Sinai's civilians caught between IS and counter-insurgency

Sinai's civilians caught between IS and counter-insurgency
Analysis: Sinai's Bedouin may be key to Egypt's attempts to defeat militants in the area. However, they have also been victims to the military's counter-insurgency.
4 min read
02 July, 2015
The Egyptian military's campaign in the Sinai escalated since Morsi's ousting [Anadolu]
The latest round of attacks by Islamic State group affiliates in Sinai were bold and brazen: 15 Egyptian military targets were hit on Wednesday, with scores reported dead.

Bayt al-Maqdis, an IS affiliate in Sinai, said it launched the attacks in Sheikh Zuwaid and Rafah in northern Sinai, claiming them as a stunning victory against their enemies.

The Egyptian army also declared victory, with Brigadier General Mohamed Samir telling CBC that his forces controlled Sinai "100 percent". Military sources said 17 Egyptian soldiers and 100 millitants were killed in the fighting.

But for all the claims of victory and statements of control, fighting continued the next day, with air raids and house searches by the Egyptian military, in which 35 militants were reported killed.

Inevitably, it is the civilians who are suffering more as they are increasingly caught in the crossfire.

Bayt al-Maqdis, which transferred its allegiance to IS from al-Qaeda in November, and have long been battling Egypt's security forces in Sinai.

But the attacks this week demonstrated an improved capacityand a change in tactics. Where previously the group focused on isolated security targets and proclaimed to minimise civilian casualties, the latest attacks involved civilian areas in an attempt to take ground.

It appears to be a culmination of a security vacuum in the area and the rise of militants now reportedly funded and reinforced by the IS.

Government authority has never been strong in Sinai, and was further degraded after the Egyptian revolution of 2011. Militants flourished and there have even been reports of the area having its own Sharia courts in the wake of a collapse in the Egyptian judiciary system.

The situation worsened following the removal of Mohammed Morsi from the presidency in 2013. Millitants concentrated their attacks on security targets in Sinai, which in turn lead to reactive operations by the Egyptian millitary.

The government of current president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi accused Hamas of worsening instability, stating it funded and sent militants into Sinai through Gaza.

The Egyptian government bulldozed thousands of homes on the Rafah border to make way for a "buffer zone" with Gaza, an act criticised by many human rights groups.

In December, CBS visited the sites of Egyptian strikes on "militant targets" in Sinai and found evidence of "scorched earth policy" with civilian houses targeted and burned.

In May, the Egyptian Observatory for Rights and Freedoms issued a report on "Human rights violence in Sinai" during the state of emergency imposed in the region. It counted 681 extra-judicial executions of accused militants, 1,481 arbitrary arrests and the displacement of 21,392 people.

Bedouins: the king-makers of Sinai?

How can this cycle of violence end? The Bedouin tribes of Sinai are crucial to any success - both for the militants and the military. The Bedouin know the land, have weapons, and hold all the connections.

The Egyptian government's relationship with the Bedouin is strained, with Bedouins calling on Egyptian governments over the years to repeal laws that prevent them from owning land, abolish sentences against Bedouins that were issued during Mubarak's rule, and prosecute police officers responsible for killing Bedouins.

The army's attacks have undermined any potential collaboration with the Bedouins, who have reportedly lost 1,740 homes due to the army operations.

There is also distrust between the army and the Bedouins. Talaat Moussa, a former head of Egyptian military intelligence, told Ahram online recently that "some Bedouins support hundreds of domestic and foreign militants... in North Sinai".

Bedouins have been known to co-operate with militants in Sinai, though often for financial rather than ideological reasons - a similar motivation for Bedouins in areas of Syria and Iraq.

Yet in April the powerful Bedouin Tarabin tribe declared war on IS in Sinai, in an apparent development from previously difficult relations between Egypt and the area's tribes.

However, considering the past tensions and while a counter-insurgency adversely affects Sinai's people, the overwhelming majority of which are Bedouin, any co-operation between the tribes and the Egyptian government against militants maybe difficult to sustain.  

Ultimately, Sinai's residents appear increasingly caught in the middle of these clashes, which show no sign of ending.