Thursday, 21 November 2013

The battle for Sinai

            One direct result of the overthrow of Egypt’s President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in June 2013 has been the swift descent into violence and chaos of the Sinai peninsula. 

            Sinai is the V-shaped land mass that is the easternmost area of Egypt.  Since the military coup in Egypt, it has become a breeding ground for ruthless and brutal terrorism by extremist supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Some 60,000 square kilometres roughly the size of the Republic of Ireland it consists largely of desert and has a population of only some 500,000. It is, however, strategically placed in terms of Middle East geopolitics.  Bounded on the north by the Mediterranean and on the south by the Red Sea and the Gulf of Suez, its western border is the Suez canal and its eastern the Gaza strip and then Israel.  It is therefore, a perfect launch pad from which to challenge both Egypt and Israel while also serving as an ideal two-way conduit for Hamas, an alternative to the tunnels that Egypt and Israel have begun destroying.

“The Sinai has become an arena for the stockpiling of weapons bound for Hamas, and a staging ground for their eventual smuggling into Gaza,” said a report by senior US military personnel following a tour in October 2013.  And it is to Gaza city that Muslim Brotherhood leaders are reported to have fled, shortly after the downfall of ex-President Morsi, in order to establish a headquarters from which to plan and execute operations aimed at overthrowing the interim Egyptian government and its leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

In a recent report by the leading German journal, Der Spiegel, Sinai was described as “a laboratory of violence, a test zone.” For here, as much as in mainland Egypt, is where the military, having eliminated the former Islamist government and its president, must demonstrate that they can save the country from being plunged into a bloody civil war on a par with Syria’s. 

So far the violence in the “test zone” of Sinai has not been particularly well contained, though al-Sisi is receiving brownie points from the Egyptian public for his determined attempts to do so.  One particularly bloodthirsty incident was the massacre on August 19 of 25 Egyptian policemen by armed extremists close to the Israeli border. In September Egypt’s Interior Minister, Mohamed Ibrahim, narrowly escaped being killed by a car bomb in Cairo, most likely the work of the Islamist militant group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which has its headquarters on the Sinai Peninsula. Then, on October 7, a car bomb exploded in front of the police headquarters building in the center of el-Tor, the capital of the South Sinai Governorate, killing four police officers and injuring 48 people. Within a few days six people were killed in an attack on Egyptian intelligence headquarters in Rafah, and a suicide bomber drove his car into a checkpoint outside al-Arish, killing three soldiers and a police officer.

The violence has extended as far as the Suez Canal.  Filmed and posted on-line by the jihadists themselves was their attack on August 31 on the Cosco Asia, a giant container ship heading to Europe from the Far East. It was something of a double disaster for the captain and owners of the Cosco Asia for, as journalist Richard Spenser reported, one of the rocket-propelled grenades ripped open some of the containers, exposing a large load of counterfeit cigarettes, subsequently tracked and seized when they were unloaded in Ireland.

"What if it had been a liquid natural gas tanker?" asked one senior Canal official, saying he kept the clip on his mobile phone as a reminder of what he was up against.

The incident led to a major review of security and a new army offensive against the jihadists. Yet it remains a tit-for-tat situation.  As recently as November 20 eleven Egyptian military personnel were killed, and dozens more wounded, in a car bomb attack near the north Sinai city of el-Arish. Al-Masri al-Youm newspaper said a convoy of buses carrying infantry soldiers was hit by a roadside bomb as it moved through the Kharouba area.

Nevertheless, David Barnett, who tracks the insurgency for the American security think-tank Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, says the number of reported jihadi attacks in the Sinai fell from 104 in July to 29 in October. But he warns against complacency. "We could just be seeing an alteration in tactics. There have already been drive-by shootings in the capital and in the Nile Delta. The spread of the Sinai insurgency to the mainland is something we should be taking very seriously.”

Al-Sisi’s strong-arm tactics seem to be endearing him to the Egyptian public.  Distinguished veteran Middle East journalist Robert Fisk recently described him as becoming the object of “mass worship”. Journalists adore him, says Fisk, people eat sweets made in his image, and Egyptians are passing around hundred dollar bills with his colored portrait superimposed on that of Benjamin Franklin.

The Egyptian public seems to approve of his determination to crush the jihadists’ efforts at restoring the Muslim Brotherhood to power, and of his putting former President Morsi on trial for actions during the uprising in June 2013 which led to the army deposing him.  More to the point, perhaps, al-Sisi appears to be living up to his promise of a revised constitution leading to new elections early in 2014.

On November 17 the 50-member constituent assembly, formed in September to draft amendments to Egypt's constitution, posted on its official Twitter page that the final draft of the amended constitution was finished. The assembly is expected to vote on the draft constitution by November 26, and then present it to interim President Adly Mansour. The draft constitution will then be open to public discussion, before being  put to a national referendum within 15 days. 

Meanwhile on November 8 Egyptian foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy, announced that Parliamentary elections will be held in Egypt between February and March 2014, to be followed by a presidential vote in early summer.  Their success in re-establishing democratic rule in Egypt depends crucially on whether the interim government has by then gained the upper hand in its bitter struggle in the Sinai against its political and religious opponents.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 21 November 2013: 
Published in the Eurasia Review, 21 November 2013: 

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