Sinai contested: Outlaws, Islamists, Israel and army

ARISH – Moussa al-Delh, a member of Sinai’s influential Tarabeen tribe, was a fugitive before Egypt’s uprising began in January, accused of inciting violence against Egyptian security forces in the peninsula. Now he sits at a café in the center of Arish, the capital of North Sinai Governorate, and praises the military's “purging” campaign.

“It is important to understand that the army is mainly targeting Islamists in Sinai, and not Bedouin outlaws, like some claim,” he says, adding that “outlaw” is a pre-revolutionary concept created by the much-resented former State Security Investigation Services.

Little is known of whom exactly the military is now fighting in Sinai, or why the fight is taking place.  

The question of militant Islamist groups operating in the peninsula has been simmering for months, since security there collapsed in the wake of the uprising that brought down former President Hosni Mubarak. The issue boiled over last Thursday, when a coordinated attack in Israel near the Sinai border left eight Israelis dead and then five Egyptian border guards killed in what appeared to be “friendly fire” from the Israeli army.

A geopolitically strategic territory, Sinai is a difficult-to-govern expanse of rugged desert at the crossroads of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, revolutionary Egypt and Israel. Beyond being a cauldron for local grievances against the Cairo administration from traditional Bedouin tribesmen and outlaws, Sinai has also been a playground for regional rivals, including Israel and Palestinian factions. 

As of recently, the Egyptian armed forces, previously banned from operating in large numbers due to stipulations in its 1979 peace treaty with Israel, joined the confusion by entering Sinai in full force. The United Nations peacekeeping force in the area says that Israeli troops entered the territory on Thursday.

Egypt’s interim cabinet issued a statement on Friday saying that the current security measures in Sinai are internal issues that have nothing to do with the attacks inside Israel. “They strictly target local outlaws,” the statement said. What exactly makes an outlaw an outlaw remains unclear.

Residual anger or Islamist surge?

On 29 July, dozens of men on motorcycles and pickup trucks armed with machine guns attacked a police station in Arish.

The perpetrators and organizers of the attack remain unknown and an investigation is still underway. Egyptian authorities have pointed fingers at Islamist radical groups, but the situation appears less simple. Mohamed Ali, an administrator at North Sinai University, says that he also recognized local thugs taking part in the attack.

The outlaws, he says, are among those who were sentenced in absentia to years of prison during the harsh crackdown on Sinai tribesmen following the terror attacks that hit the peninsula between 2004 and 2006.

This group was followed by radical Islamists who raised black flags with "No God but Allah" inscriptions on them and, according to people living in the neighborhood, battled the police for nine hours. It is unclear if the two groups of attackers coordinated.

The presence of hard-line Islamist groups in Sinai goes back to 1986, when Salafi preachers first became active in the area spreading daawa (preaching), according to Sheikh Soliman Abu Ayoub, a Salafi community leader in the North Sinai town of Rafah who used to belong to the militant group Al-Takfeer wal-Hijra.

“All throughout, those groups have been peaceful. We could have done so much. We saw Israeli tourists coming and going before our eyes, but decided to be patient and far-sighted,” Ayoub says.

“When the revolution started, it is those [Salafi] groups who protected [the revolution] under the eyes of the military intelligence,” Ayoub says, indicating that Sinai’s Salafis were instrumental in bringing down the signs of Mubarak’s regime in the area.

Ayoub recalls how in the 1990s, as the security forces conducted a brutal crackdown on Islamists around the country, many members of the Salafi groups were unlawfully arrested and accused of receiving military training. Ayoub was among them. He says that Islamists perceived the crackdown as excessively aggressive and arbitrary. “In one of the interrogations, a policeman admitted he doesn’t buy those accusations,” he recalls.

Ayoub and his followers believe that the security apparatus unwittingly created the threat of Islamists in Sinai, and that it was the same Islamists who suffered under these unlawful and harsh detentions who attacked the police station on 29 July.

While his Salafi group is peaceful, Ayoub says there are others that believe in violence, such as Al-Takfeer wal-Hijra.

When asked about their level of armament, he says, “They are armed, like everywhere else in Egypt, especially after the revolution started.” Ayoub told the media over a week ago that his group was ready to arm 6000 people in Sinai to protect the territory. Many in Sinai view themselves as the guardians of Egypt’s borders from potential Israeli threats.

Khaled Saad, a businessman and secular political activist in Arish, may not have much sympathy for the militant Islamists, but he still doubts that they are tightly organized groups with deep-rooted ideologies. The level of their threat, he says, is somewhat exaggerated.

“There has been a lot of anger at the security practices of the toppled regime, so it became easy for some sheikhs to gather outlaws and smugglers around them so that they become a militia,” Saad says, echoing Ayoub in suggesting that the recent attacks on state institutions are the continuation of a battle that began with the oppression of locals by Mubrak’s security apparatus.

The Gaza connection

Infiltrations from the Gaza Strip have also raised concerns about a rising Islamist insurgency in Sinai. Palestinian factions competing with Hamas’ control of Gaza are chased out and driven into Sinai by way of tunnels that bypass the tightly controlled border.

“Both Hamas and the military intelligence here in Arish have full information about all groups infiltrating into Egypt from Gaza. No one can expand and form a whole armed movement here, because they are well-tracked,” says a Palestinian living in Arish who requested anonymity. He used to work in Gaza as a policeman under Mohamed Dahlan, the former head of Hamas’ rival Fatah, who ruled the strip with a notoriously iron fist. Dahlan was chased out of Gaza when Hamas took over in 2007.

Dahlan’s “men” were mentioned by Arish’s military commander in an interview with Egyptian state-run TV as possibly implicated in the chaos in North Sinai, including the police station attack and the repeated bombings of a pipeline that carries Egyptian natural gas to Israel and other countries.

