The Sinai Insurgency, Part 4: The Egyptian Military In Crisis

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On 14 April 2017, a video surfaced on to the Internet showing Egyptian military personnel executing 2 suspects detained in the North Sinai region.1.“Egypt: Videos Show Army Executions in Sinai” : Human Rights Watch. The military campaign in the Sinai, brutal yet ineffective, has seen little change on the ground in the past six years. Progress has been hampered by local distrust and military hesitation on using what local intelligence can be gathered. In this article, we will demonstrate why the military situation has stagnated in the Sinai despite a large coalition supporting Egyptian army deployments.

Any discussion of the Egyptian military’s role in the Sinai would be incomplete without understanding the Egyptian military’s place in Egyptian society. The Egyptian armed forces enjoy wide popular support, being seen by many as being effective and beneficial for society. Nearly 90% of Egyptians say that the military is a positive institution for the nation.2.“‘One hand’, many heads: the role of the army in Egypt” : The Conversation.3.The Officers’ Republic: The Egyptian Military and Abuse of Power, a report by Transparency International. The army currently controls the government de facto, has vast industrial resources, and possesses significant societal sway. While the military has historically played a large role in politics, its position became concrete with the coup led by General Sisi against the Muslim Brotherhood. The armed forces expend significant time, money and effort in maintaining their positive public position, while simultaneously suppressing dissent. Egypt’s brief foray into democracy was cut short following the Sisi-led coup of 2013, and since taking power the Egyptian military has ruled the country with an iron fist. In 2013, the massacre of Egyptian pro-Morsi demonstrators led to the deaths of anywhere between 600 and 817 civilians and injured at least 4,000.4.“‘One hand’, many heads: the role of the army in Egypt” : The Conversation.5.The Officers’ Republic: The Egyptian Military and Abuse of Power, a report by Transparency International. This launched a campaign of brutal military control that accelerated the growth of unrest in the Sinai Peninsula. The insurgency has led to the deaths of nearly 1,000 Egyptian security personnel, and still controls most of the Sinai despite years of sustained combat operations.6.Robert Worth, A Rage for Order The Middle East in Turmoil from Tahrir Square to ISIS: Pan Macmillan.7.Sinai Insurgency, Twitter.8.Nervana Mahmoud, “Sinai’s Violence: A Timeline (2004-2015)” : Nervana 1.

The Egyptian military has played a large role in society and politics from independence to the present day. Egypt’s failure in the first Arab-Israeli conflict was the catalyst that led to the collapse of the Egyptian monarchy in 1952. From then until the overthrow of Mubarak, the Egyptian army acted as the dominant force in society, and their identity evolved depending on their effectiveness. From 1952 to the Six Day War, the military enjoyed popular support as a social institution, but following the war and the military’s complete collapse many lost faith. Yet again faith in the armed forces was restored in the war that retook the Sinai in 1973. Not only did victory destroy the image of Israel as unbeatable, it cemented the place of the military in the minds of ordinary Egyptians as the spirit of the nation.9.Zeinab Abul-Magd, “The Egyptian military in politics and the economy: Recent history and current transition status”: CMI Insight.10.James W. Bean and Craig S. Girard. “Anwar al-Sadat’s Grand Strategy in the Yom Kippur War” National Defense University and National War College.

This association between the conquest of the Sinai and Egyptian national pride is something that Egypt caries to this day. The armed forces capitalised on this popularity and through a combination of favorable government policies, a conscript workforce, and vast real estate holdings, the military began to expand its power. Eventually, military enterprises accounted for as much as 20% of the nation’s GDP.11.The Officers’ Republic: The Egyptian Military and Abuse of Power, a report by Transparency International.12.“The army and the economy in Egypt” : Pambazuka News.13.“Military’s economic activities represent only 1-1.5%’: Al-Sisi” : Daily News Egypt.

