The Arabist podcast is back after a long summer break, hosted by regulars Ursula Lindsey and Ashraf Khalil and featuring Lina Attalah, editor of Mada Masr. We discuss terrorism and military operations in the Sinai peninsula; the Egyptian media's cheering of the army; and the shortcomings of Egypt's new constitution.
The Sinai journalist and fixer Ahmad Abu Daraa (who worked for Al Masry Al Youm and with most foreign reporter traveling to the peninsula) is facing a military trial for publishing false information about the army, filming and photographing in a military zone, and having contacts with terrorist groups.
According to this article, the charges are based not on any published articles by Abu Daraa but on a Facebook post in which he contradicted army account of the bombing of the villages of al-Toma, al-Mokta'a and al-Sheikh Zuwayed. The army says they killed and injured terrorists there; Abu Daraa said they injured four civilians and destroyed half a dozen houses and a mosque. His note has been removed from FB.
Both local and international press is facing significant harassment in Egypt these days.
Note: Thanks to Nour Youssef for looking into this story.
I often choose Fahmy Howeidy's articles to translate in this series not because they are particularly brilliant, but because they are widely read, generally pretty cogent and quite influential on elite opinion. The kidnapping (and subsequent release) of six policemen and one soldier in Sinai last week is one occasion for Howeidy to do what he does well: provide a bigger framework on an issue, analyzing in passing the way the media has handled a crisis while providing some long-term perspective. In the piece below, he looks at the situation in Sinai in the context of Egypt's lingering political crisis, its unresolved strategic approach to the Sinai (and therefore the Israel) question, and more. While elements of the column show his usual moderately pro-Islamist bias (he rightly raises the conspiracy theories and Morsi-bashing of the press, but does not mention that just has some saw a MB-Hamas hand behind the kidnapping, senior MB leaders chose to blame Muhammad Dahlan), what's more significant is his take on the need to restore full Egyptian sovereignty over Sinai and thus revise the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. As he puts it:
the only way to deal with such issues in Sinai is to restore Egypt's complete sovereignty over its territory, while the only way to do that is to re-examine the peace treaty to make it serve Egypt’s security interests, and not just Israel’s.
That, of course, would suggest a renegotiation between the two states. Which means an explicit endorsement of the treaty by the current president, from the Muslim Brotherhood, and presumably an Islamist-led parliament.
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Our friend Anjali Kamat of al-Jazeera has a terrific new documentary on Sinai that was released a week ago — you can watch the whole thing above. It looks at some of the issues regarding the armed militants operating in the territory, whether their threat is exaggerated, continuing heavy-handed repression of local populations by security forces, international interest in the area, and more.
After you watch it, you might want to read Nic Pelham's latest NYRB piece on the peninsula, on the uprising of the Bedouin. Here's what's at stake:
Enriched and empowered by the tunnel economy, Gaza’s Islamists and Sinai’s Bedouin obtained the means to protect their assets, and by 2011 the tribes had stashed sufficient quantities of weapons to arm defense squads large enough to outgun Egypt’s policemen, who are limited by the Camp David Accords to carrying light arms. When Egyptians rose up against Hosni Mubarak’s rule in January 2011, armed Bedouin tribesmen turned on the Egyptian security apparatus, ransacking their bases and chasing them from the peninsula. Freed from the grip of the regime, they enjoyed their first taste of autonomy and regional power in the land bridge linking Africa and Asia.
Two years on, the Bedouin have acquired real power across the peninsula. They have launched raids on Israel, hobbled and threatened to oust the multinational force that is supposed to protect the Egyptian–Israeli peace treaty, and disrupted the region’s supply of gas, which passes via pipeline through their terrain. The Suez Canal on their western borders, through which 8 percent of the world’s sea-borne trade sails, falls within the range of the Bedouins’ antiaircraft missiles; so do shipping lanes in the Mediterranean and Red Sea.
This is an experimental new feature — every weekend, links to some long articles and essays worth reading. Some of these articles may be behind subscription walls.