“I worked with Dahlan for 13 years. He is a patriotic man of institutions. How can he be accused of such irrelevant acts such as attacking a police station?” says the policeman, who is among some 350 officers who worked under Dahlan and fled to Egypt in 2007. “We have no operational links to any group. We are just ousted from Gaza and wish we can go and work in the West Bank at some point, but the Palestinian Authority didn’t offer us any job there.”

Dahlan has been accused of supporting radical Islamists in Gaza linked to Al-Qaeda in order to weaken Hamas’ control over the strip. He has also been ousted from his party, Fatah, after disputes with fellow partisans who have accused him of being an agent of the United States.

A military move, mixed reactions

Egyptian tanks and armored personnel carriers are currently present at military checkpoints between Arish, Rafah, and the nearby town of Sheikh Zowayed.

The military show of force is part of the Egyptian armed forces’ “Operation Eagle,” a troop mobilization that began on 12 August. The deployment, which is ostensibly in response to terrorism threats, needed to be authorized by Israel, as it technically breaches the peace accords, according to reports in the Israeli daily Haaretz.

The mobilization came a week after a statement from a group advocating for an Islamic emirate in the peninsula and calling itself Al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula went viral in the Egyptian media. In response, the military said it would “purge” the peninsula. Many people in Sinai voiced their support for the operation, but others raised concerns.

Before the attacks in Israel on 18 August, Egyptian security forces were quick to call the Sinai operation a success. Deputy Interior Minister Ahmed Gamal Eddin said at a press conference last week that the campaign has so far managed to arrest members of Al-Takfeer wal-Hijra and collect arms and illegally-acquired military uniforms. The assailants in the 18 August attack in Israel were reportedly wearing Egyptian army uniforms.

Security sources have also told local media that Palestinian members of the militant group Islamic Jihad were among those were arrested, some of whom were previously detained in Egyptian prisons and fled during the chaos of last winter’s uprising.

Local media have also reported on coordination between Hamas and the Egyptian military to monitor the movement of potential infiltrators to Sinai from Gaza through the tunnels, particularly from the Army of Islam and a little-known group Jaljalat. Both claim ties to Al-Qaeda.

Some experts on Islamist movements, such as Khaled al-Berry, suggest that the Army of Islam has loose ties to the Syrian regime, which is currently facing massive protests calling for its downfall.

Berry, who classifies groups like the Army of Islam as not strictly ideologically-motivated and easily employed by political players, warns of possible chaos in Sinai being sponsored by an embattled Syrian regime trying to prove its strategic importance to the region.

But in the end, it appears that the threat came from none of those groups. The attack on southern Israel on Thursday that killed eight people was, according to Israel, perpetrated by insurgents from Palestinian Resistance Committees based in Gaza who infiltrated Sinai through tunnels.

The incident led Israeli officials to condemn Egypt’s unsuccessful military campaign in Sinai. Some Israeli commentators even suggested that the Israeli military move into Sinai and establish a security perimeter near the border.

According to Bedouin tribesmen in Sinai, some members of the Bedouin community are aiding military intelligence by providing them with information for the campaign. Delh, of the Tarabeen tribe, believes that Islamist groups do exist in Sinai, but he doesn’t see their threat as an imminent one.

“I don’t know why the army was that alarmed. Those are issues for the rulers. But what I am sure of is that the tribal fabric outside of the cities has not been penetrated by any of those groups.”

For Ayoub, the Salafi sheikh and former member of Al-Takfeer wal-Hijra, the military campaign is an excessive show of force without a clear reason. “I don’t think there is a danger that requires having 2000 troops, 250 tanks and four planes in Sinai,” he says.

Islamists in Sinai suggest that the military operation is a show of force designed to secure support from the United States, which already provides the Egyptian military with more than US$1 billion per year.

Ali, the university administrator in Arish, however, supports the operation. “I am not sure Islamists are here for real, but either way, Sinai does need some purging and only the army can do it,” he says. “When I found the army in the streets of my town, I felt I was in my country.”

What’s next?

“In Sinai, we’ve always been the victims of political contentions,” says Ayoub when asked about the motivation for the military’s show of force. “If the military thinks this is a way of imposing control, we refuse that.”

A security source tells Al-Masry Al-Youm that the current military presence is only a precursor to a strong comeback from the police, and nothing more.

For some, the military incursion into the peninsula sets up a perception that there are two clear options for the area: Islamist rule or orderly military rule. That is a convincing argument for some.

“All that I care about is not having Islamic rule. If it takes the army to guarantee that for me, I totally support it,” says Ali.

For Delh, the Islamists pose no threat, mainly because they seem to lack interest in state institutions. “The Bedouins’ collective memory shares bitterness from the security apparatus that characterized the state presence before the revolution,” the Tarabeen tribal leader says.

According to him, while Bedouins are not particularly paying attention to the different political propositions with regards to the country’s future, there is a sense of comfort with a military presence that respects tribal autonomy. A military council took power in Egypt following Mubarak’s resignation on 11 February.

“The relationship between the army and the Bedouins is so strong and it is showcased in the current campaign,” says Delh, who sees in it a beginning for a potential attribution of more security functions to the tribes. “Outside cities, the Bedouins should be given legal authority to maintain security within their tribes, as was the case before [the Israeli occupation in] 1967,” he says. 

Saad also sees no real threat from Islamists. For him, unlike the Bedouins, the real threat “lies in the lack of proper state institutions in Sinai.” He goes on to express his desire for a civil renaissance in post-revolution Sinai, saying that with no civil state, “Sinai will be tossed to the winds.”

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