The Pharoah vs the Caliph


The jihadists swear loyalty to al-Baghdadi and unite under the Islamic State of Sinai.


Since the Sinai returned under Egyptian rule in 1982, the state has failed to promote any development policies for the north of the peninsula, large sections of which have no access to drinking water or electricity. For decades, the inhabitants of North Sinai have suffered discrimination and repressive policies under successive governments. And since the 1990s, jihadist movements have been exploiting the local population’s resentment.

From the 1973 Yom Kippur War onwards, the Sinai has been a pawn in relations between Israel and Egypt, but also within Egypt’s own internal politics. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi based his credibility on the fight against the terrorist threat in Sinai. His claim to fame came in May 2013 (as defence minister) with the successful release of seven kidnapped policemen. From then on, his rise has been unstoppable. As a ’man of the people’, he ousted the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi from his role as president in July 2013 before securing election as president himself in May 2014.

The recent Gaza war and al-Sisi’s role in the ceasefire negotiations held in Cairo have helped to revive Egypt’s standing as an international mediator, restoring relations with Israel and the trust of the Americans, particularly after last November’s announcement that granted Israel the opportunity to establish a ‘buffer zone’ along the Egyptian border with Gaza (500m by 13km at first, now expanded to 1km by 13km). 

The 10,000 refugees from Rafah sheltering in  tents and shantytowns near the North Sinai governorate’s  capital, al-Arīsh, have now been joined  by those fleeing the military offensive ongoing  since July 2013. According to local sources, nothing  remains between the cities of Rafah and  Sheikh Zuweid but the ruins of Bedouin villages  that are now used as strategic bases by the jihadis.  Following the 2011 revolution, the Bedouin  tribal fabric disintegrated significantly with  changes in the crony relationship between state  and tribes. Tribal heads have lost their power on  the ground and many members of the weaker  families, attracted by weapons and power, have  gravitated to the jihadis, who are seen as having  greater resolve than the clans or the state.

This context enabled the jihadi militant group  Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (ABM) to form and evolve.  It was initially conceived in 2011 as an umbrella  organisation for all jihadi groups in North Sinai  with the express purpose of boycotting Egyptian-Israeli relations. Once the government embarked  on Operation Sinai, the ABM concentrated its attacks  almost exclusively on the Egyptian state. On  14 November 2014, the group swore allegiance to  Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and to the Islamic State  (IS), changing its name to Wilayat Sinai or State  of Sinai. 

The jihadis now aim to extend the Caliphate  across Egypt and to target the embassies of countries  involved in the US-led coalition operating in  Syria and Iraq. On the one hand, Wilayat Sinai’s  alliance with IS gives the Egyptian armed forces  reason to escalate their interventions in North  Sinai, yet on the other hand, it guarantees the  group access to considerable finance, training and support in spreading the IS brand. This also  means a larger recruiting basin, not from abroad  but from inside Egypt where many disillusioned  youngsters view IS as an alternative to the repression  they suffer in their own country. 

For the most part, the main active cells are  local. They number around 3,000 according to  Egyptian security service sources, though Sinai  experts put that figure closer to a couple of  dozen. Operations have a local emphasis too and  new developments are emerging in this sphere.  On 5 January 2015, Wilayat Sinai distributed  compensation to civilians whose houses had  been destroyed to create the buffer zone, proof  that the jihadis have now added the tools of propaganda  and welfare provision to their armoury. 

Egypt’s response remains confined to its antiterrorist  operations, a battle that has garnered  praise for al-Sisi from Western governments,  though these actions have often turned out to be inefficient and counter-productive. According to  sources close to military intelligence, al-Sisi appears  to have pensioned off people with decades  of experience in counter-terrorism in Sinai, and  even though the operations are carried out in  desert or mountainous conditions, he has only  rarely deployed special forces. The fight against  terrorism is being spearheaded by foot soldiers  from North Sinai, terrified out of their wits and  poorly trained. They open fire on anything that  moves, knowing full well that, “if you kill civilians  in Sinai, it is not a problem for the military”. 

After all, so long as the terrorist threat remains,  the political legitimacy of the current government  is also in the balance.