In Translation: Sinai has been kidnapped

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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Sinai Has Been Kidnapped

Fahmy Howeidy, al-Shorouk, 21 May 2013

We are now facing two issues, not just one: the issue of seven Egyptian soldiers kidnapped in Sinai, as well as the fact that Sinai itself has been kidnapped from Egypt. When we focus on the former without the latter, we direct our attention to the symptom and ignore the root cause of the disease. 

(1)

Over the last two years, Sinai has abounded in incidents that make it apparent that the rule of arms is supplanting the rule of law, while indicators of a coming clash with the authorities loom on the horizon. I am not suggesting that Sinai was the scene of calm prior to this period; however, there is no doubt that the level of violence has increased since the revolution. I believe that the winds of rebellion have always blown through Sinai as a result of Egypt’s security policy over the last several decades, with residents of the Sinai being treated as suspects. Whenever bombings occur in tourist areas such as in Sharm al-Sheikh, the security apparatus applies a "dragnet" approach that rounds up hundreds of innocent Sinai residents in the hope of finding the perpetrators among them. They are then treated inhumanely and brutally to get them to talk. What security personnel forget, however, is that these people belong to clans and tribes over whom the state has no power, and it is this mistreatment that has been the main factor in their mounting thirst for vengeance against the authorities. 

My uncle Amin Howeidy, former Minister of Defense and chief of General Intelligence, maintained close relations with a number of tribal sheikhs in the Sinai from his days as an officer in the Border Guard, relationships which continued up until his death in 2009. He had his own perspective on how to deal with Sinai, which can be summed up as follows: ever since the police came to the fore and Sinai turned into a security situation handled by the (former) State Security, the relationship between the authorities and the local community in Sinai deteriorated.  Sinai residents saw a rude and harsh side of the Egyptian state that they were not accustomed to, and so they recoiled from it and resisted it in their own way. Howeidy's opinion was that the army in Sinai simply guarded the border, and was on friendly terms with the people. On the other hand, the police dealt with Sinai residents only as criminals, and used repressive methods with them. As he put it, state control – which had become oppressive – receded, while the tribal control that protected residents grew.

Over the last two years, several clashes and acts of outright insurrection have occurred one after the other, as follows: 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed in Rafah; an international peacekeeping base was attacked; another attack struck the neighborhood of al-Zohur in the city of Sheikh Zuweid; an army checkpoint was assaulted in the region of al-Awga which left seven injured; an Armed Forces cement factory was attacked in central Sinai; a police officer was killed and a soldier was injured in an attack on Nekhel police station; an army checkpoint at El-Arish airport was attacked; and lastly, seven soldiers were kidnapped near the city of El-Arish. 

(2)

Over the last four decades, during which the Sinai Peninsula has become merely a security situation, the social geography of the area has remained as unfamiliar to the authorities as its physical geography, whose trails, peaks and hideouts are known only to the local inhabitants. With the authorities absent, information about what really goes on in Sinai has also remained scarce. One sign of that, for example, is that the natural gas pipeline to Israel has been blown up 14 times without anyone being able to pinpoint who was responsible. It is only natural that such an environment should become a den of crime and smuggling, and a haven for Salafi and jihadist groups. To my knowledge, although the relevant agencies in Cairo are aware of this, they know nothing of the size, scale or location of such activities. For example, I have been told that there are 16 jihadist bases in the Sinai, but their exact size and location are unknown. 

Because of the haze that surrounds social realities in Sinai, a number of the country’s analysts and politicians -- not to mention the media -- have been quick to connect events in Sinai with those in the Gaza Strip and suggest that Hamas is somehow involved. For some, the solution to problems occurring throughout Sinai has been to close the Rafah border crossing and intensify the campaign to destroy underground tunnels leading into Gaza. This is what was done this time, as has been done time and again in the past. Indeed, some official statements have rushed to accuse Hamas of involvement in any incident that takes place in Sinai. This was the case after the death of 16 Egyptian soldiers last year, as it is now after the recent kidnapping of 7 soldiers. The crossing was closed by an administrative decision, and troops from the Central Security Forces headed to the crossing to lock it down, which they did while chanting anti-Hamas slogans. Thus it has been the Gaza Strip and Hamas that have had to pay the price for the deteriorating situation next door.

Moreover, if it had not been the case that all the evidence indicated that this recent kidnapping was purely a Sinai affair – as even the kidnappers themselves admitted – analysts and media outlets would not have ruled out Hamas or Palestinian involvement. This was confirmed by Egypt’s military spokesman, who denied that the matter was linked to Hamas or Gaza in a press conference held on 17 May. 

