Counter-insurgency or ethnic cleansing on the Sinai?

Counter-insurgency or ethnic cleansing on the Sinai?
Egypt's Sinai policy, as executed by security and military bureaucracies, has turned a limited security problem into a local insurgency.
5 min read
02 December, 2014
Family homes along the Sinai-Gaza border have been demolished by the Egyptian army [AFP]

You don't have to look far to sense the betrayal. On the Sinai Peninsula, on the Egyptian side where thousands have been made homeless by their own army, the anger is palpable.

"We are staying here. They bomb the house; we build a hut. They burn the hut; we build another hut. They kill; we give birth," said Abu Musallam bitterly. "I urge the army to treat us like we treated them in 1967. We gave them our clothes to hide them from the Israelis. We serviced them. We respected them, and we helped them flee. Is this how they pay us back?"

     They bomb the house; we build a hut. They burn the hut; we build another hut. They kill; we give birth.

- Abu Musallam, Sinai resident

The old man is one of those who were left homeless after tides of Egyptian army crackdowns and the forced evacuations of several villages around the town of Rafah.

The most recent wave, which started on 29 October, saw the forced displacement of more than 1,165 families and the destruction of 802 houses in the districts bordering Gaza.

Previous crackdowns, which started from late 2000 following the Second Palestinian Intifada, have included tactics such as the forced removal of families after 48-hour warnings that their houses would be blown up, various measures of intimidation, indiscriminate bombings - including shelling of homes and schools - house demolition, mass arrests, systematic torture of suspects and mass-shootings of protesters.

Currently, curfews from dusk until dawn are common.

Mobile phones and the internet rarely work. Petrol stations are largely dry. The roads are of full of military checkpoints. When a journalist attempted to take a video of the empty streets of the ghost town of Sheikh Zuwaid, an army sniper, one of the tens scattered on the roofs of the downtown's few buildings, replied with a bullet.

In 2012, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi - then defence minister - warned his officers not to pursue such tactics or they would "create an internal enemy, with a vendetta against us".

So, why do these tactics persist?

Counterinsurgency blunders

The rapid deterioration of the situation on the Sinai Peninsula has alarmed both local and international observers and highlighted an enduring crisis, with salient political, social, security and humanitarian dimensions. The background of the crisis goes back to the aftermath of the Israeli withdrawal in 1982.

The security and social policies since then have essentially perceived Sinai as a threat rather than an opportunity, and the Sinai resident as a potential informant, terrorist, spy and/or smuggler rather than a full Egyptian citizen.

Those policies were formulated and executed by security and military bureaucracies - principally the State Security Investigations (SSI, now renamed the National Security Apparatus), the General Intelligence Apparatus (GIA) and the Military Intelligence Apparatus (MIS) - without any review or oversight from elected or judicial bodies or independent experts.

Briefly, the main consistent feature of these security-led policies was a mix of intense repression and attempted cooption of selected tribal leaders.

Between 2000 and 2014, the main result of these policies has been to turn a limited security problem related to logistical support of various Palestinian groups in Gaza, into a local insurgency which has steadily grown in scale, scope, intensity, duration, resources, capacity and legitimacy; and which has significantly altered its purpose.

Three main sparks helped make these transformations, all related to failures in security and then counter-insurgency policies.

The first was the reaction of the Mubarak regime's security agencies to the simultaneous bombings in Taba and Nuweiba in October 2004. The State Security Investigations (SSI) had limited information about the perpetrators and therefore conducted a brutal crackdown in north-east Sinai, arresting around 3,000 people, and taking women and children related to suspects hostage until the suspects surrendered.

Such tactics did not stop further attacks in 2005, 2006 and later, but certainly led to a deepening of the socio-political grievances among wider tribal communities; grievances that already existed since the early 1980s.

The second spark was the Rabaa al-Adawiyya massacre on 14 August 2013. With 932 documented bodies and 337 undocumented, it was by far Egypt's worst massacre in modern history.

The killings led directly to a change in the narrative of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis - known as ABM or "Partisans of Jerusalem" - at that time the most effective armed organisation on the peninsula.

ABM's stance condemned democracy and participating in elections. It scathingly critiqued the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly President Mohamed Morsi. Once the Rabaa massacre happened, ABM began nationwide operations and documented them in a video series entitled "The Battle to Avenge the Muslims of Egypt".

The repressive environment and the change of narrative has helped enhance the group's recruitment efforts, the perceived legitimacy of armed action and boost its overall resources.

The final spark came in September 2013, when the military escalated its tactics and widened the crackdown to a level unseen before - even compared with the waves of crackdowns under the rule of Mubarak (who targeted the peninsula between 2000 and 2011), the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (during the Eagle 1 Operation in August 2011), and Morsi himself (during the Eagle 2 Operation, a year later).

Ethnic cleansing?

Mao once said that a successful, enduring guerrilla "must swim in the people as the fish swims in the sea". The repression-intensive policies have helped create and sustain such a "sea" in Sinai. Despite that, the belief among the leading factions within the military and the security bureaucracies is that if the crackdown is harder and wider - both pre-emptively and reactively - then the armed organisations and the regional population will eventually be subdued and controlled.

This belief, however, is unsupported. Neither the recent experiences in Sinai, nor any rational review or cost-benefit calculations validate their theory.

The military's efforts in the Sinai raises an important moral question. By forcibly removing territorial groups through destruction of homes, social centres, farms, and infrastructure, and by the desecration of cemeteries and places of worship, the humiliation of a local population, hostage-taking, torture, and indiscriminate bombardment the military's counter-insurgency campaign could be seen as tantamount to ethnic cleansing.

Such a campaign will have legal, political and international consequences.

Dr Omar Ashour is a senior lecturer in Security Studies at the University of Exeter and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. He is the author of The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements and From Good Cop to Bad Cop: The Challenge of Security Sector Reform in Egypt. He can be reached at O.Ashour@Exeter.AC.UK or @DrOmarAshour

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