Sisi's Sinai operation is counter-democracy, not counter-terrorist

Sisi's Sinai operation is counter-democracy, not counter-terrorist
Comment: The real purpose of Sisi's operation is to reassure and intimidate voters, to glorify the president, and to distract from the regime's failings, writes Robert Springborg.
7 min read
12 Feb, 2018
Operation Sinai 2018 allows Sisi to kill several birds with one stone [AFP]
Egypt's "Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018," officially launched  on 9 February, is the most directly telegraphed of counter-terrorist operations in the country's history.

On 29 November, President Sisi publicly ordered his newly appointed military Chief of Staff to use "total brutal force" to restore within three months security and stability in the Sinai.

At the end of January in a speech at Port Said opening the Zohr gas field, President Sisi issued a dire warning against those "who would tamper with the security of Egypt".

In a threatening tone he went on to say that "No one can mess with the country's security. What has been accomplished in terms of security and stability will not be impinged upon by anyone again."

He warned citizens not to let anyone "lead you astray", then concluded on the dramatic note that "the security of Egypt is worth my life and that of the army".

Coming out of the blue as these threatening words did, and at an occasion attended by foreign dignitaries intended to demonstrate the country's new economic potential, their precise meaning was ambiguous.

But what was clear was that security, not economics, was at the top of the presidential agenda and whoever and whatever threatened it would be dealt with harshly.

Presumably the intent was to put the country on edge, which was accomplished, and to pave the way for a dramatic initiative to address the declared security imperative. 

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On 3 February it was reported that the Ministry of Defense had begun bulldozing homes and olive groves around Arish airport. Shortly thereafter, the Ministry of Defense announced that it had instructed the Ministry of Health to adopt a state of emergency and prepare all hospitals in Ismailiya to receive casualties from a wide-spread military operation. The evening before the operation began all access to and from Sinai was blocked.

A blind man could see that a major counter-terrorist operation was about to be launched.

One of the cardinal rules of such operations is that they should be prepared in secrecy to have the greatest effect. The idea is to catch terrorists off-guard, not to warn them that strikes are about to be launched so that they can prepare themselves.

The purposeful leaking of the imminent operation suggests that it was tantamount to the launching of President Sisi's re-election campaign.

He desperately needs to divert attention from economic hardships from which the great majority of voters are suffering. Moreover, in January he had revealed the regime's underlying fear and frailty by having potential presidential candidate Sami Abul Anan arrested, in the wake of which, Hisham Geneina, Anan's nominated vice president, was severely beaten, presumably by regime thugs.

These measures effectively terminated the presidential election as all viable candidates had been barred or effectively dissuaded from running. This was possibly Sisi's most embarrassing month in office, in front of both his people and the world.

Egyptian politics under Sisi has descended to a farcical level

Enter then, Operation Sinai 2018.

With it Sisi could kill several birds with one stone. He could be seen to be addressing widespread insecurity in the country, while diverting attention away from the regime's many shortcomings. In addition, he could be seen as a decisive military leader, one suitable to be president.

Regime orchestrated public relations surrounding the campaign intensified in the wake of its launch. The armed forces announced that its purpose was to "purge the country of terrorists".

Accordingly, the theatres in which the operation was to be conducted were expanded from North Sinai to include central Sinai, the Nile Delta and the Western Desert.

This then was to be a nation-wide counter-terrorism campaign, absorbing the attention of all Egyptians and even the world beyond, concerned as it is with the terrorist threat facing the country and the Middle East.

On the morning of 9 February "Communique number one from the General Command of the Armed Forces" was announced on state television, maybe purposefully reminiscent of the  communique issued by Anwar al-Sadat on the morning of 23 July 1952 announcing the military's coup, to say nothing of countless other communique number ones issued by militaries overthrowing governments elsewhere.

Read more: Egyptian army 'kills 16 militants' in Sinai operation

Even the wording recalled that of 1952, commencing as it did with "Great people of Egypt, in accordance with the delegation issued by the president of the republic, the supreme commander of the Egyptian armed forces, to the general command of the Egyptian armed forces..."

It continued with such phrases as "comprehensively confront terrorism as well other criminal activities," and "clearing of terrorist pits from the areas where they are found, and to protect Egyptian society from the evils of terrorism and extremism, while also confronting other crimes that affect internal security and stability".

Communique Number One commenced a string of almost minute by minute news bulletins with equally intimidating, militaristic tones.

The first, issued 45 minutes later, informed viewers that the country's security alert level had been raised to the maximum because of the "fierce war" being conducted by the armed forces and police "to eradicate the roots of terrorism".

Viewers were advised that security had been tightened
around "major state institutions, houses of worship and tourist hotspots," and that "security patrols have been set up in squares and on major highways in each governorate".

President Sisi himself joined the act 15 minutes later, proclaiming on his Facebook page that "I follow with pride the heroics of my sons from the armed forces and the police to purge the beloved land of Egypt from terrorists, the enemies of life."

Minutes later Communique Number Two was announced in a yet more shrill tone. "Great people of Egypt... elements of our air forces targeted some of the pits, hideouts, and ammunition and weapons warehouses used by terrorist elements... in North and Middle Sinai."

It then declared the widening of the Operation saying "Units from the naval forces are also tightening the security on the sea front, with the aim of cutting all supply lines to terrorist elements," and that "The border guard forces and civilian police are also tightening security procedures at borders and on navigational courses."

Thirty-five thousand ground combat troops were said to be involved in the Operation some 48 hours after it commenced.

In sum, Egypt was proclaimed to be in all-out war against what remained an unseen, remarkably quiescent enemy.

The State Information Service stated that all reporters should only base their reports on official statements released by the army's spokesperson

There were no reports of any actual fighting anywhere. Sinai residents of Arish, Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafah - the urban areas having witnessed the greatest violence since 2012 - reported that all was quiet, other than some distant explosions in the desert, presumably bombs being dropped by the air force.

On 11 February, the armed forces announced that it had killed 16 terrorists somewhere in the northern Sinai. The credibility of this and other of its claims was undermined, however, by the simultaneous warning from the State Information Service that foreign reporters should "abide by professional rules and only publish what is being released by the army in their coverage of the 'Comprehensive Sinai 2018' military operation".

It further elaborated that all "reporters should only base their reports on official statements released by the army's spokesperson, the General Command of the Armed Forces, and the Interior Ministry's Media office," and that "they should not publish any news reports based on anonymous sources or sources other than the state".

This warning came as the international media began to evince skepticism about the real intent of the Operation and of its claims for success.

Read more: Seven years after Egypt uprising: Where is Egypt's ousted autocrat Mubarak now?

Operation Sinai 2018 thus gives all signs of being not counter-terrorist, but counter-election and counter-democracy in intent.

Its carefully orchestrated leaking, the extent and tone of its coverage in the media, and lack of any visible signs of actual conflict after its launch, all suggest that this is a mock campaign.

Its real purposes are to reassure and to intimidate voters, to glorify the president and the military, and to divert attention from the regime's economic failings and refusal to countenance any political competition whatsoever, especially other candidates for the presidency.

Egyptian politics under Sisi has descended to a farcical level that discredits not only him, but the military, the parliament which has cheered on Operation Sinai 2018, and sad to say, the country as a whole.

In these regards Egypt's politics have come to closely resemble those in America, where President Trump's proposed military parade appears to be a mini-version of President Sisi's Operation Sinai 2018. 

Robert Springborg is the Kuwait Foundation Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Middle East Initiative, Belfer Center. He is also Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King's College, London, and non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. 

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.