After the Arab Spring, the armed forces faced a fresh threat. Following the ouster of Mubarak, the most organised political party was the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood’s preexisting organisational structure combined with the speed at which elections took place meant that the Brotherhood narrowly secured the presidency with the election of Mohammed Morsi.14.Muhammad Bendary, The Egyptian Revolution Between Hope and Despair, Mubarak to Morsi: Algora Publishing15.James W. Bean and Craig S. Girard. “Anwar al-Sadat’s Grand Strategy in the Yom Kippur War” National Defense University and National War College. Despite popular support, Morsi faced significant resistance from the secular urban core of Egypt, who feared that he would lean lenient towards Islamists. Many of these fears were realized posthaste, as a quickly convened panel dominated by Islamists wrote the post-Mubarak constitution. The new government proceeded to declare itself untouchable by the courts and began to fill government positions with members of the Muslim Brotherhood.16.Mahmoud Jaraba, “Why Did the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Year-Long Rule Fall?,” Zeitschrift für Politik 61, no. 1(2014). The public quickly reappeared in Tahrir Square calling for the end of the Morsi government, an end which came in July 2013 with the coup orchestrated by the armed forces.17.Ibid.18.Erez Striem. “The Reconfiguration of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt”  Institute for National Security Studies.19.Edmund Blair, Paul Taylor, and Tom Perry, “Special Report: How the Muslim Brotherhood lost Egypt” Reuters Special Report Sources say that while members of the Egyptian military inner circle had issues with the political situation of the Muslim Brotherhood, it was Morsi’s mishandling of the protests following the passing of the constitution combined with his mishandling of the Sinai that encouraged the Egyptian army to act.20.“The Root of Egypt’s Coup: Morsi Giving Free Hand to Sinai Islamists” : Haaretz.

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The military’s ability to operate in the Sinai was heavily restricted by Morsi, and the initial crackdown on militant activity was stopped early. In May 2013, after a high profile kidnapping was solved through mediation, President Morsi vowed to track down the kidnappers, however, leaks from inside the military report that the president ordered General al-Sisi to pull forces out of the region, and the kidnappers were never caught.21.Sahar Aziz. “Sinai: Tipping Point or Pretext for Ouster?” The Middle East Institute. The Egyptian military not only viewed loss of control of the Sinai as a threat to their military reputation but also a national defense priority.22.Mohanned Sabry, Sinai: Egypt’s Linchpin, Gaza’s Lifeline, Israel’s Nightmare: American University in Cairo Press

When asked about the move to cancel the operation Morsi told al-Sisi “I don’t want to shed the blood of fellow Muslims”.23.“Disputes between Morsi, military led to Egypt coup” : AP It is that phrase that motivated al-Sisi to act, as he believed then as he does now that the reputation of the Egyptian armed forces was at stake.24.“Egyptian President Ousted by Military; Interview with Former Egyptian Army General Sameh Seif Elyazal (Transcript)” : CNN Special Report Since taking power from President Morsi, the Egyptian military has attempted to assert its legitimacy to govern through demonstration that they are providing peace, stability and economic growth. This assertion of legitimacy to govern combined with a brutal campaign of political repression through mass arrests of activists and the reassertion of the Egyptian police state is the mechanism through which the Egyptian security apparatus is maintaining their grip on power. The Sinai situation is the physical representation of the broader question of legitimacy at play in Egypt.

The military history of the Sinai is a tumultuous one. After being seized as part of the 6-day war, the peninsula found itself a battleground in the Yom Kippur War. On 26 March 1979, the groundbreaking Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty was signed, returning the Sinai to Egypt.25.“Arab Israeli Wars” : United States Military Academy West Point Department of History. While the treaty more broadly improved Egyptian-Israeli relations, there are several key components that relate heavily to the current security situation in the Sinai.26.“Treaty of Peace, Israel and Egypt, No. 17813” : Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Since the treaty was signed the only major permanent military presence in the Sinai has been the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO). The MFO is an operation force made up around 1,000 personnel from a dozen countries with the largest presence being held by Fiji, United States, Colombia, and the United Kingdom.27.“MFO” : Multinational Force and Observers. Other than the MFO, Egypt can maintain an Infantry Division in Zone A along the West Coast along with four border security battalions in that same Zone A.28.“Military Zones in the Sinai Peninsula” : Stratfor. Since the rise in violence, Israel has granted several temporary measures to the Egyptian armed forces, allowing them to deploy additional forces into the peninsula to combat militants but often restricting them to very specific zones of operation.

The insurgency began to pick up pace in 2011 following the downfall of Mubarak. The removal of security forces combined with the rise in Islamist activities resulted in the collapsed state that we have discussed in part 2 and 3 . However, with the events going on in the mainland, the Egyptian populace wasn’t made widely aware of the crisis brewing in the Sinai for the first year, distracted as they were. This all changed on 5 August 2012 when insurgents stormed the Egyptian security base along the Kerom Shalom border crossing, killing 16 security personnel. The attack shocked Egyptian society and the Egyptian public began demanding concrete change and results.29.“Egypt condemns 14 to death for 2011 Sinai attack” : Reuters. While no group claimed the attack the attackers seemed to be of Bedouin origin, and the crossing falls solidly in Tarabin tribal territory. The Egyptian military has directed blame towards some sort of global jihadist network working with local tribes.30.“Egypt border guards killed in Sinai attack” : Al Jazeera.31.Bill Roggio. “‘Global jihadists’ overrun Egyptian Army outpost on Israeli border” The Long War Journal.

