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Case Analysis 14 August, 2012

Sinai: From the Absence of the State to Political Pawn

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The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 


Introduction

An armed group attacked an Egyptian military checkpoint the evening of Sunday, August 5, killing 16 Egyptian soldiers and wounding seven. The attackers also managed to capture two Egyptian armored personnel carriers (APCs) they then used to infiltrate the other side of Al Arish frontier, which is controlled by the Israelis. Israeli reports claim that an Israeli military plane attacked the two APCs, killing seven of the attackers. Given the security incidents seen on the frontier shared between Egypt, on one side, and the Gaza Strip and the Israelis on the other, in recent years and particularly since the January 25, 2011 revolution in Egypt, this attack could not have been a surprise. The transitional period immediately following the fall of the regime of Hosni Mubarak was witness to a breakdown of security, with attacks on the gas pipelines, which supplied the Israelis with Egyptian gas, and the smuggling of weapons.

This paper shall attempt to provide an analysis of this latest incident, which has caused a degree of confusion and disarray within Egyptian public opinion, a situation reflected in the positions of the military and political leaderships[1] within Egypt. This situation is made more acute by the fact that the area in question - the Sinai Peninsula - has long had to adjust to the withdrawal of state power by becoming largely self-governing.


Sinai: The Peculiarity of Being a Frontier Badland

The Sinai Peninsula stands alone among governorates within the Arab Republic of Egypt, resulting from the convergence of a number of different factors. In addition to the region's status as a far-off peripheral zone in comparison to the urban centers, the Israeli occupation of the Peninsula after the June 1967 war, before Egypt regained sovereignty through the Camp David Agreements in 1978, has made an imprint on the social character of Sinai Egyptians. The Egyptian-Israeli peace accords  effectively paved the way for the complete absence of the Egyptian state from the area, which gives rise to a number of tribal and ideological groups that would come to be the actual (or effective) rulers of the Sinai, looking after the local population's affairs.[2]

The previous Egyptian regime failed to recognize the significance of the bonds tying the people of the Sinai Peninsula to the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip; they also failed to understand how Mubarak's regime policies, which were adverse to the Palestinians, would impact public opinion within this group of Egyptians. The northern ridge of the Sinai Peninsula had historically been closely tied to Gaza City, which served as the Sinai's traditional urban commercial center. In fact, the scattered populations in both the northern and southern ends of the Peninsula relied on Gaza for their provisions. This relationship, while extending throughout history, took a more formal shape during the period of official Egyptian control of the Gaza Strip from 1948 to 1967.

During that period, the administrative and commercial ties between the Sinai and the Gaza Strip allowed for a consolidation of the social bonds between the Gaza Strip's residents and the Bedouin of Sinai, with an increase in intermarriage between the two groups, not to mention growing migration, settlement, and residence across both ends of the Sinai-Gaza Strip frontier. Concrete kinship bonds held the Palestinians from Khan Younis and Rafah close to Egyptians from the Sinai town Sheikh Zuwaid; these also tied the Bedouin clans of the central Sinai Peninsula to their counterparts in the northern part of the Negev.[3] These kinship bonds were adversely affected by the re-demarcation of frontiers between Egypt and the Israelis in 1979, rupturing the relations between the populations of the two sides and placing the residents of the Sinai Peninsula under permanent military rule. In this way, Sinai residents were affected by all political developments caused by the Israeli occupation. One of these developments was the emergence of a network of tunnels tying the Palestinian and Egyptian sides of the town of Rafah, which became, along with the Palestinian Intifada in 2000, a focal point for smuggling activity across both ends. Later on, relations across the Palestinian and Egyptian ends of the frontier would also be shaped by the growth of Salafist groups in the Sinai into groups of Jihadist fighters with links to the resistance movements of both Palestine and Lebanon.[4]

Public disenchantment with the Mubarak regime in the Egyptian Sinai was also exacerbated by the former Egyptian ruler's attitude toward the bloody Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip during the winter of 2008-2009. This distaste for Mubarak's acquiescence with the Israeli attack was not only based on nationalist compassion and identification with the Palestinian cause, but also on the fact that Egyptians from Sinai had relatives on the Palestinian side of Rafah, many of whom had relations that had been murdered by the Israelis during this and or previous attacks. In fact, the former Egyptian regime's forces, accomplice in the 2008 Israeli aggression against Gaza, between 2001 and beginning of 2011, killed no fewer than 240 Egyptian citizens of the Sinai Peninsula, a fact for which no soldier or commanding officer has ever been held  accountable. Those killed were not, as had been claimed at the time, smugglers, although they were tied to the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip by ideological bonds and self-interest.

