Opinion

Egypt’s Sinai crisis

Avijit Goel | Updated on January 03, 2019 Published on January 03, 2019

There is an alarming rise in terror attacks

In a slew of attacks that have become commonplace in Egypt and increasingly daring and dastardly in their manner, just last week saw a frontal attack on the tourism industry in this nation. Three Vietnamese tourists and one local tour operator were killed when a bomb blast hit their bus, just a couple of miles away from the Gaza pyramids.

Though no organisation has yet taken responsibility for the attacks, it is a foregone conclusion that this was the work of the Wilayat Sinai, the Islamic State affiliate in Egypt.

The important element in this movement (Wilayat Sinai) is the geography of its birth — the Sinai peninsula. Specifically so, the Northern Sinai. The Sinai Peninsula, a triangular province (about the size of Uttarakhand), is home to an increasingly aggressive branch of the Islamic State as well as smaller jihadist cells. This sparsely populated desert region between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea has become one of Egypt’s biggest worries and brings trouble to the doorstep of Israel.

Foreign fighters — largely from Libya, the Maghreb, and Europe — have migrated to the Sinai, where they constitute a majority of the Sinai Province’s fighting force by mid-2017.

Wilayat Sinai, known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) before its leadership pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014, has done everything possible to undermine the state of Egypt. From driving fear in the heart of the largest ethno-religious minority — the Coptic Christians (by bombing Coptic churches in 2017, one Church of which is the seat of the Coptic papacy), to bombing of the Russian airliner that killed all 224 passengers and crew, to attacking outposts of the Egyptian army in the Sinai to beheading international tourists in resorts, the attacks are only getting bolder and more frequent.

The Egyptian army launched a large-scale operation dubbed “Sinai 2018” in February to rid the Sinai of jihadists after a dastardly attack on a Sufi mosque which killed more than 300.

While the military measures are proving to be ineffective against an increasingly efficient terrorist organisation, the scorched earth measures of the army are also alienating the local Bedouin tribesmen, who reside in the Sinai.

Lack of state control here serves the smuggling syndicates well who are known to financially support the Wilayat Sinai in keeping the state away.

While the coastal regions of southern Sinai have been developed to cater to tourists are relatively better off, the area’s infrastructure in the north stays medieval. Many communities remain without adequate water supplies, medical facilities, or educational access. This, over years, has created a sense of dis-enfranchisement and frustration in the North, which has been capitalised by the extremists.

Though the Al-Sisi government plans to develop the central and northern parts of the Sinai, and has unveiled a master development plan (massive agricultural, industrial and mining production sites) — financing ($16 billion) and security will be severe stumbling blocks. Also, any flushing activity here will only get the organisation to slip into the mountainous area between Sinai and Gaza (making combing operations even more difficult). For a location as strategic as the Sinai, bordering the Suez Canal and connecting the Levant to Africa, it remains to be seen how this notoriously complex issue will pan out in the coming years.

The writer is a geo-political analyst

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Published on January 03, 2019
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