In response to the deteriorating situation and a seeming increase in general lawlessness in 2011 the Egyptian Military conducted their first major operation into the Peninsula in several decades with Operation Eagle. With Israel’s blessing the army deployed 2,500 troops as well as an armor element into the North Sinai. Operation Eagle lasted from August 2011 to September 2012.32.Sarah El-Rashidi. “Morsi’s Failures in Sinai: A Cautionary Tale” The Atlantic Council. The operation was aimed at clearing out the North Sinai Governorate of “Islamist Insurgents and Criminal elements”. Operation Eagle, while it did provide more security for government compounds, did little in the way of combating the core elements of the insurgency. This failure to address the security conditions is what led to the August 5th 2012 attack.33.Joshua Goodman. “Egypt’s Assault on Sinai” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

On August 8th the military launched the first airstrike in the Peninsula since the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, killing 20 individuals in the village of al-Tourmah. The target of the airstrikes was the smuggling tunnels used to trade luxury supplies along with weapons between the Sinai and Gaza. This activity has been one of the primary funding sources for jihadist organizations, something that we detailed in part 2 of the series. The initial operation killed 32 militants and destroyed 31 tunnels between Gaza and the Sinai. In the same time, 21 security forces were killed in raids by gunmen or by explosives.34.“Egyptian army declares success in crackdown on Sinai terrorists” : Times of Israel. The initial intelligence leads that led to the successful raids had been used up by October. With no new intel forthcoming and with resources and public support running low, most of the dedicated forces were withdrawn.35.Mohannad Sabry. “Under Mubarak, Morsi or Sisi, Sinai Remains a Victim” The Atlantic Council. Egypt has kept a moderately sized force in the North Sinai from part of the initial Operation Sinai troop surge, which has continued counter-terrorism operations until the present. The Egyptian Air Force has also continued the airstrikes on the Sinai in the border region, though to limited effect.

All told, Operation Sinai has been an abject failure. None of the alleged attackers were captured or killed in the initial surge, though a year later several of the fighters were killed. Although hundreds of smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza were destroyed under Morsi’s military campaign more continue to be constructed, and while the operation was ongoing the Gaza tunnel economy only grew.36.Alon Rieger and Eran Yashiv, “The Gaza Economy,” in The Crisis of the Gaza Strip, Tel Aviv University.37.“Egypt busts hundreds of smuggling tunnels, and a spy” : Times of Israel. The operations also failed to create any lasting ties between the government and the local population. In an interview Bedouin rights activist Abdel Hedi commented, “most of the tunnels are still operating. With the new development projects in Gaza, the need for them has grown, and this has increased strife,”.38.Ruben Tuitel, “The Future of the Sinai Peninsula,” Connections 13, no. 2(2014). The operation failed for several reasons, it failed because it failed to also address the socioeconomic issues that motivated the militants, it failed because the scope of the operation lasted a mere two months, and it failed due to the inability of the Egyptian intelligence apparatus to properly engage the local population.

The next major operation was “Operation Right of the Martyr” which was intended to root out some of the Islamist hideouts. This was launched in September 2015. The operation was a noticeable shift in tactics: from police raids and air force strikes the new operation was a much more aggressive scorched-earth offensive. Only nine days in, the Egyptian army claimed to have killed 415 militants.39.Sahar F. Aziz, De-Scrutinizing Counterterrorism in the Sinai Peninsula: Brookings Doha Center. Since then it has often boasted of killing dozens more in attacks, but in February 2016 the chief of military intelligence said the army had killed only around 500 in total since the operation began.40.“Egyptian forces kill 38 jihadists in major Sinai operation” : Times of Israel. This provides a conflicting government narrative, and the lack of access granted to journalists means that we have very unreliable information as to how effective the operation has been. The military has conducted its operation as if it is combating a traditional enemy military. This includes destroying grave sites of militants, burning suspected militant villages, destroying vehicles that could be utilized by insurgents – all tactics of questionable effectiveness in an insurgency setting.41.“Sisi criticised over ‘brute force’ strategy in Sinai” : Al-Jazeera.42.Omar Ashour, “Counter-insurgency or ethnic cleansing on the Sinai?” The New Arab.43.“Special Report: Egyptian militants outwit army in Sinai battlefield” : Reuters.