Unemployment and restricted freedom drove many of the Egyptian youth in the Sinai Peninsula into the fold of extremist Islamist groups because they were a vehicle for them to challenge the previous regime, which they viewed as lacking in patriotism, being negligent of the Sinai Peninsula and its inhabitants, and abrogating of its duties toward the Palestinian and other pan-Arab causes. Considerations such as these made the Sinai Peninsula the first part of Egypt where protestors were openly calling for Mubarak to step down. Indeed, protestors from the Sinai had already called for the fall of Mubarak's regime (the battle cry of Egyptian protestors in Tahrir Square being "the people want to topple the regime"), following the Israeli attack on Lebanon in 2006, when the then-regime in Cairo had stood idly by, and the Israeli attack on Gaza during the winter of 2008-2009.

This reality shaped the way in which the people of Sinai related to the outbreak of the peaceful protests and the January 25 revolution in the main part of Egypt.  Armed Salafists from the Egyptian part of Rafah attacked state security personnel on February 11, 2011, killing a number of police officers. Further on, armed Salafists kidnapped and killed three high-ranking security officers in Sheikh Zuwaid. The breakdown in state control would last throughout the transitional period and the handover to a new government, with 15 recorded bomb attacks against gas pipelines in the Sinai being recorded as of July 22, 2012. These facts demonstrate that the attacks against signs of Egyptian governmental interests in the Sinai were not exclusively the product of the January 25 revolution; rather, they are the accumulated effect of decades of tensions caused by mismanagement and neglect of the Peninsula by the Egyptian authorities. The abrogation by the Egyptian state of its duties towards the Sinai abetted the growth of groups with sub-national and supra-national ambitions. The withdrawal of the state also contributed to the growth of a market freed from official monitoring, making the growth of smuggling to the Gaza Strip under Israeli siege inevitable. These armed groups were not the only party targeting the Egyptian armed forces in Sinai, however. In fact, following the assassination by the Israeli military of two Egyptian soldiers in the southern part of Rafah, thousands of Egyptian protestors had come onto the grounds of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo in August of 2011. This incident had followed numerous deaths of Egyptian soldiers at the hands of the Israeli military during Mubarak's reign.

Alongside these attacks on the Egyptian military, the period following the January 25 revolution in the Sinai saw the kidnapping of foreign tourists and, in Al Arish, a large march in solidarity with the massive Islamist protest in June 2011 in Cairo, which the Egyptian media had dubbed the "Qandahar Friday Protests". Simultaneously, armed men carrying black banners - used as a symbol by a wide range of Salafist groups - attacked a police station, spreading fear and terror in the Sinai, after distributing leaflets that called for the establishment of what they termed a "Sunni Muslim Emirate". In the space of a few short months, there have been a total of 28 attacks on members of the Egyptian border guards, in addition to a number of organized attacks against police stations on the Sinai Peninsula.

With the downfall of Mubarak, the Egyptian state's prestige, and its ability to govern, within the Sinai Peninsula fell even further, exacerbating the security vacuum. A number of militant groups associated with Al-Qaeda, such as "Ansar al Jihad,"[5] became operational on the Peninsula following the success of the Egyptian revolution, with the most frequent attacks against the Egyptian military thus far happening in July 2012.  These attacks included: an attack on a security checkpoint in the Wadi Feeran area in the southern part of the peninsula, which killed two soldiers and wounded an officer and four members of the Egyptian police; an attack in Sheikh Zayed City that left two Egyptian soldiers on patrol in the town dead; and the kidnapping of two American tourists and their Egyptian tour guide by a group of Bedouin, who demanded that a relative of theirs be freed in return for the freeing of the kidnap victims in the northern part of the Sinai.

