Assessing Egypt’s campaign against Sinai militants

The latest attacks on military targets in the Sinai were seen as shocking

Sonia Farid
Sonia Farid - Special to Al Arabiya News
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The latest attacks on military targets in the Sinai were seen as the most shocking, not only because of the number of casualties, the penetration of highly-secured areas, or the advanced tactics used by the assailants, but also because the attacks followed a series of reportedly successful campaigns against militant strongholds in the peninsula.

The last factor in particular was a source of concern among analysts, who underlined the necessity of contemplating whether the state is making any actual progress in eliminating terrorism.

The first official reaction to the Jan. 29 bombings said they were driven by the “successful strikes carried out by the army and the police against militants and their strongholds in North Sinai, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s failure to wreak havoc on the fourth anniversary” of the Jan. 25 revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.

General Alaa Ezz el-Din, director the Armed Forces Center for Strategic Studies, said the attacks are a sign that militants are “becoming increasingly desperate” following successful strikes against them.

Writer and sociologist Al-Sayed Yassin said the army is fighting a global war and protecting the world from terrorism, which is why the mission will take time. “Terrorism is threatening the whole world since it is based on a set of fixed ideas to which youths from everywhere are attracted,” he wrote, adding that Egypt cannot face this growing threat alone.

Yassin underlined the difficulty of garnering international support for Egypt’s efforts. “Calls for international cooperation will be obstructed by superpowers, especially the United States, which are conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood to serve their political interests.”

Patrick Kingsley, The Guardian’s correspondent in Egypt, sees the state’s inability to contain attacks as related to its enemy, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis. “In reality no one knows exactly who runs it, or how centralized its operations are, nor its relationships with local tribes, other smaller militant groups in Sinai, or al-Qaeda itself,” he wrote, adding that it has not been possible to know the number of militants launching such attacks, but that they are reportedly increasing.

Former Israeli ambassador to Cairo, Zvi Mazel, wrote that Egypt’s army “is not prepared for a guerilla war since its training mostly focused on conventional wars that have not been taking place in the Middle East for years.”
The army, Mazel added, is not only facing extremist militants but also Sinai locals. “These are Bedouins who are not willing to cooperate with a state that has for decades marginalized them. That is why they cooperated with Hamas in building tunnels and some of them even joined jihadi operatives to avenge themselves on the state under the name of Islam.”

What makes Egypt’s job harder, he added, is a lack of support from the West. “It is quite surprising that Egypt is not getting support from the West, especially the United States which continues to support the Muslim Brotherhood and which can provide the training the Egyptian army needs for this type of war. The same applies to the European Union that is not making any effort to help Egypt.”

For Borzou Daragahi, the Financial Times correspondent in Cairo, the attacks “brought into question claims by the armed forces that their hardline security strategy was working in Sinai.” Borzou said targeting one of the Egyptian army’s most formidable units, Battalion 101, highlights the growing strength of militants.

He referred to the commentary of H A Hellyer, Egypt and Middle East specialist at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, about the sophistication of the recent attack compared to earlier ones. “It is one thing to kill two dozen people in a single place. It is another to target a dozen places at once,” said Hellyer. “The latter is far more effective and disruptive.”

Hellyer added: “The armed forces seem to be getting the guys they say they’re getting. But if the point to their counter-insurgency efforts was to ensure that attacks like this don’t take place, obviously they failed.”

Journalist Mohamed Azzam said the state “needs to have a comprehensive plan, and the security dimension should only be part of it. In all confrontations between the state and religious extremists through the eras of [Gamal Abdel] Nasser, [Anwar] Sadat and Mubarak, this approach has not only proven a failure, but also made terrorist groups grow fiercer.”

According to Azzam, a comprehensive plan should comprise three parts. The security dimension, which means military strikes, is one. “The second is development. If Sinai remains undeveloped it will remain an easy shelter to all clandestine groups.”

The third is Sinai residents becoming active participants in Egyptian politics. “Political marginalization plays a major role in encouraging locals to take up arms against the state or join groups that do.”

Journalist Mohamed Hani said the state’s reaction to every attack demonstrates its failure. “After each terrorist attack, we only hear vows of revenge and calls for supporting the state in its war on terrorism, but that is it,” he wrote.

“Those who question the state’s approach or demand an explanation on how highly-secured areas can be attacked are accused of treason or supporting terrorism.” Hani said the state is trying to distract Egyptians from its inability to eliminate terrorism.

Writer Michel Naguib attributes the state’s failure to “draining rather than eliminating terrorism. The state has not been targeting terrorist cells on a regular basis, but rather waits until a terrorist attack takes place in order to launch military strikes until it drains militants temporarily, then forces withdraw to their barracks away from volatile areas. This allows militants to regroup and get more weapons to strike again.”

Naguib said the recent establishment of a special military command permanently based in the Sinai is the only hope in reversing this failure. However, “this decision came very late, after terrorists... already built an infrastructure, obtained new weapons, and agreed on the next targets.”

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