Nic Pelham writes for Chatham House on the deterioration of security in Sinai:
For over 30 years, the Sinai peninsula has served as a near-empty territory cushioning the geopolitical aspirations of Egypt, Israel and the Palestinians. With the changes brought about in Egypt by President Hosni Mubarak’s fall from power in 2011, that buffer is in doubt. The state security apparatus that underpinned the Egyptian regime collapsed, creating a vacuum that the territory’s sparse Bedouin population quickly filled with coping mechanisms of its own. Captivated by the prospect of acquiring power, local irregulars reacted fiercely to the regime’s efforts to regain control over its periphery, culminating in the August 2012 operation that targeted an Egyptian base, killing 16 soldiers, and perforated Israel’s border defences at the intersection of its border with Egypt and Gaza. Security officials, police stations, government buildings and Cairo-based institutions have all come under attack. In the eyes of its neighbours, Egypt is losing its grip over Sinai, transforming the peninsula into a theatre for the region’s competing new forces.
Dan Brumberg and Hesham Sallam, in a report for USIP:
The most pressing priorities for SSR in Egypt entail disengaging military institutions from political and economic activities that are not relevant to their mission of national defense and subjecting these institutions to meaningful oversight by elected civilian bodies, and transforming the police establishment from a coercive apparatus into an accountable, politi- cally neutral organization that upholds the rule of law and protects human rights. These challenges may seem conceptually distinct, but they are interrelated in a broader politi- cal context, in which the military establishment and other entrenched bureaucracies are attempting to limit the scope of institutional reform. Military interest in attenuating civilian control in a post-Mubarak Egypt seems to have deepened its reliance on the coercive capac- ity of the ministry of interior, which has taken the lead in suppressing popular mobilization. Civilian security forces, sometimes in coordination with the military, repeatedly used deadly force in confrontations with protesters calling for ending SCAF’s rule. The intertwining of institutional interests between the military and the police impedes SSR.
David Shulman asks some tough questions on Pankaj Mishra's much-praised book From The Ruins of Empire [Amazon US, UK], on Rabindranath Tragore, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Ling Qichao the intellectual roots of "Eastern revival":
Are these men, then, among the major “intellectuals who remade Asia”? One thing is clear: all three are fully modern figures, their consciousness shaped primarily by the terms of the modernist crisis and debate. But can we even speak of a broad “Asian” response to the West and the newfangled technologies and concomitant power equations that the West brought to the East—“printing presses, steamships, railways and machine guns,” as Mishra lists them? Living in Jerusalem and traveling often to India, I find it hard to think of Asia as a cultural unit with any integrity. There is, however, one experience that was indeed shared by the Islamic world, India, China, and Japan in the nineteenth century—that of predatory intrusion and sustained economic violation by the Western powers. The forms this intrusion took varied from place to place, but its traumatic effects were common to all the great Asian states and cultures.
Adam Shatz reviews Israeli historian Avi Raz's The Bride and the Dowry [Amazon US, UK], a book about post-1967 Israeli strategy in the Israel-Arab conflict which uses new material to argue that "Israel's postwar diplomacy was deliberately ineffective because its leaders preferred land over peace with its neighbors":
The story of Israeli policy in the late 1960s has been told before, by Tom Segev and Gershom Gorenberg among others. But no one has provided as thorough – or as damning – an account as Avi Raz, a former reporter for Ma’ariv who has read every pertinent document in every available archive, in Hebrew, Arabic and English. The Bride and the Dowry is a work of meticulous scholarship, but it is also an angry book, burning with the sort of righteous (and sometimes repetitious) indignation to which native sons are particularly susceptible. It covers only the first 21 months after the 1967 war, but it tells us everything we need to know about Israeli policy during this ‘critical and formative phase’ of the occupation. It also sheds considerable light on Israeli diplomacy today: its resistance to a deal that would allow for genuine Palestinian sovereignty; its belief that the Americans will always come to Israel’s defence, however much they privately object to land grabs; and its use of protracted negotiations as a means of buying time. Raz’s book is about the conquest of time as much as it is about the conquest of territory: the fruitless peace processing of the last two decades is only the latest chapter of his story.
Ken Auletta writes a fascinating essay on the state of Indian publishing and its advertising-driven editorial practices, with many lessons applicable to developing countries:
While profits have been declining at newspapers in the West, India is one of the few places on earth where newspapers still thrive; in fact, circulation and advertising are rising. In part, this is because many Indian newspapers, following an approach pioneered by the Jain brothers, have been dismantling the wall between the newsroom and the sales department. At the Times of India, for example, celebrities and advertisers pay the paper to have its reporters write advertorials about their brands in its supplementary sections; the newspaper enters into private-treaty agreements with some advertisers, accepting equity in the advertisers’ firms as partial payment. These innovations have boosted the paper’s profits, and are slowly permeating the Indian newspaper industry.
