Egypt has started a massive operation to clear the country of “terrorist elements”. It's a continuation of a years-long security policy that aims to maintain military rule, and one that's brought it closer to its neighbours Israel and Saudi Arabia.
After nearly five years in power with the promise of “defeating terrorism”, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al Sisi ordered a major offensive called “Sinai Comprehensive Operation 2018” on Friday, involving the army, navy, air forces, border patrol and police in Sinai, the Nile Delta and the Western Desert, vowing to clear Egypt of its, what they call “terrorist elements”.
Egyptian officials have been fighting an insurgency on the peninsula for years. But the period after the 2013 coup by Sisi that ousted country's first democratically-elected president, Mohamed Morsi, and the ensuing crackdown and massacres on anti-coup protesters, saw a rise in violence in the area. Reports say that more than 1,700 terror attacks were conducted in the peninsula between 2013 and 2017, killing about 1,000 security personnel. Insurgencies also started in the Western Desert near Libya and the Nile Valley during that time. "Security and anti-terrorism" are key for Sisi, a former military commander who presents himself as a bulwark against militants as he looks set to seek re-election next year.
“It is a common tactic for authoritarian regimes to increase security in the wake of political events such as elections,” Numan Telci, a foreign policy researcher at the SETA Foundation, told TRT World. “The Sisi regime aims to use the security discourse in the election campaign and will try to legitimise its hold on power in the country.”
In addition to the elections, the Egyptian regime’s position on security and anti-terrorism in the region has ushered a period of increased military and security co-operation with neighbours Saudi Arabia, and even long-time foe Israel.
“Buffer zone” between Egypt and Israel
For nearly forty years, the Sinai has served as a kind of a buffer zone for the security interests of Israel and Egypt. The 1979 Peace Treaty between Israel and Egypt ended decades of warfare starting from the period of the establishment of Israel in 1948, wars in 1954, 1963 and 1973, with continuing tensions and low-intensity conflicts in between. The treaty ended the Israeli occupation of the peninsula, but left the territory only partially under Egyptian sovereignty. The treaty limits the number of troops and security personnel that Egypt can deploy on the peninsula without conferring to Israel. Furthermore, an international peacekeeping force, first under the auspices of the UN, and later the Multinational Force of Observers (MFO) remains on the peninsula as part of the treaty.
In 2014, Egypt started "clearing residents" from its border along the Gaza Strip by forcing families to move, with a small compensation and demolishing hundreds of homes to create a buffer zone, which it said was necessary to prevent the smuggling of arms from Gaza to militants in Sinai. Residents of Sinai on the other hand, said they relied on smuggling trade through the tunnels for their living.
The security emphasised by Sisi helps maintain Egypt’s military regime as well as the security buffer desired by Israel, particularly as a way to keep pressure on the Gaza Strip.
The New York Times revealed last week that the Israeli army had been carrying out covert air strikes on the peninsula, numbering more than 100 for more than two years, with the approval of the Egyptian government.
“We saw for the last few years, a stronger security co-ordination between Israel and Egypt, acknowledging that both countries have strong security interests along the border with Israel,” Nimrod Goren, head of the Mitvim Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies told TRT World, explaining that the two states were finding ways to “accommodate the changes in the nature of their relations without putting it into writing.”
Bloomberg also reported in 2016 that Israel had been conducting drone strikes in Sinai for a few years, with Egypt’s permission due to security concerns regarding Daesh on the peninsula.
“The cooperation between Israel and Egypt has a secret nature as it would be widely opposed by Arab public opinion,” explained Telci.
“Egypt's policy toward Israel changed dramatically with the military coup of 2013. The nature of the relationship was similar to the Mubarak era. There was close but hidden co-operation in areas such as intelligence, security and foreign policy.”
The Bloomberg report was published soon after Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry had concluded a visit to Israel, the first by an Egyptian foreign minister in nine years, to offer Cairo’s help to revive peace talks with the Palestinians.
