Daily News Egypt held a discussion with security analyst and expert Khaled Okasha and Saeed Ateeq, a Sinai activist and member of the prominent Sawarka tribe to analyse the situation of countering the militant insurgency, namely the “State of Sinai”, in Sinai.
The discussion synchronised with a tribal conference held in Sinai to announce the tribes’ stance against “Islamic State” affiliates in the region, and their support for the Egyptian army.
Roots of the crisis
After Egypt regained full political authority over Sinai in 1989, even since the 1973 war, there were uncountable promises and plans for the development of the peninsula, but only a bare minimum were realised.
“What was achieved in Sinai doesn’t even reach 1% of what has been promised or planned,” Ateeq said.
“For decades the country neglected Sinai starting from the inability to see the amount of dangers and ending with not providing the residents in the area direct work to serve it to be counted for the former regime,” former Brigadier General Okasha was more detailed in saying. “We will be committing a doubled mistake if we gave our back to the history and the situation inside Egypt. The facts are that for the past 30 years Sinai has been marginalised and there was hostility with North Sinai Bedouins.”
He added that Egypt is currently facing a “risky moment” due to its being in a complex problem.
“We are reconciliation with the people there that’s why we have to face the problem with its complications,” he said. “We committed a series of mistakes; the latest of them was former interior minister Habib Al-Adly. But we generally committed many mistakes.”
The alternative being militant insurgency that stands behind radical extremist ideas, Ateeq stated that “we have no choice except for [supporting] the Egyptian state, no matter what it did or will do to us”.
“The alternative would be dark and unknown,” he added.
Spotting the wound
Most of the militant attacks that have targeted security facilities and personnel took place in the areas adjacent to the Gaza borders. This is especially in the towns of Sheikh Zuweid, Rafah and east Al-Arish.
Ateeq wonders: “Is the Egyptian soldier in Sheikh Zuweid the only one targeted? What about in Reesa and Beir Al-Abd? There are security sites with no security fence or protection.”
He believes that “the order given to the [State of Sinai] group is to target Sheikh Zuweid, Rafah and the areas adjacent to Gaza”.
“Putting a hand on the key to the plot, it starts and ends with the triangle of Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid and eastern Al-Arish, which is the area adjacent to Gaza and Israel, is one of the steps of success [countering terrorism],” Okasha said.
“We shouldn’t be saying that Sinai is facing troubles, it is not. The whole South Sinai government isn’t facing troubles and not all of North Sinai is facing troubles, the trouble is with this triangle those almost 60 sqkm,” he added
Okasha believes that there are traces to the current insurgency in Egypt’s history with Israel, saying: “I can claim that the occupation of Sinai that happened in 1956 and was repeated in 1967 was also targeting those 60 sqkm. Israel used these militant terrorist organisations to flank the area.”
Ateeq agrees, saying “there is strategic deficiency in the area of Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah because of the Camp David agreement”.
“The Egyptian state was in a dilemma filling the security gap in Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah, and according to Camp David, it’s not permitted for the army to get involved in this area. The Interior Ministry, as civilian security, was supposed to fill the security gap.”
But is it a dark picture? Okasha believes not.
“I don’t think it is dark,” he says. “The first step to success is to have a clear vision. What is more important to me on the ground in such an important strategic regarding Egypt and the Sinai resident is to have the right vision.”
Daily News Egypt asked Okasha about the Reuters report on former army officials involved in the militant insurgency in Sinai.
“Regarding former armed forces officers being involved with the organisation, it is true. They were announced, the most famous of them was Walid Badr, who was videotaped announcing frankly being part of the organisation, and the preparations for assassinating the former Interior Minister in Cairo,” Okasha said.
He added: “Other police officers joined after getting expelled from the service. I think they joined before 2013, not within the current time range. The planning and preparations implemented on part of the militant group shows that they are knowledgeable, and that there are experts involved in the group.”
Another question that was raised in the discussion was about the January attack, in which almost 30 security personnel were victims of a large-scale attack in Al-Arish. Some details in the attack, claimed by the “State of Sinai” militant group, may suggest inside cooperation with the assailants.
