Egypt Is Failing to Deal With Its Sinai Insurgency

Victims of an attack at a Sufi mosque in Egypt’s North Sinai province being carried away on stretchers. Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Victims of an attack at a Sufi mosque in Egypt’s North Sinai province being carried away on stretchers. Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

An attack at a Sufi mosque in the northern Sinai Peninsula in Egypt killed at least 235 people on Friday. It was the first time that Islamist militants — who have been attacking security forces and Christian churches for years — have gone after Muslim worshipers.

The carnage and audacity were horrific. According to witnesses, dozens of gunmen in off-road vehicles bombed the mosque, which was packed with worshipers at Friday Prayers. The assailants then opened fire as people tried to flee, and set fire to parked vehicles to block off access to the mosque.

It is unclear who carried out the attack, though groups claiming affiliation with the Islamic State are known to operate in the area.

This was the worst single attack against civilians by armed militants in Egypt and a bloody reminder of the tragic failure of successive governments to quell a tenacious insurgency — despite brutal, oppressive attempts to do so.

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, like his most recent predecessors Mohamed Morsi and Hosni Mubarak, rarely mention the Sinai Peninsula, other than to celebrate its liberation from Israeli occupation in 1982. Egyptian security forces, largely ignorant of the terrain and disdainful of the local tribes, treat the residents of Sinai with suspicion and hostility.

Following a suicide bombing in southern Sinai in 2004, the Mubarak government arrested around 3,000 people, tortured many of them and took as hostages women and children related to suspects.

That pattern — detain, torture, jail — has been repeated all too often after attacks in Sinai. The northern Sinai has been under a media blackout for years and a state of emergency since October 2014. And yet none of this has worked.

At least 1,000 members of the security forces have been killed in attacks across the Sinai Peninsula since July 2013, with more than 200 slain in 2017, according to the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, which also says that more than 130 attacks were reported across North Sinai in the first quarter of 2017.

President Sisi, previously an army general who led Egypt’s military intelligence and a defense minister, based his mandate on security, which he hasn’t delivered.

In a tweet about the Egypt mosque attack, President Trump said the carnage was a reminder that those behind it must be defeated “militarily.” That’s exactly the “solution” that Mr. Sisi, like his predecessors, has championed.

In 1993, I joined Reuters as a correspondent in its Cairo bureau. The year before, armed militants had undertaken a bloody campaign to unseat the Mubarak government through attacks on ministers, security forces, Christians and tourists. We kept a grim tally of the weekly attacks on a whiteboard.

The government’s policies neither contained nor ameliorated the ruthless militants. Instead, we saw mass arrests, shoot-to-kill orders, torture and a scorched earth policy in the form of burning sugar cane fields where militants hid. Those actions destroyed the livelihoods of farmers and their families, who then became prey for recruitment by the very groups the government was trying to defeat.

Analysts then pleaded with the government to try less stick and more carrot in its “war on terrorism” by developing the neglected areas of Upper Egypt that had become recruitment grounds as well as targets.

The situation is similar today. Those who are serious about Egypt’s security have long pleaded for development for the marginalized and neglected North Sinai. Yet a promised development plan has been stalled for decades, leaving residents simmering with anger and resentment.

Mr. Sisi must remember something that Mr. Mubarak and Mr. Morsi seemed to forget: the people of North Sinai could be his allies.

The Egyptian government needs the help of Sinai’s Bedouin tribes, who know the terrain more than his security forces do and whose influence is crucial in resisting the ideology of the Islamic State.

Recently, Mr. Sisi’s government arrested a satirical secular blogger whom it accused of belonging to a “terrorist” group. Mr. Sisi cannot call everyone who opposes him a terrorist nor can he bomb out of existence anyone he accuses of terrorism. Instead, he needs to seriously commit to antidotes to terrorism: jobs, dignity and a life worth living. For Egyptians everywhere, especially in North Sinai, he has failed to deliver on all three.

Mona Eltahawy is the author of Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution and a contributing opinion writer.

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