The limited effects of such tactics become evident as reports from a wide variety of academics and people on the ground have pointed out that the army controls the roads but little else, and fails to effectively suppress militant groups in most areas of the Sinai.44.“Special Report: Egyptian militants outwit army in Sinai battlefield” : Reuters. The military has been using the same tactics that other forces have used and failed to gain the upper hand against insurgents, such as simply blowing up suspected mountain targets with rockets. The army has also consistently failed to avoid civilian casualties, which has led to the collapse of the “hearts and minds” campaign. The Egyptian military has a fundamental lack of access to valid intelligence because of the complete lack of support from tribal groups for the operations, and any sort of economic assistance provided by Cairo has been outweighed by reports of torture and execution.45.Abu Lughod Lila, “Change and Egyptian Bedouin” Cultural Survival.46.“Egypt’s $15 billion Sinai development expected by 2022, presidential aide says” : Middle East Monitoring. For decades Egypt has seen Sinai through a traditional military prism, taking an aggressive approach to an alienated local population.  Unsurprisingly, support is hard to come by when the local population is being treated as an enemy fighting force to be distrusted and controlled instead of befriended.

The conflict is far from over. On 9 February 2018, Egypt’s military spokesman Colonel Tamer al-Rifai announced the launch of the “Comprehensive Military Operation,” which aims to finally eliminate the Sinai insurgency. This is being billed as an extension of the Operation Martyrs’ Right.47.Maged Mandour, “Egypt’s Comprehensive Military Operation” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. While the operation also included increased troop numbers along the Nile and the Western desert region, the main thrust of the operation is in the Sinai.  The preparation for the operation was noticed by members of Wilayat Sinai, who launched a high-profile attack on December 19 targeting Minister of Defense Sedky Sobhy and Minister of Interior Magdy Abdel Ghaffar in response. The ATGM attack killed an officer and injured two others though it failed to kill its targets. This is a marked escalation in operations and it caused considerable embarrassment to the regime, which derives legitimacy from its claim that it is winning the “War on Terror”.48.“Egypt steps up military operations in Sinai ahead of elections” : Al-Monitor

By the end of the first day of the operation, several sources on the ground in North Sinai confirmed through phone and via-internet conversations that the bombardment almost entirely focused on the villages and suburbs south of the three main cities, El-Arish, Sheikh Zuwayyed and Rafah. This area has already been the site of three other campaigns and has experienced wide and consistent destruction. The majority of the population was displaced in the fighting from 2015-2016 and while some returned, the majority have sought shelter in more stable parts of the Sinai. It is telling however that the military has chosen to operate heavily around these cities. The military claims that this is a terrorist haven that is peppered with bunkers, weapons stashes, and sleeper cells, if that is the case then the previous three years of military effort have done very little to eradicate those issues. The displacement of 90% of the cities population and the torching of villages have clearly not fixed the issue, yet the Egyptian military is persisting with their scorched earth campaign.49.“Egypt: Army Intensifies Sinai Home Demolitions” : Human Rights Watch. This new stage of the campaign has further isolated the population, doubling down on the brutal campaign through the creation of an informal curfew, the closing of schools and the creation of high security checkpoint zones.50.“Egypt’s Sinai, war on terror, and the ‘deal of the century'” : Al-Jazeera. 

The Egyptian military needs to project themselves as the bringers of peace, security and stability in the region. This is essential to their popular support on the mainland. However, the Egyptian security apparatus seems content with the facade of peace as their scorched earth campaign leads to few tangible gains on the ground. The lack of addressing the socio-economic issues combined with the brutality of the campaign has left the region as unstable as ever. If the December ATGM attack is a sign of the effectiveness to come, without significant reform to the Egyptian Military Policy in the Sinai the security situation in the Peninsula will not be solved any time soon.

Chris Gentry

Chris Gentry is a graduate from Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. He specializes in Turkey, Syria and Iraq particularly the military background of those conflicts. His other interest is in the religious history of the region and has worked on several academic projects related to the Druze, Ismali;i and Assyrian Christian populations. He is also the director of the Syrian Civil War Podcast.

