Israel, Egypt, and Security in the Sinai

Opinion

Israel, Egypt, and Security in the Sinai

Tobias Borck

14 Jul 2015

The ISIS-affiliated 'Sinai Province' has claimed to be behind a number of high profile attacks across Egypt in recent months. Tobias Borck explores the wider regional implications of the group's emergence in Egypt.

Dressed again in his old military uniform, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi boldly declared last week that the situation in the restive Sinai Peninsula "is totally stable." In light of the events of the past two weeks this statement appears rather paradoxical. Following a string of terror attacks in Cairo and Sinai, the Egyptian military has ramped up its campaign to dislodge Islamist militants belonging to the so-called 'Sinai Province' group which has declared allegiance to ISIS. The group poses a threat to the security of Egypt and Israel, as well as to the bilateral relationship of the two countries.

The threat to Egypt is the most acute and serious. Together with a number of other extremist groups, Sinai Province, formerly known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (ABM), forms the backbone of a low-level insurgency that has plagued the country since the ousting of former President Mohammad Morsi in July 2013 and, in the case of Sinai, since the overthrow of his predecessor Hosni Mubarak. Since the beginning of Ramadan, violence has further escalated. Against the backdrop of a statement by ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani urging followers to turn the month of fasting into a "calamity for the infidels," recent terror attacks in Egypt include the assassination of Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat, a coordinated assault on several positions of the Egyptian armed forces around the Sinai town of Sheikh Zuweid, and a car bomb outside the Italian consulate in Cairo.

Contrary to Mr Sisi's claims that the situation in the Sinai "is under control," these attacks should be seen as the latest manifestation of the failure of Egyptian security forces to effectively counter the insurgency in the Peninsula. Thus far, the government's response to the challenge posed by the militants has been characterised by brute force and over-simplistic statements. Hardly a day goes by without another triumphalist announcement claiming the killing of yet more 'terrorists.' In sweeping statements, government officials are branding all forms of political dissent as orchestrated by a sinister coalition of the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS and, in some instances, Hamas.

Successive Egyptian governments have neglected the Sinai.

However, this reductive characterisation is counter-productive to both understanding and dealing with the insurgency in the Sinai. Although the Sinai Province group has undoubtedly capitalised on the overthrow of the Islamist Morsi government, the roots of the instability in the Peninsula are much older. For decades, successive Egyptian governments have neglected the Sinai beyond the tourist resorts in the South. Tapping into this discontent of the local, predominantly Bedouin, population and finding refuge in the mountainous geography, relatively un-patrolled by security forces, radical Islamist groups led by the Sinai Province's previous incarnation, ABM, have been able to gain a foothold. In this environment, the military's heavy-handed campaign, which has recently even included airstrikes, is not just ineffective but counter-productive, as local communities are further alienated with their lives and livelihoods becoming collateral damage. Furthermore, the continuing crackdown on Islamist movements increases the possibility that Sinai Province can attract recruits from other parts of Egypt, and the Middle East more widely.

The threat Sinai Province and other Islamist militants in the Sinai pose to the security of Israel is very different. For the moment, the Egyptian regime and, potentially, its economic bases (including the tourist industry and the Suez Canal) are the primary target of the extremists. Attacks on Israel, meanwhile, are more opportunistic and primarily conducted for their symbolic value, rather than being part of an organised campaign to destabilise the country. Consequently, the firing of two Grad rockets into the Israeli Negev desert on 3 July, despite causing no damage, was a success for Sinai Province. For a group that claims to be pursuing the establishment of an Islamic state and the name of which used to include a reference to Jerusalem (Ansar Beit al-Maqdis broadly translates to 'Supporters of Jerusalem') being seen as taking the fight to the Jewish state has major propagandic value.

Sinai Province poses a threat to Israeli-Egyptian relations.

At the same time, however, it appears unlikely that Sinai Province currently has the capability to seriously challenge Israel beyond occasional border skirmishes. Nevertheless, Israel is deeply worried about the prospect of hostile extremists gaining influence, and perhaps even territory, across yet another of its borders. To make matters worse, there are signs that ISIS affiliates are establishing a foothold in the Gaza strip. While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likes to portray Hamas and ISIS as a united force bent on Israel's destruction, the relationship between the two groups is more complex. Hamas is sympathetic to any organisation that attacks Israel but has no interest in sharing or ceding ground in Gaza to much more extremist forces under the ISIS banner.

Finally, and consequently, Sinai Province poses a threat to Israeli-Egyptian relations. It is well known that the close security relationship between Cairo and Tel Aviv, while essential for both countries, is quietly tolerated but not very popular in Egypt. The two governments therefore have to carefully manage their cooperation in dealing with the security situation in the Sinai. Any sign of Israeli forces operating on Egyptian territory, even if secretly sanctioned by Cairo, could have catastrophic consequences. Because of this, Israel is allowing an Egyptian military presence in the Sinai that far exceeds the restrictions of the Camp David peace treaty signed in 1978.

Over the coming months, Egypt and Israel therefore face very different challenges in dealing with the threat of Sinai Province and the insurgency in the Peninsula in general. The Egyptian military should adopt a more sophisticated and nuanced counter-insurgency strategy that goes beyond brute force. And Israel, normally accustomed to taking robust, pre-emptive action against potential threats to its security, needs to continue to exercise uncharacteristic restraint.

 

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The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.