As Egypt approaches the ten-year anniversary of uprisings against former president Hosni Mubarak, wins and losses of the past decade have come into a clear focus. The military, above all, has emerged as a political “winner”, having resumed its control over Egypt’s executive and, increasingly, legislative and judicial branches, as well as its much-discussed expansion into the economy. Ironically, on the battlefield, the Egyptian Armed Forces (EAF) have not been able to secure a victory in a war on terror that has been a focal point of the rise of Abdel Fattah el Sisi from defense minister, under President Mohamed Morsi, to his current position as a president. While security forces (mostly those under the Ministry of Interior), used particularly brutal tactics to tamp down a spate of violence across the country from 2013 to 2018, the armed forces have not been able to quell pernicious violence, fueled by criminal and terrorist activity, taking place at its borders.
Sinai and Western Egypt: Violence at the Borders
This violence, carried out by mostly local actors (Egyptians or Palestinians, with some exceptions) that have pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State, has been largely opportunistic in nature, though today resembles insurgency, with a small number of militants operating with relative ease throughout the province of North Sinai and along the western border with Libya. The EAF remain the primary force fighting these militants, with successive campaigns having been announced since 2013; the latest of these, “Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018,” was underway on both fronts from January 2018 and, while no end has been announced, appeared to wind down in late summer of that year. As the campaign slowed, militant attacks resumed. In the year from Oct 2019 to October 2020, the Islamic State’s Sinai branch, Wilayat Sinai, has claimed 222 attacks and 699 casualties in its Naba newsletter. Casualties have largely been of security forces, but also include a number of state-aligned tribal militia members or those suspected of “collaborating” with the state.
Over the course of the years, interconnected trends related to the insurgency and the military operations have emerged: a degradation in the quality of available information regarding the conflict, some proliferation in the actors landscape, and a wider spread but slower pace of militant attacks. Taken together, these trends demonstrate that, while the conflict has cooled since 2018, it appears intractable as it approaches a decade since the initial onset of increased militant activity in 2010. Unfortunately, as the central government continues to consolidate power behind Sisi, the grievances that often drive the complex process of radicalization (which may include relative deprivation, disenfranchisement, or disillusionment with non-violent political engagement) are not likely to see amelioration.
Currently, the quality of both reporting and intelligence that is emerging from North Sinai is poor. The security situation exists in a near-vacuum of information. Egyptian and foreign reporters are prevented from entry by strict controls on movement at the border: the province of North Sinai limits entry to those granted permission by the military or those who can prove residence in the province. Although the state has organized several press junkets over the years, these are heavily monitored and have not allowed for real on-the-ground investigations. Aside from some reports by the independent online news media site Mada Masr, which are usually penned by an anonymous source, or similarly anonymous reports that may emerge from human rights organizations, much of the information that emerges from North Sinai into the public domain does so through militant reports (like the Islamic State’s al-Naba newsletter) or social media. The western desert is similar: when a militant attack occurred at the Bahariya Oasis in 2017, media reports varied widely, placing the death toll between 11 and 50.
The quality of intelligence in the province is similarly poor. Neither the Egyptian military nor its counterparts (in the General Intelligence Services or Ministry of Interior) have a well-developed human intelligence program in North Sinai. When militants are captured (and they are more often killed on the spot), intelligence is very often gathered under duress with practices that have been condemned by rights groups and which yield unreliable results. Information about militant activity is often gathered from aerial surveillance, and Egypt has accordingly invested in its UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) program. Somewhat surprisingly, it is often the Israeli forces that are known to have the best intelligence regarding militant activity in the province. While the Multinational Force and Observers do conduct regular tours, these are not necessarily intended for the purpose of assessing the militant situation.
For their part, militants have been able to take advantage of the treacherous terrain and the wide expanse of desert both in North Sinai and in the western desert. Attacks in North Sinai, once relegated mostly to the area near the border with Gaza, have recently moved eastward and are consistently taking place around the city of Bir al Abd, closer to the Suez border. While the military has been able to contain the violence within the province, the ability of militants to operate across such a wide area suggests a reasonable freedom of movement. Similarly, in the western desert, the long and porous border with Libya has provided opportunity for cross-border movement of militants, weapons, and goods. This trafficking, as that which comes through tunnels from Gaza, provides an important lifeline for groups seeking to replenish resources.
Supporting the Military: The Role of Security Forces and Sinai’s Tribes
In part in order to take advantage of local insights on terrain and within militant groups, the Egyptian military has financially and materially backed local tribal militias in Sinai that often carry out operations alongside troop deployments and that may operate independently. These militias have operated under several names, including the Union of Sinai Tribes or “Group 103.” The militias have been cited especially for their egregious human rights violations, including point-blank extrajudicial killings. Interestingly, the engagement of the tribes through these pro-state militias occurs despite a culture of distrust of Sinai tribes among the state and society, rooted in the peninsula’s historic position vis-à-vis the Arab-Israeli wars. In fact, members of the Bedouin tribes are not generally welcomed into police or military colleges and thus the state’s official forces do not comprise representation from the tribes. On the other hand, tribes on Egypt’s western border have benefited from the smuggling networks described above and they have not had a significant role to play in counter-terror operations. However, the facility with which weapons were smuggled from post-Qaddafi Libya and into parts of Libya under Khalifa Haftar’s control may have indicated some degree of collaboration with state security forces: but these never amounted to the formation of militias as seen in Sinai.
Not only does the emergence of these state-aligned tribal militias create challenges for the post-conflict (particularly as there have been no discussions of plans for disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration), but they also perpetuate current inter- and intra-tribal inequalities that have led to violent outcomes in the past. The 2017 massacre at the Rawda Mosque, the deadliest in Egypt’s recent history, was, after all, driven in part by tribal tensions. Furthermore, the entanglement of security and economic development priorities suggests an environment ripe for corruption: tribal elites may be best placed to benefit from military contracts, creating an incentive that rewards those closest to the state and a disincentive for development plans based on impact assessment or need.
The current state of conflict in North Sinai, and, to a degree, in the western desert, is thus one that is opaque, fragmented, and is occurring over a wide expanse of difficult terrain. The Egyptian Armed Forces, on the other hand, comprise a fighting force that is largely geared (particularly in terms of operations and personnel structure, but also when it comes to strategy) to traditional warfare, ill-equipped to combat such an insurgency. Combined with concerted efforts to limit information about the conflict, the ongoing simmering violence is likely to persist for some time.