The Sinai Peninsula once teemed with tourists soaking sunshine and culture alike.
A six-year-old Islamist insurgency has seen to that.
The Bedouin insurrection, triggered by Cairo’s neglect for the region, that followed the Arab Spring in 2011 has mutated to today’s Sinai Province—one of the Islamic State’s (ISIS) chief affiliates.
It’s achieved much since pledging loyalty to the terrorist organization in November 2014.
In October 2015, it grasped the headlines by downing a Russian passenger plane killing 224. More recently, it’s unleashed a torrent of attacks on Egypt’s Coptic Christians murdering over 100 since December.
Its Cairo cell has been executing officials in broad daylight.
Although numbering less than 2,000 fighters, it continues to plague the region. The 440,000-strong Egyptian military, despite an annual $1.3 billion in military aid from the US and Israeli intelligence and air support, has hitherto failed to make any meaningful progress; it has lost more than 2,000 soldiers in the process.
As neighbor to the Suez Canal, if not dealt with, the Sinai Province could have a disproportionate for its size effect on the region’s geopolitics.
On May 2016, officials from 14 of ISIS so-called provinces in Syria, Iraq, and Libya simultaneously released videos voicing their support for their affiliate.
This massive media Blitz was unprecedented. And yet, a logical consequence as the group’s tide of terror in Iraq and Syria ebbs by the day.
But deflecting attention from setbacks elsewhere isn’t the sole reason for this sudden attention on the Sinai Province. Amidst mounting economic woes and the opposition vacuum left by the Muslim Brotherhood’s defenestration in 2013, Egypt offers fertile ground for radicalization. ISIS, always vying for more territory to impose its perverse ideals, sees Sinai as its “gateway to Palestine,” as the videos claimed.
Most of the fighting is in North Sinai, a poor, underdeveloped area with less than 40 people per square mile. But the tourist allure of the South Sinai hasn’t escaped the sword. It was there that the Russian plane was shot down in 2015. And this April, an attack took place near St. Catharine’s Monastery, one of Christianity’s oldest.
The Sinai Province uses urban terrorism—suicide attacks, vehicle-borne IEDs, and assassinations in the cities and towns—and guerrilla warfare—shoot-and-scoot attacks on the security forces by small, nimble units. It combines political violence with social services to win over the locals. Its followers are foreign Jihadists, local Bedouins, and security forces’ deserters, including special forces soldiers. Embracing its conventional inferiority, it avoids prolonged confrontation with the military.
Nevertheless, it has had some notable successes against larger targets. In 2014, it shot down a Mi-17 transport helicopter killing all on board. And in 2015, it claimed an attack against an Egyptian Navy ship. This attack and the battlefield’s proximity to the Suez Canal raise fears about the group’s capability to seal it.
But this seems unlikely.
Even if the Sinai Province unleashed ship-borne IEDs, the recent extension of the canal means that only an armada of such vessels would be able to halt the trade flow. And if such preparations were to go unnoticed by the Egyptian intelligence, they certainly wouldn’t by its Israeli or US counterparts, both of which are active in the region.
And yet, even if the group managed to shut the Suez Canal to global trade, the impact, although respectable, wouldn’t be catastrophic. From 1967 to 1975, all traffic in the canal ceased because of the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars. And yet sea trade—and only that between specific pairs of countries rather than global—decreased by 20%. A frustration, for sure, but not an Armageddon.
So, what’s Egypt been doing about all this?
Beginning in 2015, Operation Marty’s Cause is a tragicomic mixture of ineptitude and controversy. This reactive and ineffectual campaign of oppression and propaganda has alienated the local population—never at the top of your to-do list in a counterinsurgency. The conflict’s sensitive nature, moreover, remains arcane to the Egyptian military leadership. Everything in Egypt’s military, from its equipment and training to its mindset, orbits around large-scale wars, not “hearts and minds” counterinsurgencies.
Faced with the dilemma of evacuating North Sinai, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi chose to, “act like a surgeon who uses his scalpel to extract the tumour without harming the rest of the body.”
Sound counterinsurgency words that ring hollow without the strategy and political will to back them.
Although it wants to win a counterinsurgency, the Egyptian military doesn’t wish to adapt to its realities. No wonder why ISIS has been so successful.
What’s equally startling, however, is Egyptian reliance on the Israeli Air Force. Despite its fleet of modern aircraft, to include Squadrons of F-16 jets and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, Egypt has given the Israelis a free hand over the skies of Sinai. And although Israeli manned and unmanned aircraft have been effective, air power alone can’t defeat an insurgency, as the wars in Afghanistan and Syria have shown.
Further, the Egyptian Army is mostly made up of conscripts. And troops deployed on North Sinai are often in the last months of their service—the reasoning being that they won’t desert so close to the end. But not only this is an ineffective way to battle a fanatic insurgency, it also exposes the government to criticism from back home.
“A lot of families have lost sons,” Nasser Hussien, a local journalist, told me in a recent interview. “And this has caused resentment.”
Such resentment, however, would only concern a government that could be voted out because of it.
President Sisi has no such concerns.
So, if you seek to soak some sunshine and culture, try someplace else. The Sinai Peninsula looks like it’ll be preoccupied for a while.
Featured image courtesy of Al Arabiya