Why Egypt’s North Sinai remains the elephant in the room

By Abir Sorour
Posted on Wednesday, 28 September 2022 14:02

Undated image shows arms seized by the Egyptian army during armed clashes with terrorists in North Sinai, Egypt. (Egyptian Armed Forces/Handout via Xinhua)

Less than 500 kilometres from where this year’s COP27 in Egypt’s will be hosted in the posh city of Sharm el-Sheikh, is war-torn North Sinai, a region scarred in the last 10 years by both state-sponsored and jihadist violence, nepotism, and trafficking. What happens here generally stays outside the scope of Egypt’s media. However, since 2013, North Sinai has become a place of conflict between the Egyptian military and jihadists affiliated with the Islamic State (IS). Why does this area remain highly volatile?

Jihadists in Sinai have been active since 2004 attacking security forces and tourist destinations, including Sharm el-Shiekh. However, the intensity of the insurgency gained momentum after the Arab Spring. A lethal radicalism occurred after the military-led ousting of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi and the killing of his supporters. The militants see the police and the military as apostates, and they attack perceived enemies: civilians allegedly working as informants for the military, Coptic Christians, Sufis, and drug dealers.

It has been 10 years since the Egyptian military launched an operation named Nesr 2 (Eagle 2) in August 2012, but North Sinai remains a problem for the Egyptian government. Nevertheless, news about local Bedouins who spy for the military, killings of conscripts, and IED attacks against civilians are not making headlines. The Egyptian government is instead pushing a narrative of rapid development and reform, depending on tourism, economic development, and new high rise cities.

As Egypt tries to gain the international community’s confidence as a hub for business and diplomacy, news about North Sinai is censored, even though the conflict has killed hundreds of security personnel since 2011 and continues to affect residents living there.

Map of North and South Sinai Peninsula, produced by the US Central Intelligence Agency.

Almost weekly casualties

Currently, fighting is intensifying in Gelbana village close to the Suez Canal. Since mid-2020, IS has apparently lost much of its stronghold in North Sinai. However, almost weekly casualties are sustained among the Egyptian military, but rarely do state-controlled or privately-owned media outlets report any activity from there, unless it was approved by the military spokesperson.

Nevertheless, media outlets do report on the military funerals that are carried out for fallen soldiers and officers. In the first two weeks of September, The Africa Report confirmed that at least four military personnel from the paratroopers division were killed in either ambushes or in raids by militants of Sinai Province, the affiliate of IS. Only three of the victims were identified and military funerals were held for them in their hometowns: Corporal Ibrahim Abdel Shafi, Corporal Goma Ragab, Private Hassib Abdel Nasser.

A military source tells The Africa Report that there are several spots that remain strongholds of the jihadists in Gelbana, Al-Matala village (near Rafah that lies close the the boarder with Israel), and on the outskirts of Bir al-Abd (overlooking the Mediterranean sea).

The source however adds that “operations in Sinai are ongoing throughout the peninsula through intelligence, reconnaissance, and raids, and in all strategic directions including counterterrorism and fighting various crimes, as well as human trafficking and narcotics dealing”.

Sharm el-Sheikh, well fortified

The renowned and popular resort town in southern Sinai, Sharm el-Sheikh, will be the site of this year’s COP27, to which numerous heads of state and members of the international community will be attending.

“There is no fear about militant infiltration in the conference. Members from the elite Thunderbolt forces will be deployed in addition to Republican Guard and other troops to secure the guests and the events,” one intelligence source tells The Africa Report.

The pervasive lack of accountability for largely lawless military operations in North Sinai over the past decade have fostered such atrocities

The source adds that Egypt will coordinate with other foreign bodies and countries to secure the conference. “The city will be fortified against any dangers”.

In recent years, militant activities have rarely crossed down to South Sinai. The latest incident took place in 2017 when gunmen attacked security forces near St. Catherine’s Monastery killing at least one.

Human rights violations

The military and the government have created and supported armed militias run by the local tribes in order to hunt down the militants, leading to several victories that are equated by capacity and frequency of the attacks, rather than an effective end to the insurgency.

Human rights workers see that using undisciplined tribesmen as militiamen can increase the scope of human rights violations in the peninsula.

However, the militiamen are vocal about their military activities. In August, three videos viewed by The Africa Report surfaced on social media showing pro-government militias arresting suspected militants alive and later executing them. “The pervasive lack of accountability for largely lawless military operations in North Sinai over the past decade have fostered such atrocities,” Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

Human Rights Watch said it had verified the authenticity of the videos, which indicate that members of both the militias and the army itself were responsible for the killings.

Egypt does not officially discuss the scope to which these militias are assessing forces in the conflict, or the legality of their armament.

 More radicalisation expected

In a voice note published on 14 September on an Islamic affiliated Telegram channel that The Africa Report listened to, the official spokesperson of the militant group praised fighters in Sinai and criticised pro-army militias.

In the 35-minute-long audio, the spokesperson, Abu Umar al-Mujahir, mentioned the conflict in Sinai at the end of his message, to indicate favouring the Sinai-based militants and the uniqueness of their activity.

With no jobs or prospects in life, young men see videos of civilians being executed or hear about people being tortured in prison, and can easily be turned into jihadists

The message was heavily circulated in anti-government Telegram groups that are affiliated with Sinai residents.

A senior member of the Al-Tiyaha tribe tells The Africa Report that violence against civilians and extrajudicial killings are used as “radicalism fuel” to recruit more young men to join. “With no jobs or prospects in life, young men see videos of civilians being executed or hear about people being tortured in prison, and can easily be turned into jihadists.”

Collateral damage

A North Sinai MP Rahmy Bakir denied the claims telling The Africa Report that “members of the Sinai tribes only participate in military operations as advisors as they know the mountains and the desert roads very well”, adding they are doing a “historical role in fighting of the terrorist gangs”.

Salam Al-Awady, a 35-year-old farmer in North Sinai tells The Africa Report that one of the pro-government militias told on him and he had to spend six months in detention until he was proven innocent. “Only because I had personal disputes with someone from the militias, I was put in prison,” he says, adding that such cases have been repeated.

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