temporary symptoms.


The writer is a researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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