by Joseph Jarnecki
The fall of Baghouz – the last bastion of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – was meant to mark the end of the US-led coalition’s war. Instead, the battle was yet another milestone in the evolution of the self-appointed Caliphate. Stripped of contiguous territory, the pseudo-state now pursues its global Jihad by franchising its own brand of militancy to those groups it established, supported, or co-opted whilst at its height.[i]
The grouping Wilayat Sinai (WS) – or “Sinai Province” – which operates in Egypt’s easternmost region, the Sinai Peninsula, is an exemplar franchise. Swearing allegiance to ISIL in 2014, the group originally coalesced in 2011 from a diverse array of militant outfits under the name Ansar Bayat al-Maqdis (ABM – “the Partisans of Jerusalem”).[ii] Spearheading Sinai’s militant activity since its founding, WS’s campaign alone has inflicted over 1,200 casualties on security forces since 2014, leading Human Rights Watch (HRW) to classify the Peninsula as host to a Non-Intentional Armed Conflict (NIAC).[iii] Appreciating this context then, a broadened understanding of the enabling factors behind WS is fundamental to tackling both intra-Egypt militancy and the next steps of ISIL.
In this article, I will highlight the harmful nature of regime governance and its targeting of Sinai’s majority Bedouin population. Historic marginalisation of the Bedouin by Cairo, I believe, has been crucial to creating a climate in which WS could emerge and thrive.
The return of Sinai and the reincorporation of the 15-20 Bedouin tribes whose lands criss-cross the Sinai/Israel/Palestine border in 1982 was a hollow victory for those Bedouin who gathered intelligence and facilitated Egyptian espionage whilst under Israeli occupation.[iv] The Cairo government pushed a narrative that quickly branded the Bedouin as Israeli ‘collaborators’ for taking available economic opportunities whilst under Israeli rule.[v] This perception has since been institutionalised and cements Egyptian nationalist sentiment wherein Bedouin identity is synonymous with primitiveness, criminality, and terrorism.[vi] A comment made by an Egyptian security official operating in Sinai that ‘the only good Bedouin is a dead Bedouin’ typifies this attitude.[vii]
Perceptions of Bedouin as “non-Egyptian” – emphasised by Cairo – then legitimise discriminatory policies which formalise the Bedouin as second-class citizens and Egypt as the Bedouin’s ‘fourth colonizer’.[viii] Strategies reflecting this perception include the confiscation of over 200,000 acres of tribal land since Egyptian reoccupation, stripping the Bedouin of access to an agrarian livelihood.[ix] Meanwhile, this stolen land is given to Nile Valley settlers – as part of government plans to ‘Egyptianise’ Sinai [x] – or sold to state-linked tourism developers in South Sinai, promoting an industry in which Bedouins are barred from participating.[xi] Moreover, beyond the private sector, the Bedouin are excluded from the security forces and until 2007 were unable to vote.[xii] Both these measures exemplify the contempt with which the Bedouin are held by the government. Specific day-to-day governance in Sinai extends this contempt to broader securitisation of the Bedouin (wherein speech acts by the Egyptian government transform Bedouin communities from political constituencies into security threats)[xiii] with arbitrary mass arrests and forcible disappearances becoming ‘part of daily life’.[xiv]
Many Bedouins who are disaffected with government and are cut adrift from legitimate economic opportunities have in desperation turned to clandestine alternatives. Tribes, especially those with strong Gazan links and with lands which straddle the Israeli-Egyptian border now smuggle arms, drugs, and, more infrequently, militants. The 2008 escalation between Hamas and Israel as well as the imposition of an Egyptian supported embargo of Gaza has only increased this activity. Estimates now put the annual revenue from smuggling at $300 to $500 million [xv] and in just 2008 an expansion of smuggling and its related activities shrunk the estimated formal and informal unemployment rate of Rafah – a large North Sinai town – from 50% to 20%.[xvi]
As a result of smuggling, ‘sophisticated and heavily armed gangs’[xvii] have emerged which provide economic opportunities and a chance of retaliation against the security forces. At the same time, because of their inability to provide similar incentives, tribal leaders have lost influence, especially over ‘new generations of disgruntled youth’.[xviii] These gangs smuggle for WS who have used ISIL’s funds and its ideational authority to source sophisticated weaponry and recruit approximately 1,500 combatants.[xix] Some of these fighters are young Bedouins who work the smuggling lanes and are either radicalised or lured by the chance to get back at security forces.[xx] Examples of WS Bedouin are few, however, with the ISIL affiliate being mostly composed of deserters from Egyptian security forces, ‘persistent local insurgents,’ and foreign veteran insurgents.[xxi] The prevalence of the last category within WS means local guides and boltholes, crucial to operating an insurgency that relies on asymmetrical information to combat superior armed forces, are needed and are most easily sourced from amongst the Bedouin.
In the ‘880 attacks between the beginning of 2014 and the end of 2016’ [xxii] carried out by WS, Bedouin assistance has been indispensable, providing local knowledge without which the militant’s hit-and-run tactics would fail in the face of an estimated ‘500:1 [military] power’ imbalance.[xxiii] Their provision of auxiliary support by procuring weapons and personnel whilst also acting as guides and maintaining safe havens demonstrates the true cost of their marginalisation for the Egyptian government.