This has been a mounting problem for years in Sinai — is a wholesale part of the terrorism problem in Sinai too. Like in the Sahel, trafficking (often by nomadic pastoralists like the Bedouins or Touareg) often finances extremism.
Like the terrorists in Sinai, Egypt should not negotiate with these people — it should arrest them and shut down their activities by force. This is why Morsi's stupid failed negotiation initiative with jihadists in Sinai was a waste of time.
Geoffrey Aronson makes a good point in this NOREF report:
There is no architecture in place for trilateral (U.S.–Egypt–Israel) or bilateral (U.S.–Egypt, U.S.–Israel, Israel–Egypt) consultations to modify the institutions created to consolidate the Egyptian–Israeli peace treaty or even to exchange views. Changes made under pressure of events have served to undermine rather than fortify strategic stability. More broadly, mechanisms created to consolidate the old order need to be reimagined in order to understand and address the dramatically different contemporary political and security environment.
Those who keep calling for a renegotiation of the treaty — notably the MB — need to decide how exactly it will be renegotiated, especially as they don't like talking to Israelis.
One of the best analyses of the fallout from the Sinai attack I've read, from The Economist, worth a long quote:
For years Hamas has suppressed jihadists groups in Gaza, especially those espousing puritanical Salafist ideals that hark back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad. Hamas sought to prevent them from attacking hairdressers, internet cafés, Christians and other supposedly decadent influences. But it has been less eager to curb their missile attacks on Israel or to stop them infiltrating Egypt.
More recently, however, Hamas has closed the tunnel complex to slow infiltration and gun-running. If Hamas really wants to please the Egyptian government, it would arrest the 200-odd jihadists still at large in Gaza. Hisham Saidini, a jihadist preacher whom Hamas had freed soon after Ramadan started last month, defended the killing of Egypt’s soldiers on the grounds that they were protecting Jews.
Israel, too, will have to let both Egypt’s security forces and those of Hamas in Gaza control their borders more effectively. Israel may have to allow Hamas to operate in a buffer zone along Gaza’s eastern border. Egypt’s air attack on the jihadists on August 8th was the first time that air power had been deployed in anger by Egypt in Sinai since the war with Israel in 1973, and was co-ordinated with Israel in advance. The Israelis say they have had several discreet high-level talks with the Egyptians since Mr Morsi was sworn in a month ago.
The three governments also need to agree on new economic arrangements. For the past five years, the joint Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza that fostered smuggling through the tunnels has hugely benefited people in Sinai who are beyond the law—of any country. Opening the borders to legal traffic and trade should lessen the power of jihadists and smugglers in Sinai and Gaza, and thus strengthen the arm of the governments in Cairo and Jerusalem.
Mr Morsi seems well aware of the dilemma. Egypt’s main military academy and senior civil posts have been opened up to the Bedouin, and plans are afoot to improve the peninsula’s several hundred villages, many of which have no piped water. He had already made a point, early in his presidency, of visiting Sinai. He has also hosted Hamas leaders. Before the Sinai attack, he received Mr Haniyeh and discussed definitively lifting Gaza’s siege.
Israel may also have to consider co-operating with Hamas, its avowed enemy. After the attack on August 5th, Israel’s leaders were careful to blame global jihadists rather than Gazans or Hamas. Although Egypt has yet fully to open the crossing at Rafah, Israel has already reopened its one nearby at Kerem Shalom, for trade if not yet for people. With the influence of Islamists in Syria likely to grow in the event of Bashar Assad’s fall, Israel may have to decide whether to accommodate itself to the likes of Hamas lest a still fiercer version of Islamism comes to the fore.
CAIRO—Hundreds of heavily armed Bedouins, pressing to release kinsmen from Egyptian prisons, have peacefully blockaded a multinational observer mission in Egypt's Sinai Desert for six days, the mission said Thursday.
The mission's approximately 1,600 soldiers from 12 countries including the U.S. are armed, but their primary duty—to oversee compliance with the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty—doesn't allow them to fight the Bedouins. The soldiers are able to ferry people and supplies to and from the base by helicopter.