“I don’t think that is true within the current time range,” he said. “I can monitor negligence, lack of skill, underestimation of the current problems which are under the title of work flaws or lack of professionalism. But has nothing to do with breaches. There was no betrayal inside the army as much as there was the failure inside the army.”
Ateeq was asked about the involvement of locals in Sinai in the militant operations he gave some insights on the demography of the militant group of State of Sinai.
“Sinai residents who are members of the [State of Sinai] organisation are no more than 250 from all tribes, but the leadership of the organisation is from the Sawarka tribe,” Ateeq said. “Those are responsible for providing logistic assistance and protection to those who operate.”
Tunnels, Hamas, Israel
Creating a buffer zone on the borders with Gaza in October 2014 was the point during the discussion that brought back to the surface the whole history of the complicated situation that involves Hamas, Israel and smuggling tunnels.
“Under Mubarak’s regime, the people responsible for the smuggling tunnels were the elites of North Sinai. Following the 25 January Revolution, the control shifted to the Muslim Brotherhood. When the Brotherhood came into power, the tunnel business moved to be in the hands of “terrorist entities” controlling anything coming in and out of Sinai,” Ateeq said.
Okasha believes that Sinai went through two main stages that complicated the scene in North Sinai even more.
“Hamas wanted to steal Sinai for its own benefit and personal calculations as an external variable, the other stage was after the Brotherhood rose to power,” he said.
“The tunnels business moving from one to another means you are shifting the economic power inside of North Sinai tribes from allies of Mubarak’s regime to “terrorist entities” which is the “terrorist” arm of the Muslim Brotherhood the powers taking control of the tunnels were transferred to other powers inside Sinai,” he illustrated. “A great part of Hamas’s investment is based on the investments coming from the tunnels between Egypt and the Strip.”
Okasha argues that an Israeli plot has been ongoing in Sinai since Mubarak’s days, adding: “The Israeli plan is 100% true. Israel suggested to Mubarak more than once during the latest 10 years of his regime to fully eliminate the Gaza Strip problem and the Palestinian issue, by giving them a part of Sinai.”
However Mubarak rejected the Israeli suggestion, Okasha says, and neither did he proceed with the strategic plan to develop Sinai.
“This strategic gap was used by Hamas which has military power inside Sinai as part of the Israeli plan to push Hamas outside of the strip,” Okasha said.
Despite the displacement of hundreds of families due to the abrupt creation of the buffer zone on the borders with Gaza, it was eventually accepted by the people of Sinai. Despite there also being no opportunities for consultations, it went through amid uncertainty of security situation in the whole peninsula.
“Sinai people were displeased by the decision to abolish tunnels, establishing a buffer zone and displacement of residents. Public opinion in Cairo also shared discomfort towards these actions and looked at them with concern,” Okasha said.
Both Okasha and Ateeq have an idea in mind to make use of an unfortunate situation.
“Our idea is that you can turn these actions that made all the worry to be a part of the solution,” Okasha says. “Also a part of the solution is the tribes’ conference and their announcement in support of the army. The main idea is redistributing the residents of this border area with the consultancy of the tribes.”
Okasha added: “The people of Sinai understood that what happened was due to security needs so why don’t we build up on that, especially as tribes are announcing for the first time that they stand by the Egyptian authorities, and we stand together, state and tribes, in the issue of redistributing the residents of the evacuated buffer zone?”
As a solution, Okasha noted despite this land being described as “no-man lands”, they were in fact lived upon, lands in which people also had investments. And rather than maintain a radio-silence, the tribes need to be talked to, to gather their views on new places for people to live on.
He said: “The government said it will build a new Rafah city, our perspective is wider than this. A new Sinai society where development is seeded, to give the people who were displaced for security reasons a lot of privileges they deserve. People of Sinai are more aware of their lands than the government that their choices for alternative areas will not be random and will serve mutual interests.”
He also added: “Any paths for development in Sinai shouldn’t be postponed until defeating terrorism, this is in my opinion a wrong calculation. Terrorism in Sinai succeeds only because it made use of the emptiness and gaps the state left there.”