Despite the generation’s worth of persecution faced by the Bedouin, the current status quo does not have to continue. The relationship between the Bedouin, even those in charge of smuggling operations, and WS is not positive. Replicating ISIL strategies, WS has sought to seize areas and enforce their interpretation of Islam.[xxiv] To this end, they operate ‘multiple detention sites where they interrogate detained civilians,’ including Bedouins.[xxv] Additionally, extensive attacks on Sinai’s Christian population ostracise some Bedouin like the Jebeliya tribe, who has deep-rooted historical links to Sinai’s Christian orthodox population. Moreover, a WS crackdown on cigarette and marijuana smuggling damages relations with those same Bedouin smugglers on whom they rely.[xxvi]
In light of this, the door is not closed for a rapprochement between Bedouin tribal leaders and Egypt’s government, though the intricacies of this process will require careful handling. The first step must be to reincorporate Sinai as an integral part of Egypt’s identity and to acknowledge the Bedouin’s place within the Peninsula. By legitimising their status as citizens and bringing arbitrary arrests to an end, the government may win over those Bedouin who are on the front-line of insurgent violence. Reconciliation with the Bedouin, however, will also require an end to their economic exclusion from agriculture and tourism. As Bedouins integrate within the legitimate economy, WS will be deprived of the auxiliary support on which they must rely to survive. Whilst Sinai only offers a snapshot into the future of ISIL, it is an important one. A central lesson the conflict offers is that when a franchise of ISIL emerges, we must look beyond its links to the self-appointed Caliphate and examine the unique structural conditions which facilitate its existence where it arises.
Joseph is a third-year BA student in International Relations at the King’s War Studies Department. His main areas of focus are conflict and (in)security in the Middle East and North Africa, particularly Egypt, and on theories of subjectivity within International Relations. His dissertation project aims to incorporate these areas of interest when investigating how critical military studies – specifically its reappraisal of militarism – contribute to analyses of formerly colonised spaces. Before joining King’s Joseph interned with the Huffington Post and established a school magazine on a diverse range of subjects. You can follow him on Twitter @Jarnecki.
[i] Michael Hart, ‘The Troubled History of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula’, International Policy Digest, 2016 <https://intpolicydigest.org/2016/05/30/the-troubled-history-of-egypt-s-sinai-peninsula/> [accessed 10 June 2019].
[ii] Iffat Idris, Sinai Conflict Analysis (Britghton: Institute of Development Studies, 2 March 2017), p. 3 <https://opendocs.ids.ac.uk/opendocs/handle/123456789/13052> [accessed 29 May 2019].
[iii] Human Rights Watch, ‘If You Are Afraid for Your Lives, Leave Sinai!’: Egyptian Security Forces and ISIS-Affiliate Abuses in North Sinai (Human Rights Watch, 2019), pp. 2 & 35 <https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/report_pdf/egypt0519_web3_0.pdf>.
[iv] Sahar F. Aziz, ‘Rethinking Counterterrorism in the Age of ISIS: Lessons from Sinai’, Nebraska Law Review, 95.2 (2016), 308–65 (p. 322).
[v] Oliver Walton, Conflict, Exclusion and Livelihoods in the Sinai Region of Egypt (Governance and Social Development Resource Centre, 20 September 2012), p. 7 <http://www.gsdrc.org/docs/open/hdq834.pdf> [accessed 6 November 2019].
[vi] Sahar F Aziz, De-Securitizing Counterterrorism in the Sinai Peninsula (Washington and Doha: Brookings Institution, April 2017), pp. 13–14 <https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/de-securitizing-counterterrorism-in-the-sinai-peninsula_aziz_english.pdf> [accessed 3 June 2019]; Idris, pp. 8–10.
[vii] Wikileaks, Internal Security in Sinai–an Update (Egypt Cairo, 14 March 2005) <https://search.wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/05CAIRO1978_a.html> [accessed 1 August 2019].
[viii] Angela Joya and Evrim Gormus, ‘State Power and Radicalization in Egypt’s Sinai’, The Researcher: The Canadian Journal for Middle East Studies, 1.1 (2015), 42–40 (p. 52).
[ix] Sahar F. Aziz, p. 327.
[x] Joya and Gormus, p. 55.
[xi] Idris, p. 10.
[xiii] Ole Wæver, Securitization and Desecuritization (Centre for Peace and Conflict Research Copenhagen, 1993).
[xiv] Human Rights Watch, p. 3.
[xv] Idris, p. 10; Sahar F Aziz, p. 3.
[xvi] Sahar F. Aziz, p. 337.
[xvii] Walton, p. 6.
[xviii] Sahar F. Aziz, p. 328.
[xx] A Batrawy, ‘Egypt’s Most Extreme Hardliners in Sinai Revival’, Associated Press, 2012 <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/feedarticle/10392343>.
[xxi] Omar Ashour, ISIS and Wilayat Sinai: Complex Networks of Insurgency under Authoritarian Rule, DGAP Kompakt (Berlin: Forschungsinstitut der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik, 2016), p. 8 (p. 6) <https://www.ssoar.info/ssoar/bitstream/handle/document/54270/ssoar-2016-ashour-ISIS_and_Wilayat_Sinai_Complex.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y&lnkname=ssoar-2016-ashour-ISIS_and_Wilayat_Sinai_Complex.pdf>.
[xxii] Omar Ashour, ‘Sinai’s Insurgency: Implications of Enhanced Guerilla Warfare’, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 42.6 (2019), 541–58 (p. 546) <https://doi.org/10.1080/1057610X.2017.1394653>.
[xxiii] Ashour, ISIS and Wilayat Sinai: Complex Networks of Insurgency under Authoritarian Rule, pp. 5–6.
[xxiv] Human Rights Watch, p. 9.
[xxv] Human Rights Watch, p. 37.
[xxvi] Idris, p. 4.