Sisi and the farce of counter-terrorism in Egypt
In one week, at least 16 Egyptian troops were killed in attacks attributed to and claimed by the Islamic State. Wilayah Sina, or the ‘Sinai Province’, as is the name that IS gives itself in the Sinai Peninsula, claimed responsibility for an attack on Saturday at a checkpoint just west of Rafah on the border with Palestine.
The Saturday before that, the group carried out one of its deadliest attacks in years on Egyptian military personnel when it killed 11 troops in El Qantara, which straddles the border between the governates of Ismailia and North Sinai.
The bitter irony in all this is that since 2013, when Sisi came to power in a military coup overthrowing democracy, his totalitarian regime has been justified using the dubiously loaded logic of ‘counter-terrorism’.
If we take the logic of Sisi’s main western patrons, that he must be supported unconditionally due to his key role in defending the civilised world from terrorism, why is it that following 9 years of his rule, IS is still able to carry out successive large-scale attacks in Egypt? Shouldn’t Sisi, armed to the teeth with hi-tech Western weaponry, have triumphed over this little outgrowth of the apparently defeated IS?
''Though the presence of IS in the Sinai is very real, this hidden war functions like a racket – for weeks, sometimes years, it fails to make the headlines, but then every now and again IS kill enough soldiers or civilians to make the news. This is then used by Sisi to gain more global support for his regime in the name of ‘combatting terrorism’, as well as increasing his powers of repression domestically.''
Using the coded language of the ‘war on terror’, Europe has been able to both arm the Egyptian tyrant to police the walls of Fortress Europe and take advantage of the ruthless kleptocracy he presides over.
Despite Biden’s entirely superficial electioneering where he pretended to care about Sisi’s vast human rights abuses, and despite Europe’s lip service paid to universal rights and liberties, it seems neither could care less about the regime’s many victims. Whether it’s some poor Egyptian teenager blown up by IS while on national service, or one of the tens of thousands Egyptians rotting in a dungeon – or even an Italian student tortured to death by Egypt’s notoriously sadistic security forces.
Take the words of Angela Merkel in 2018. Speaking in Cairo, Merkel typically praised Sisi as a “role mode” for ‘stability’ and for his “leading role” in “combatting terrorism”, with the then German chancellor adding “and illegal immigration”. The conflation here by Merkel of ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘terrorists’ is not an error – the very reason she was in Egypt that day was to finalise a deal wherein Sisi imprisons migrants in the country, stopping them from reaching Europe’s white shores, in return for lucrative trade deals with Germany and the rest of Europe.
However, the recent attacks in the Sinai tell another story – a very closely related but different tragedy in Egyptian history. Of course, the reasons for mass unrest in the Sinai go back decades, with, despite Nasser’s always dubious ‘pan-Arabism’, Egyptian discrimination against Arab Bedouins in the Sinai has seen them reduced to non-citizens, unable to gain employment or any benefits from the state.
When the Sinai began a new era of redevelopment, with former Bedouin villages such as the tiny fishing village of Sharm el-Sheikh, became massive tourist resorts. The hope was that the Bedouin residents of the Sinai would reap the rewards of these changes. Instead, they were forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for commercial developments by foreign corporation for rich western tourists. To add insult to injury, Egyptians from the Nile Valley and Delta were bussed in to take up jobs in the booming service industry, locking the local Bedouins out of even menial jobs and leaving them destitute.
This is what lies at the heart of the insurgency in the Sinai and though it obviously precedes Sisi, it is yet another irony that it was only after the coup that brought him to power that IS managed to gain a foothold in the peninsula.
Sisi’s tactics, which Human Rights Watch have detailed as war crimes, have included deliberately targeting civilians with air strikes, the use of militias to torture, murder and cleanse civilians, as well as extra-judicial executions and disappearances.
These ‘scorched earth’ tactics allowed the then nascent IS to co-opt the Bedouin struggle and turn it into their own ruthless war that has seen Christians, Sufi Muslims and those who oppose the theocratic Salafi jihadism of IS, brutally targeted.
Without Sisi, it is highly likely that IS would have never existed in the manner they do in the Sinai. Moreover, the coup against President Mohamed Morsi, an imperfect but elected proponent of Islamic democracy, was a massive shot in the arm to IS’ message that democracy is heretical and un-Islamic and will always benefit the enemies of Muslims.
To many young Muslims in Egypt who believed that their faith and democratic politics was compatible, the scale of the persecution unleashed upon them has almost certainly boosted IS' numbers in the Sinai and, most dangerously, their ideological logic.
It is worth noting that Morsi had a democratic plan for the Sinai – his government, which was mostly made up of secular technocrats, was going to introduce legislation that would devolve land-owning rights to local populations (and away from both foreign and domestic corporate landowners), while his New Sinai Policy eschewed military tactics for dialogue with local Bedouin tribal leaders.
It was progressive egalitarian moves like these that motivated the Egyptian ‘feloul’, as well as regional backers like the UAE, to hasten the coup, ensuring there would be no such progress in Egypt ever again.
The most contemptible aspect of this is that these attacks will lead to more support for Sisi. Though the presence of IS in the Sinai is very real, this hidden war functions like a racket – for weeks, sometimes years, it fails to make the headlines, but then every now and again IS kill enough soldiers or civilians to make the news. This is then used by Sisi to gain more global support for his regime in the name of ‘combatting terrorism’, as well as increasing his powers of repression domestically.
For Egyptians, from the Sinai to the Said, it’s a nightmarish cycle that seemingly can’t be broken.
Sam Hamad is a writer and History PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow focusing on totalitarian ideologies.
Join the conversation @The_NewArab.
Have questions or comments? Email us at: email@example.com.
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.