Could an unlikely triangle alliance face Sinai militants?
New circumstances create new opportunities and new threats induce new alliances
If proof was required the that the threat of ISIS militancy is not confined to Syria and Iraq, events last week in Kuwait, Tunisia and the latest bloodshed in the Sinai Peninsula provided ample such evidence. The emergence of the so called Islamic State Sinai Province opened another front in combating one of the most violent expressions of radical Islam the region has ever faced. The Sinai Peninsula which for decades, since a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel was signed in 1979, had been a peaceful demilitarised thinly populated territory, became a war zone against modern jihadists. The coordinated attack by militants of ISIS last Wednesday on fifteen Egyptian army and police positions, as well as the three suicide bombings was in clear defiance of the Egyptian state’s authority in the peninsula. Seventeen Egyptian soldiers and officers were killed in the assault, prompting a swift response by the Egyptian government. Nevertheless, the proximity to Israel and Gaza also presents massive challenges and opportunities to the rule of the Hamas in the Gaza Strip and to Israeli security.
Militancy in the Sinai cannot be separated from events in Egypt where there are frequent terrorist attacks by militant groupsYossi Mekelberg
Lawlessness in the Sinai Peninsula is not an entirely new. Considering the decades-long neglect and discrimination of the indigenous Bedouin people living there and its geographical remoteness from the power centre in Cairo, it is not surprising that it became a breeding ground for extremism. In the four years of turmoil that Egypt has endured since the Tahrir Square days of 2011, the Egyptian security forces concentrated on events closer to main centres of population, especially Cairo and Alexandria. This left the Sinai desert wide open for the local Bedouins and jihadists to confront the Egyptian government in the more remote peninsula. The power vacuum created by a combination of the territory’s vastness, scarce population, distance from the Egyptian centre of power, and its low priority on the Egyptian agenda, together with immense strategic importance, was bound to draw in non-state radical movements.
Militancy in the Sinai
Militancy in the Sinai cannot be separated from events in Egypt where there are frequent terrorist attacks by militant groups, and the in my opinion the crushing of the opposition and human rights in the country by the government led by President Sisi. The main opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, may have suffered operationally, but this seems, nevertheless, to galvanise their determination and ideology. Sentencing hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members to death, including the Brotherhood’s Grand Mufti Mohammad Badie and former President Mohammad Mursi, indicates the current unbridgeable rift in the gap within the Egyptian society. The organisation that carried out the attacks in northern Sinai last week, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM), pledged its allegiance to ISIS in November last year. It is regarded at present as the most active and dangerous terrorist group in Egypt. The vicious cycle of Islamist militancy and government abuse of human rights and due legal process feed on one another. Hundreds of security personnel have been killed by Islamists in recent years, and the assassination of top prosecutor Hisham Barakat, in a Cairo car bombing a day before the attacks in Sheikh Zuweid was a clear assault on the legal system in Egypt.
The powerful military response by air force and ground troops, which killed more than 100 militants, demonstrates the Egyptian government’s shock and anger. Not surprisingly, one of the major sources of support of these actions came from the decision makers in Israel. In addition to se
nding his country’s condolences to the government and people of Egypt “…for the fallen Egyptians slain by IS[IS] terror.” Prime Minister Netanyahu also linked the incident to his view about the global war on militant Islam. In his typical over simplistic and alarmist manner, he bundled together events in the Sinai with Syria and Iraq, as well as the role of the Hamas and Iran in the region.
Complexity of militancy
Regardless of this superficial understanding of the complexity of militancy in the region, developments in the bordering peninsula are understandably of grave concern to Israel. ISIS for Sinai Province took responsibility on Friday for the firing of two Grad rockets that landed inside the Israeli Negev region. This was the first incident of this kind. As efforts are made to prevent another round of hostilities with the Hamas in Gaza, opening a new front from the Sinai is an unwelcome new scenario for Israel. The country has built a rather sophisticated electric fence along the border with Egypt to prevent infiltration of either militants or African asylum seekers. Cooperating with the Egyptian security forces provides another pillar in securing the Israeli southern border.
In response to the new realities in the Sinai, Israel has withdrawn its demands that Egypt would abide by its commitment in the Camp David Accords to maintain the peninsula demilitarised. In fact Israel is encouraging the government in Cairo to send more troops in order to contain jihadists there. For the first time in 40 years, the Egyptian air force carried out strikes in Sinai, and this time with Israel’s blessing. The appearance of ISIS affiliated militants, brought Egypt and Israel closer together, more so than any other point in the past.
The convergence of the strategies of Cairo and Jerusalem regarding the threat posed to them by developments in the Sinai is only to be expected. Hamas’s approach is, however, somewhat more complex and the situation over the border presents the organisation with a real dilemma. Its obvious allegiance is with those who oppose and even resist militarily the current governments in Egypt and the Jewish state. Nevertheless, wider regional interests mitigate this support. Israeli sources claim that the military wing of the Hamas is assisting ISIS Sinai Province with organisation and armaments. It allegedly smuggles militants from Sinai into Gaza Strip hospitals for medical treatment. In addition there is understanding among the Hamas political leadership that an organisation such an ISIS is also a threat to them, and given the dire conditions in Gaza they might end up creating a monster that would come to haunt them as well. Yet, in the short term some sort of collaboration with ISIS in the Sinai, is quite a tempting proposition in an effort to break the blockade on Gaza.
New circumstances create new opportunities and new threats induce new alliances. The potential triangle of Egypt, Israel and the Hamas to confront ISIS in the Sinai is an uneasy one. It requires psychological as much as political acceptance that the danger posed by ISIS overrides other enmities. Surely the three sides, considering what we have witnessed elsewhere in the region, must understand that confronting anything resembling ISIS should take first priority.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.