What makes this latest attack, the subject of this article, different from all of the others mentioned above is the very visible way in which it has impacted the political fray. Further to this, the soldiers killed in the recent attack were the first to receive an official funeral procession, a sign of how the entire spectrum of Egypt's political forces, who are party to a democracy led by a president with constricted powers, are working to politically invest in this incident. Political investment took a number of forms, beginning with the public outcry and the military funerals for the soldiers killed, not to mention the decision by elected President Mohammed Morsi to dismiss a number of high-ranking Egyptian security and military officials in the wake of the attack. Responding to these attacks, it seems, has become a venue for the competing political forces in the new political order of Egypt to win over public opinion.


Scoring Political Points from a Crime

The August 5 attack on the Egyptian military came while the political competition between the various groups was at a high in post-revolutionary Egypt. It was only recently that Mohammed Morsi, a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood, defeated Ahmad Shafiq, a figurehead of the Mubarak regime and the Egyptian Army's candidate. This gave the losing team the opportunity to build a media campaign against the elected president, especially since the political scene revealed a battle over powers in which each actor does his best to grab additional authority and reduce the popularity of their opponents.

Media outlets loyal to the previous regime, and some of the political opposition, placed blame for the August 5 attack on the presidency itself, but for reasons that seem entirely incomprehensible without viewing them through the prism of the accusers' own interests in exploiting the crime. The recriminations against Morsi have reached a point where some blame him for the incident because of the promises made by the Egyptian president to open up the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, based on the historic and well-known connections between Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and Palestine's Islamic resistance movement Hamas, which administers the Gaza Strip. Such accusations seek to depict the newly elected president as being only concerned with his own (narrow, political) factionalism instead of being a president for all Egyptians. These are allegations meant exclusively as a provocation and lack any credibility. There simply is no material evidence linking Hamas to the latest crime, or to any of the other attacks - the victims of which did not receive military funerals - that preceded it, though the Mubarak regime had similarly tried to exploit them. Some of those accusing Morsi have gone so far as to accuse the president of high treason for his role in releasing hundreds of those Egyptian detainees being held without a conviction, or who were sentenced by military courts, primarily for their participation in the protests that brought down President Mubarak.

Others, from within Morsi's own camp, placed the blame for the August 5 attack on the Israelis, repeating demands that the 1978 Camp David Agreements be re-examined and amended. The main point of this argument is that the peace treaty between Egypt and the Israelis severely restricts the movement of Egypt's armed forces on the Sinai Peninsula, incapacitating the country from carrying out its duties to maintain order in the territory. According to the Agreement's terms, Egypt is allowed to deploy only a limited number of lightly-armed troops in Sinai, though this did not stop a mob that was coming out to the unprecedented military funeral from chanting slogans against the Muslim Brotherhood, or even from physically assailing Morsi's newly appointed Prime Minister, Hesham Qandil, and other public figures who are loyal to the president elect. Morsi was himself absent from the procession as, it later transpired, the Republican Guard could not guarantee his physical safety.

With many of the media outlets known for their ties to the previous regime magnifying the importance of the military funeral, it became clear that some political forces saw it as an opportunity to discredit the new president and depict him as a weak leader. These attempts drove Morsi to take a number of actions directly affecting a number of high-ranking military, security, and political figures within Egypt - the first time, according to a number of observers, the new president exercised his presidential prerogative. What happened was that Morsi had turned the tables on those within the media who politicized the public outcry, for the state's security apparatus was certainly the prime culprit in the dereliction of duties -short of other crimes - towards the Sinai Peninsula.

Morsi forced the head of the state's General Intelligence Service to retire, appointing a temporary deputy to fill his place. Also losing their positions were the former heads of Military Police, the Republican Guard, and the Governor and Head of Security of Northern Sinai. However, it is clear that all of the new presidential appointees are also close to Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, Chief of the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF), an indication that Morsi has no intention of directly confronting the military. This did not stop Field Marshall Tantawi from making what appears to be a direct challenge to the president's authority by appointing the dismissed head of Military Police, General Hamdeen Badeen, as one of his assistants with the additional title of "Adviser on Sinai Affairs".[6] Winning a new appointment in the wake of the attack, Mohammed Fathi Rafiaa al-Tahtawi became the first civilian to fill the role of the president's chief of staff.