References   [ + ]

1. “Egypt: Videos Show Army Executions in Sinai” : Human Rights Watch.
2, 4. “‘One hand’, many heads: the role of the army in Egypt” : The Conversation.
3, 5. The Officers’ Republic: The Egyptian Military and Abuse of Power, a report by Transparency International.
6. Robert Worth, A Rage for Order The Middle East in Turmoil from Tahrir Square to ISIS: Pan Macmillan.
7. Sinai Insurgency, Twitter.
8. Nervana Mahmoud, “Sinai’s Violence: A Timeline (2004-2015)” : Nervana 1.
9. Zeinab Abul-Magd, “The Egyptian military in politics and the economy: Recent history and current transition status”: CMI Insight.
10, 15. James W. Bean and Craig S. Girard. “Anwar al-Sadat’s Grand Strategy in the Yom Kippur War” National Defense University and National War College.
11. The Officers’ Republic: The Egyptian Military and Abuse of Power, a report by Transparency International.
12. “The army and the economy in Egypt” : Pambazuka News.
13. “Military’s economic activities represent only 1-1.5%’: Al-Sisi” : Daily News Egypt.
14. Muhammad Bendary, The Egyptian Revolution Between Hope and Despair, Mubarak to Morsi: Algora Publishing
16. Mahmoud Jaraba, “Why Did the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Year-Long Rule Fall?,” Zeitschrift für Politik 61, no. 1(2014).
17. Ibid.
18. Erez Striem. “The Reconfiguration of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt”  Institute for National Security Studies.
19. Edmund Blair, Paul Taylor, and Tom Perry, “Special Report: How the Muslim Brotherhood lost Egypt” Reuters Special Report
20. “The Root of Egypt’s Coup: Morsi Giving Free Hand to Sinai Islamists” : Haaretz.
21. Sahar Aziz. “Sinai: Tipping Point or Pretext for Ouster?” The Middle East Institute.
22. Mohanned Sabry, Sinai: Egypt’s Linchpin, Gaza’s Lifeline, Israel’s Nightmare: American University in Cairo Press
23. “Disputes between Morsi, military led to Egypt coup” : AP
24. “Egyptian President Ousted by Military; Interview with Former Egyptian Army General Sameh Seif Elyazal (Transcript)” : CNN Special Report
25. “Arab Israeli Wars” : United States Military Academy West Point Department of History.
26. “Treaty of Peace, Israel and Egypt, No. 17813” : Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
27. “MFO” : Multinational Force and Observers.
28. “Military Zones in the Sinai Peninsula” : Stratfor.
29. “Egypt condemns 14 to death for 2011 Sinai attack” : Reuters.
30. “Egypt border guards killed in Sinai attack” : Al Jazeera.
31. Bill Roggio. “‘Global jihadists’ overrun Egyptian Army outpost on Israeli border” The Long War Journal.
32. Sarah El-Rashidi. “Morsi’s Failures in Sinai: A Cautionary Tale” The Atlantic Council.
33. Joshua Goodman. “Egypt’s Assault on Sinai” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
34. “Egyptian army declares success in crackdown on Sinai terrorists” : Times of Israel.
35. Mohannad Sabry. “Under Mubarak, Morsi or Sisi, Sinai Remains a Victim” The Atlantic Council.
36. Alon Rieger and Eran Yashiv, “The Gaza Economy,” in The Crisis of the Gaza Strip, Tel Aviv University.
37. “Egypt busts hundreds of smuggling tunnels, and a spy” : Times of Israel.
38. Ruben Tuitel, “The Future of the Sinai Peninsula,” Connections 13, no. 2(2014).
39. Sahar F. Aziz, De-Scrutinizing Counterterrorism in the Sinai Peninsula: Brookings Doha Center.
40. “Egyptian forces kill 38 jihadists in major Sinai operation” : Times of Israel.
41. “Sisi criticised over ‘brute force’ strategy in Sinai” : Al-Jazeera.
42. Omar Ashour, “Counter-insurgency or ethnic cleansing on the Sinai?” The New Arab.
43. “Special Report: Egyptian militants outwit army in Sinai battlefield” : Reuters.
44. “Special Report: Egyptian militants outwit army in Sinai battlefield” : Reuters.
45. Abu Lughod Lila, “Change and Egyptian Bedouin” Cultural Survival.
46. “Egypt’s $15 billion Sinai development expected by 2022, presidential aide says” : Middle East Monitoring.
47. Maged Mandour, “Egypt’s Comprehensive Military Operation” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
48. “Egypt steps up military operations in Sinai ahead of elections” : Al-Monitor
49. “Egypt: Army Intensifies Sinai Home Demolitions” : Human Rights Watch.
50. “Egypt’s Sinai, war on terror, and the ‘deal of the century'” : Al-Jazeera.