The Key to Restoring Sinai Security: Egypt Must Address Plight of Local Population

Brutal massacre of 25 policemen emphasizes that the Egyptian army is failing to quell the Islamist threat in Sinai, despite bolstered presence of security forces, and proves that a new course of action is needed.

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The photographs coming out of Egypt on Monday morning showing 25 bound bodies of police officers who were dragged from their buses near Rafah and shot, execution-style, in the head, emphasize the total failure of the Egyptian army to face the Islamist threat in Sinai.

The continuing reinforcements to the peninsula, along with armored vehicles and combat helicopters, have not prevented Jihadists from operating close to their positions, tracking bus loads of police personnel in civilian clothes, stopping them, tying them up, forcing them to lie down on the road and killing them, unhurriedly and undisturbed.

The reinforcements, APCs and Apache gunship helicopters don’t make up for the vulnerabilities of the Egyptian army operating in Sinai as if the area were enemy territory.

Sinai’s population numbers about 600,000, about 70 percent of whom are Bedouin. For decades, they have suffered severe discrimination by the central government from Cairo in employment and freedom of travel, with most of the jobs in the tourism and services sectors going to citizens who emigrated from the Nile Valley.

As a consequence of the Camp David accords, no major military presence was allowed in East Sinai and instead of the army, the police and the Mukhabarat (secret police) who suppressed the Bedouin in the northern and southern coastal regions, were responsible for security, all the while allowing unhindered smuggling of drugs, cigarettes, people and weapons into the Gaza Strip and Israel. With the collapse of the regime in Cairo, following the revolution two and a half year ago, the power of the police in Sinai was dramatically reduced and the army which deployed (with Israel’s quiet approval) in a number of unsuccessful operations, failed to fill the vacuum.

The estrangement of the army from the local population has led to a serious dearth of useful intelligence in Sinai - intelligence which could have enabled forces to locate Jihadist groups, comprised of radicalized locals, along with Salafists from other regions of Egypt, Jihadist Palestinians (as opposed to Hamas militants) and members of Al-Qaida from further afield. The hostility of the local population has only intensified in recent months as the smuggling routes have closed due to the new Israeli border fence and more effective operations by the Egyptian army which have destroyed the tunnels beneath Rafah.

The Jihadists have found sanctuary with the local residents and in the mountains where the army, suffering from limited mobility, finds it hard to operate. Shipments of advanced weaponry coming in from Libya over the last two years reportedly included advanced anti-aircraft missiles, limiting the ability of the Egyptian air force to use its helicopter gunships and to land commandos during raids.

The connection between the Jihadists and the Bedouin, intimately familiar with the desert paths and thanks to the proceeds of smuggling, equipped with off-road vehicles, leaves the Egyptian troops at a distinct disadvantage in the interior. It forces them to concentrate on the main roads, mainly in observation posts and checkpoints, some of which are abandoned overnight for fear of attack.

As this morning’s massacre, a few kilometers away from a military base proves, even on the main roads the security forces are from safe. Following the attack, the authorities announced that from now on military and police convoys would travel in Sinai only under heavy protection. The police in the two minibuses were all wearing civilian clothes but it seems that the Jihadists’ local allies can locate the Egyptian forces with much greater success than the army can seek out the adversary.

In recent years, there has been discussion of economic development for the benefit of the local Bedouins, in an attempt to minimize their reliance on smuggling and improve the security situation; but nothing has come of these plans. Now, as tourism in Sinai has dwindled to almost nothing and the smuggling routes have closed, the Egyptian government will have no choice but to address the needs of the local population if they are to have any hope of restoring security to Sinai.  

Egyptian soldiers pray as they are deployed in northern Sinai, July 2013.Credit: AFP

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