Regional “anti-terrorism” concerns
In October, Hamas, which had been running the Gaza Strip, announced that it would dissolve the administrative committee that it formed to manage Gaza's affairs. The decision allowed a unity government led by Fatah, Hamas' rival group in Palestine's West Bank, to control Gaza. The move was mainly driven by Egyptian efforts, according to Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem.
Egypt, Fatah’s biggest supporter, had been acting as a mediator between the rivals. But aside from mediation efforts, Hamas had also come under growing pressure from the Palestinian Authority (PA) as well as Egypt, which tightened its security measures on the Rafah border crossing.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States all consider Hamas to be a terrorist organisation, and this pressure on Hamas, which is backed by Iran—the regional foe of Saudi Arabia—Egypt, Israel and the United States can be understood in the context of the interests of these countries, according to Telci.
“The main reason for this co-operation between Tel Aviv and Cairo is to keep the status quo in the region,” said Telci. “What I mean with this is first, the continuation of the Egyptian military regime; second, eliminating threats toward the security of Israel; and third, promoting US interests in the region.”
“For these reasons, both countries aimed to reverse the course of the Arab revolutions. And the main allies for Egypt and Israel are Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.”
Soon after the unity deal between Hamas and Fatah, US President Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, drawing days of worldwide rage and protests. Daesh’s Sinai affiliate, Wilayat Sinai, declared war on Hamas in early January, citing Hamas’ alleged failure at stopping Trump’s move. A day after, leaked tapes revealed that Egyptian authorities, who had publicly objected to Trump’s move, had tacitly accepted the declaration.
The Sinai operation, which Egyptian security forces call “unprecedented” in size, scope and co-ordination, aims to clear the insurgency on the peninsula, but it is the seventh operation on the territory in seven years. Experts are cautious about the military tactics and their effects on the ground, considering the strict state of emergency in the region, the indefinite shutting down of all schools, the media blackout regarding the operation, and the travel restrictions to and from the peninsula.
“The Sinai has a problem of radical terrorism, and any government would try to eliminate this threat from its soil. However, following only a security oriented approach would not be a sufficient strategy. This is the case with the latest large-scale operations in the Sinai,” said Telci.
“Israel's operations in the Sinai probably focused on the militant groups in the Sinai region,” said Telci. “However, as previous reports on the conflicts in Sinai, a large number of civilians are affected because of the situation. [W]hen the Egyptian regime decided to establish a buffer zone in the border region with Gaza, thousands of civilians on the Egyptian side of the border were forced to flee the region.”
History of insurgency
Sinai province, populated mainly by Bedouin tribes, is one of Egypt’s most underdeveloped and under-governed regions. It became a hotbed for non-state armed groups who took advantage of the power vacuum following the 2011 uprisings. The insurgency intensified after 2013 as those who rejected the coup and the massacres joined the armed groups.
Prior to the 2013 coup, the Ansar Bayt al Maqdis, the most active outlawed armed group in Egypt directed its attacks towards Israel, targeting the gas pipeline between the two countries. After the coup, however, the attacks were directed at also the Egyptian security establishment, including police and soldiers. The group later pledged allegiance to Daesh in 2014.
The southern coast of the peninsula is peppered with Red Sea tourist resorts, and the west is home to the strategic Suez Canal through which eight percent of global trade and three percent of global oil supply pass through. North Sinai province, however, lacks basic infrastructure and job opportunities, and had suffered from decades of economic neglect and political alienation from the Egyptian establishment under Hosni Mubarak.
The combination of these factors allowed for the smuggling trade and the blackmarket to thrive in the northern peninsula. Smuggling across the Gaza-Egyptian (Rafah) border grew after Israel imposed a full air, sea, and land blockade on the Gaza Strip starting in 2007.
Its border with Egypt is Gaza’s only international gateway. The two million Palestinians who live in Gaza are rarely able to leave the densely-populated enclave, except when Egypt opens the border temporarily a few times each year, with short notice.
Thousands of Palestinians gathered at Gaza’s border crossing with Egypt last Thursday, hoping for a brief chance to cross into the country when Egypt opened the border. That was two days before the start of the operation.