Egypt’s Response to Insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula

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Egypt has been resisting terrorism and an uprising in the Sinai Peninsula for the past decade. The Egyptian military has performed several military operations against radicals and extremists. 

The Sinai Peninsula spans roughly 23,000 square miles and comprises 6 percent of Egypt’s total land area. It has a small inhabitants of 550,000—out of Egypt’s total residents of 100 million—and most of them live in North Sinai where the rebellion is active, especially in the cities of El-Arish, Sheikh Zuweid, Rafah, and Bir al-Abed. The population of North Sinai is formed of a complex mix of tribes and clans of which Bedouins designate about 70 percent of the total population. 

Over the past decades, the North Sinai region has mourned several political, economic, social, and development concerns. Problems of marginalization, unemployment, poor governance, poverty, and, most recently, repression and exile have alienated the Bedouin and other citizens of Sinai and expanded their grievances.

The Egyptian government has always considered Sinai as a security threat and dealt with the Bedouin people with worry. For decades, the Bedouins have been indicted of collaborating with Israel, mainly after its occupation of Sinai in 1967, and hence, they are sensed as not trustworthy. Most of the Bedouins do not hold Egyptian citizenship and have not been politically described until recently. In addition, they are not permitted to join the army, the police, and military academies or to hold senior functions in the government. Securitizing the government’s issues with the Bedouins has turned Sinai into a security dilemma and a headache for all Egyptian authorities. Neither of the regimes of Hosni Mubarak nor Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has embarked on the root causes of this dilemma. 

In August 2011, Egypt undertook Operation Eagle in an effort to revitalize law and order, driving Islamist revolutionists and criminal gangs out of North Sinai’s urban centers, and attempting to sever the connection between militant groups in the Sinai and Gaza by increasing its control over the Gaza border crossing.

On 5 August 2012, an episode on the Rafah barracks surprised the Egyptian military and population. Only a month into his tenure, President Mohamed Morsi removed the longstanding defense minister and announced General al Sisi in his place. Operation Sinai was undertaken, aimed at destroying armed Islamist groups, guarding the Suez Canal, and destroying the tunnel network linking the Sinai with the Gaza Strip. During the process, 32 militants and suspects were eradicated and 38 were arrested.

Since he carried power in 2014, Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi assumed a heavily militarized strategy in dealing with the mutiny in Sinai. It aimed to destroy the activities of militant groups, especially Wilayat Sina, and uproot the rebellion from the peninsula. To achieve this, the Egyptian military guided military operations in the cities of Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid, and Al-Arish. These operations heeded three phases: the first started in October 2014 after Sisi announced a state of emergency in northeastern Sinai that comprised Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid, Al-Arish, and multiple villages on the Egyptian border with Gaza. The operation concentrated on the cities of Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid, where the Egyptian army attempted to eradicate the militants’ activities thereby forming a buffer zone of 1,000 meters on the Gaza-Rafah boundary. 

The second phase began on September 3, 2015, after Wilayat Sina undertook a major invasion using a Kornet missile invasion on a navy ship. On September 7, 2015, Sisi’s government started another operation called “The Martyr’s Right,” represented by the Egyptian media as the “largest and most sweeping operation desired at rooting out and killing ‘terrorists’.” 

As Egypt’s media boosted the operation and praised its victory in eliminating the insurgency in Sinai, Wilayat Sina strengthened its attacks against the Egyptian security forces, which resulted in the claiming lives of hundreds of officials and civilians over the following years.

Lately, the Sisi government revised its tactics in battling the insurgency in Sinai. In addition to the military offensive, it endeavored to attract and co-opt some of the tribal leaders to battle alongside the Egyptian army.

Phase three started in February 2018 when the Egyptian army established a “comprehensive military campaign,” named “Operation Sinai 2018,” which desired to “cleanse the country of terrorists.” Some media reports suggested to an agreement between the Egyptian army and some of the elder chiefs of the Tarabin, Swarka, and Rumailat tribes. 

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