Alongside this raft of appointments and dismissals, which have had a mixed set of responses, particularly among the "revolutionary" forces within the Egyptian political spectrum, it seems that the military relies on the operation launched by the army on August 8 to "clean" the Sinai Peninsula of armed, rebellious Salafi groups in order to restore peace in the Sinai and put an end to the security chaos there. The military and security of the Egyptian state have even sidestepped the president, who is on record declaring his intention to control the Sinai, by issuing their own, separate statements to the press about the progress of the military operations. Although it remains to be seen if the military will eventually gain the upper hand against terrorist groups in the Sinai, it is clear that they want any of the credit for the success of this operation, unprecedented in scale, to help boost their popularity for any prospective confrontation with the presidency at a later stage.

This has not been the first conflict between the various political players in Egypt. The presidency and SCAF have already come into conflict, for example, on the question of the dissolution of the Egyptian People's Assembly (before the Constitutional Court reversed the decision to dissolve the parliament). Additionally, both parties are locked into a conflict over the future of the Constitutional Assembly, which is threatened with dissolution. This latest confrontation shows the potential for this standing conflict to move into the executive arm of the Egyptian Republic. Regardless of what either of the two parties to this conflict do next, it is abundantly clear that there are those who stand to gain from the disagreement between Morsi and SCAF, and could find a way to use this disagreement to hinder the democratization of Egypt.


Results of the Crime: Possible Outcomes

The political shifts in the wake of the criminal attack on Egypt's forces in Sinai raise a number of possibilities. Firstly, it seems likely that the Egyptian authorities will have to coordinate a re-negotiation of some of the articles of the Camp David Agreement with their Israeli counterparts. In particular, the Egyptians will want to address the question of deploying their own country's forces in the parts of the Sinai designated by Camp David to be demilitarized or partially demilitarized, though these are demands unlikely to meet approval from the Israeli government, which views the absence of any considerable military force from Sinai as a precondition for its national security. What the Israeli authorities could do, however, is exploit any such Egyptian demand to place conditions of their own, perhaps seeking an opportunity to push for greater security and military cooperation with the Egyptians to control the borders, and thereby neutralizing security risks. 

A second possibility is that the media and political campaigns launched by those loyal to the former regime will complicate matters for those Palestinians seeking to end the blockade on Gaza, which the elected president has already begun to ameliorate.  A cause for relief, however, is the fact that Egyptian public opinion would simply not allow for Egypt to return to its old role as a jailor of the Palestinian people.

Another possibility is that the SCAF is not likely to pass up an opportunity to score political points provided by a decisive military victory against the terrorists in Sinai. Such a victory would bolster the credibility of SCAF, whose reputation suffered dramatically during the transitional period, and would give them a better bargaining position. 

A fourth possibility is the continuation of the give-and-take conflict between the presidency and SCAF until the transitional period is played out and a constitution that provides for new elections to the legislature can be concluded. Should this not happen, then SCAF and a number of political factions opposed to President Morsi can be relied on to continue to make the most of the August 5 attack and (inevitable) future attacks, all of which would further the political polarization within Egypt and threaten the transition to democracy within the country.

Finally, should the efforts of the new president continue to be met with "opposition for opposition's sake" by those political forces that oppose him, it will only serve to heighten the sense of injustice among many of Egypt's Islamists, further deepening the ideological divide, and could possibly lead the country to a disaster should the opportunity for dialogue between the different political forces cease to exist.

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[1] During the writing of this analysis, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi dismissed Cairo's top two generals and quashed a military order that had curbed the new leader's powers.

[2] To state the obvious, the Sinai is not an exception to the rule. The emergence of supra-nationalist or sub-nationalist groups in regions where the power of the state is weak can be seen in southern Libya and southern Tunisia.

[3] Faisal Saleh al-Khairy, "The Palestinian Tiaha tribe discredits Israeli claims to a historical legacy," Al-Ahram Daily, October 23, 2010 (Arabic), http://digital.ahram.org.eg/articles.aspx?Serial=379461&eid=1385.

[4] Osama Khaled and Salah al-Balak, "A Map of Takfiri Groups in Sinai: Security forces estimate there to be 1,200 weapons arriving from Libya and Palestine," Al-Masry al-Youm, February 8, 2012 (Arabic), http://www.almasryalyoum.com/node/646021.

[5] Supporters of a holy war waged on behalf of Islam as a religious duty.

[6] As mentioned earlier, this report was written prior to the dismissal of top generals.