(3)

We also cannot separate what happened in Sinai from the prevailing climate in Egypt, as the country’s security policy has cast a shadow over relations between the authorities and Sinai society. The security vacuum that Egypt has endured since the revolution has emboldened people to confront the authorities, challenge their prestige, disregard institutions and cast aside the values of law and order. All these developments have had echoes in Sinai, and it is not unlikely that they have contributed to the increase in the number of challenges being made to state authority.  After all, this recent incident is not that different from what we see happening on a daily basis across Egypt (Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, and Port Said, for example). The only difference is that in this case it is soldiers being kidnapped and not ordinary citizens. 

In this context, we should be shocked at the stances taken by Egypt’s elites and various media outlets toward the recent incident. Some have used it to point fingers at President Morsi and ramp up attacks in order to score point amid the current state of polarization. At the same time, however, they claim that these recent events are part of a conspiracy. Various statements have been made by the country’s political activists, who persist in claiming that President Morsi is the main person responsible for what happened in Sinai, whether because he is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and did nothing to protect the troops, or because he granted pardons to certain people convicted in political cases. They allege that these pardons included people considered to be terrorists by the former regime, who have now infiltrated Sinai and returned to their old ways. Others claim that those responsible for the kidnapping are members of the Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi’s own tribe. One newspaper recently quoted a statement attributed to an armed forces representative, who said that Morsi should either prove that he is serious about dealing with the crisis or resign from office. 

Those who adhere to the conspiracy theory say that the kidnapping of the seven soldiers took place just 24 hours before a planned protest was set to occur calling for the overthrow of President Morsi, and was therefore orchestrated to distract people from the protests. Others say that the aim of the kidnapping was to embarrass the army and tarnish its image amid growing calls for it to once again assume power, which had made it appear to be the savior of the nation. Therefore, the kidnapping was orchestrated in an attempt to defame the army and portray it as weak and unable to perform its primary function. 

One commonly recurring notion is that the kidnapping operation is a ruse to get rid of [Minister of Defense] Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, This notion draws its inspiration from Morsi's previous actions after 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed at Rafah, after which he dismissed SCAF Chairman Lieut. Gen. Tantawi and dissolved the Military Council. One newspaper recently captured this idea in the front-page headline, “Muslim Brotherhood Seizes Opportunity to Oust al-Sisi,” while another reported that an alleged military source said: “The army will not let Chairman [of SCAF] Sisi be ousted, and the Tantawi scenario will not recur under the pretext of kidnapped troops.” 

(4)

I have four observations on the current state of affairs:

Egypt's current political polarization and conflict has not allowed us to develop a clear, national vision for how best to deal with this conflict.  The country’s political elite and various opposition media outlets exploited this crisis merely in order to win political points, such that the question posed was not "How do we solve the underlying problems to avoid a repeat of this crisis and allow the state to regain its prestige in Sinai?" but "How can we best exploit the current situation to embarrass President Mohamed Morsi and tarnish his image, in order to help undermine his legitimacy and topple him?" If this analysis is correct, it shows how flawed Egypt’s political environment is.

The idea that Sinai has been kidnapped, and that Egypt does not exercise full sovereignty over all its territory -- which is a crucial issue in this matter – did not gain as much traction as it should have in the debate about the incident. It is as if people have become so preoccupied with the details of the moment that they have avoided looking at the strategic big picture. Most probably, the level of silence seen regarding the source of the problem and the root cause of the disease goes back to fears about raising an issue that will re-open the door to discussions regarding Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, and the situation that has resulted from it, which needs to be reviewed by the post-revolution regime. Perhaps these people fear that re-opening such a debate will bring with it negative consequences, shedding light on issues they would rather pass over in silence and ignore. It should be noted that 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. 

What we need most right now is two essential things: first, courageous political will to deal firmly with acts of aggression directed at the honor and prestige of the state. This is in addition to making the Egyptian people aware of what must be done and the real circumstances that are tying the authorities' hands and preventing them from defending the country's higher interest. Secondly, we need a careful, responsible opposition that rises above its bitterness and score-settling to serve the national interest. They would thereby play the role of the constructive, pro-active opposition, and not the coup-minded opposition that is obsessed with toppling the current regime if not taking its place, even if this happens through undemocratic means. 

Finally, I would warn against relying on the military and security solution and neglecting the political solution. I would hope that we have already learned some lessons about that approach, which engenders bitterness and hatreds that complicate the problems rather than solve them, despite the fact that at first glance it may seem to be the easiest and most effective option. However, the problem with the political solution is that it requires wisdom and foresight, something that I'm afraid we disregard in our current state of affairs, so much so that we adopt the slogan that "Repression is the solution." I hope that the decision-makers keep in mind that the last cure is cauterizing. With all the agitation and mobilization we're seeing now, I'm afraid we've adopted as our first solution what should be our last resort.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.