The desert dwellers are demanding the Egyptian government release their brethren who they say were unfairly convicted by an Egyptian court for alleged attacks in the Sinai cities of Taba in 2004 and in Sharm Al Sheikh the following year. The bombings, which targeted Israeli tourists, killed nearly 100 people.
A couple things on the story:
First, the MFO are the biggest employer in North Sinai. By barricading them, these Bedouins are hurting their own community's interests.
But I find it disturbing that the Egyptian government is actually negotiating with them, not not because that might not be some good reasons to release the people who are now in prison, but also because negotiations reward illegal activity such as barricading the base. Over the last year if not before, this has been the chief approach to the Bedouins' demands: deal with them even if they're breaking the law.
This is clearly what the Bedouins have wanted, and I find this attitude deeply worrisome–just check out the end quote in the story:
But many tribal leaders and activists say the region's residents will not be quiet until the Cairo government respects their unique minority rights.
"This is what happens when city people put the rules over the desert," said Mosaad Abu Fajr, a well-known Bedouin blogger from the Sinai Peninsula. "They need to understand that they need to leave the desert to put its own rules, which won't contradict the laws of the country."
Sinai's Bedouins definitely have legitimate grievances and have suffered from much injustice and neglect, but they shouldn't get to live by their own “desert” rules–they should live under the same rules as everyone else.
I’m not sure how much play this has gotten in the Egyptian media, but the 21 September of the large-circulation Israeli daily Yediot Ahronoth ran a story saying that the Israeli government’s investigation into the Eilat attack revealed the perpetrators were Egyptians — including a serving police officer. The Egyptians are said to have rejected these findings.
Obviously it’s not conclusive — right now it’s just a leak to a local paper — but this might indicate the arguments the Israelis will be making to the Egyptians (and Americans) in the month ahead. It plays into the poor security situation in Sinai and the fear that it might turn into a jihadist training ground.
There are several things worth bearing in mind in this:
- Israel originally said they were Palestinians and used this as a pretext to bombard Gaza. They still claim the Palestinian Popular Resistance Committees of Gaza were the people behind this, subcontracting the job to Sinai-based Egyptians. How that works I’m not sure.
- This boosts the Egyptian argument for greater military presence in Eastern Sinai — or would if they accepted the premise of the report.
- As the Yediot report notes, this now gives the Israelis ammo to push the Egyptians, who are pushing back with the killing of Egyptian border guards that followed the Eilat attack.
- More generally, it raises questions about the radical Islamist groups known to be operating in Central Sinai, how they might be countered, and what the Egyptian military is doing about it through its “Operation Eagle” launched in August. Or indeed, even the possibility that the group was not Islamist all — an outlier possibility.
The full text of the report, translated from the original Hebrew by Israel News Today, is below.
This post is by occasional contributor Dalia Malek, who works on refugee issues in Egypt and whom we hope will continue to provide insights into refugees and migration as well as Egyptian politics. You should also watch Channel Four's recently aired documentary looking at Eritreans in Sinai who tried to sneak into Israel.
Asylum seekers and refugees in Egypt face a threat of deportation to countries where they risk persecution. This violates the cornerstone of international refugee law that prohibits such deportations—the principle of non-refoulement.
Refugees in Sinai have attracted media attention because Egyptian authorities have caught, arrested, shot, or even killed an increased number of those attempting to illegally cross the border from Egypt into Israel.
Others in Sinai have been kidnapped or held hostage by smugglers or traffickers who may have deceived these mainly-Eritrean individuals into believing that they can assist them with entering Israel for a high enough price. There are reports that they have led them as far as Sinai and then held them hostage until they can provide more money; in the meanwhile, they are subjected to torture, rape and other sexual abuses
A bunch of as-yet-unreleased Wikileaks cables have been shared with al-Masri al-Youm and other Egyptian newspapers, which will start releasing them today and over the rest of the week.
For English coverage check out al-Masri al-Youm's site, which already has stories about how the Gaza-Egypt wall is due to be completed this month:
“The MOD had frequently discussed this project with us since the beginning of the year, but only recently received the corrugated steel sheets,” reads the document. “It is unknown, however, if the wall will be effective at deterring smuggling in the long-run, as the steel sheets are basic construction-grade material that can be cut using a tool like a blow torch.”
