Despite positive pronouncements by the Sisi regime, Egypt’s campaign against ISIS affiliated fighters in the North Sinai is not going well. Part of the problem is the regime’s blunt force approach — indiscriminate bombing as well as the razing of entire villages and some extrajudicial killings — is ill suited to the requirements of effective counterterrorism operations. After a long period of ignoring advice from American and European experts, an increasingly stymied military command has finally begun to participate in joint training exercises with U.S. forces. It is hoped the Egyptians are open to learning from the painful lessons the U.S. took away from Iraq and Afghanistan. Early indications are not encouraging.
The Sisi government has been waging conventional warfare against Wilayat Sinai (Sinai Province), which pledged fealty to ISIS in late 2014, since it came to power in 2013. During this period hundreds of government forces (military and police) have been killed. And while many more insurgents have been killed in the campaign, a large number of civilians in the Sinai have been targeted by both the insurgents and the government.
Concerned that the continuing conflict is undermining his popularity, Sisi has pledged to stamp out the terrorists. He launched a new military offensive in early February that, according to government accounts, has resulted in the death of 71 militants and the arrest of 1,800 “wanted criminals.” Amnesty International has charged that the government’s campaign includes the use of cluster bombs. As in the past, such tactics will cause an immediate fall-off in attacks by Wilayat Sinai, but they will not eradicate the threat posed by this group.
The North Sinai is populated mostly by Bedouin tribes that have a long history of marginalization in Egyptian society. They are not considered truly “Egyptian” by the bulk of the population that lives along the Nile. As the “other” in Egypt, the Bedouin have received a smaller share of government resources and services. They have also suffered from high rates of unemployment. Relatively well-paying jobs in the tourist sector in the South Sinai are usually reserved for mainland Egyptians. When under international pressure, Egypt closed hundreds of tunnels connecting Sinai and Gaza and Bedouin were cut off from a significant source of income. Cairo appears to have given little thought to providing them with economic alternatives.
Making matters worse is the perception by many mainland Egyptians that the Bedouin collaborated with Israel when it occupied the Sinai from 1967 to 1982. Lingering suspicion has resulted in most Bedouin being barred from military and police service. As a consequence, the government suffers from a lack of good intelligence in the area that could be provided by locals in the police department.
It came as no surprise, then, when terrorists from mainland Egypt sought refuge in the North Sinai, they found a receptive audience among disaffected Bedouin youth. While some of the leaders of Wilayat Sinai are mainland Egyptians, the rank and file is mostly Bedouin. The union of new found extremist ideology with traditional tribal notions of justice produces revenge killing against security forces by kin of the fallen. This mix of ideology and tradition keeps the terrorist ranks filled with young Bedouin fighters.
The Egyptian government, with U.S. encouragement and assistance, needs to adopt a more nimble strategy to make headway against ISIS in the Sinai, as brute force has proven ineffective.
For a start, it should allow carefully vetted Bedouin to join the police; they, in turn, can help weed out hard core elements in the community. The government should also work with Bedouin tribal leaders to identify youth who are showing signs of radicalization and help steer them away from ISIS. Perhaps most importantly, it should launch development projects in the North Sinai to provide jobs and help jump start an impoverished economy. While it’s at it, the regime might reconsider the practice of punishing whole villages for the actions of a few.
There has been much discussion in the U.S. Congress about the Egyptian aid package, and prominent members on both sides of the isle have made arguments about the need to cut aid because of Egypt’s human rights abuses and its crackdown on civil society. While maintaining pressure on the regime to do better by its people, U.S. aid, rather than continuing to be cut, should be conditioned in part on enhancing the economic status of North Sinai. Relieving terrorist pressure on the Sisi regime removes a major rationale for keeping the entire country under a state of emergency.
Gregory Aftandilian is a lecturer at the Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University. Hrach Gregorian, Ph.D., is practitioner-in-residence and program director, School of International Service, American University