The document references international, regional and local press reports that criticize the wall for representing Egyptian support for Israeli security, describing them as “erroneously stating the wall is a US-funded project.”
The document also reveals the US has provided technical support for the installation of the tunnel detection system, which was due to be finished by the US Army Corps of Engineers and handed over to the Egyptian military in April 2010..
I've long believed the wall financing issue was set up to create US deniability that it was financing the wall. The cable says it cost $40m — not much compared to the $1bn and more of US military aid — and its most expensive technological component, the detection system, was US provided. So yes, it is US-backed and financed.
In another cable, US diplomats get warnings from Sinai Bedouins that the wall will radicalize the peninsula. More to come...
Who's firing rockets from Sinai? asks Michael Dunn, and it's a good question. The Egyptians, saying their border with Israel is heavily monitored, first said no but then implied Palestinian groups were in fact launching them from Sinai by launching a sweep. The Jordanians, who are on the receiving end of many of these rockets that appear to aimed at the Israeli port of Eilat, claim to have proof they're coming from Egypt but haven't divulged it. The Israelis blame "the Khamas" and Hamas calls Egypt's allegation that Palestinian groups may be involved "unprofessional" and without evidence. The speculation in the Cairo papers — based on security sources — that a Palestinian group with an indirect affiliation with Hamas may be responsible.
It's all rather confusing, but assuming the rockets were fired from Sinai there is another alternative: that we are seeing the revival of the Palestinian / Bedouin groups that operated in the Sinai over the last decade and are believed to be responsible for the 2004-2006 wave of bombings of tourist destinations in the Peninsula. Or a new radicalization of purely Bedouin groups in the area. Or Palestinian militants going into Sinai from Gaza through the tunnels. That's for the whodunnit. There's also the question of where did they get these rockets from? Are they part of the arsenal allegedly being smuggled into Gaza from Egypt, or smuggled from Gaza into Sinai? No matter where you stand on the question of the anti-smuglling wall, this incident will lend credence to the arguments that having Sinai as a trans-shipment venue for weapons to Gaza adds proliferation risks to Egypt itself.
Also, although it's an outlier, perhaps one should not dismiss the idea that these rockets may not be unrelated to the general unrest among Sinai's Bedouin population, which has seen disgruntled groups block roads and attack tourism sites in the last month. Egypt's Sinai problem has been a slowly brewing mix of problems for a good decade now, and the regional situation only adds to it.
My experience as a detainee is infinite, it is like fate which one has to adjust himself to. The conditions in Egyptian prisons are unendurable. The way inmates are received is cruel. I was not exposed to sunlight until my family came to visit me. We remained confined in our cells for 20 days, and were only allowed out within the one meter that separates the cells. The atmosphere there is filled with the odors of death and silence, and empty of any signs of hope.
Worst of all is the process of searching the prisons. At such times, we are treated as objects or animals rather than humans. Officers goad us with their sticks, forcing us to put our hands on our heads as they drive us out of our cells. Then we have to gather all our belongings into one pile and spend a whole day searching for them. These conditions do not suit Egypt’s name and history.
As for me, I was put in a cell with inmates sentenced to life. Imagine a cell originally devoted to six inmates but containing more than 60, with prisoners sleeping in shifts.
Some interesting stuff happening in Sinai in recent weeks — notably Minister of Interior Habib al-Adly's meeting with tribal elders. About the time the bull was seized by the horns: Egypt had allowed this situation to fester for far too long, largely because the faults of the Interior Ministry (brutality, etc.) went unpunished. Al-Adly deserves to be sacked many times over for various things — the general decline of police work and torture epidemic, his lackluster counter-terrorism policies, his inability or unwillingness to reform a central state institution — but his handling of Sinai may be the most serious crime of all, from a national security point of view. His political longevity is one of the great mysteries of today's Egypt.
Victims of the torrential flooding that inundated the city of Arish two weeks ago in the northern Sinai Peninsula were forced by police to evacuate their makeshift tents during a visit Sunday by First Lady Suzanne Mubarak.
The media, meanwhile, was barred from covering the visit, while the road from the airport to municipality headquarters--where Mrs. Mubarak met with the governor of North Sinai--was closed completely.
"They left us here with no food or water," said Raqia, who lost her home to the recent floods. "And now they want to move us out."