The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged sinai
Hamas, the Islamic State, and the Gaza–Sinai Crucible

Interesting summary, by Benedetta Berti and Zack Gold, of the quandary Hamas finds itself in with regards to the Islamic State's supporters in Gaza and Sinai:

In sum, the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip is actively involved in keeping the broader Salafi-jihadi camp from stirring up internal trouble or goading Israeli action against the strip, which includes preventing strong ties between Gaza- and Sinai-based jihadis. Likewise, to end its isolation, Hamas’s political leaders also hope to reverse a deterioration of relations with Egypt, even though the group’s military leaders are deepening their relations with some figures within the very same Salafi-jihadi camp that is fighting Egypt—and which Hamas is fighting in Gaza. This is because the ongoing economic restrictions and aggressive campaign against the tunnel economy have given Hamas’s military wing a powerful incentive to deal with any group—jihadi, criminal, or both—that could provide the weapons and financial resources it needs. In this sense, the Hamas–IS relationship is primarily driven by economic transactions. Such ties, however, also result in ad hoc cooperation, and according to Egyptian and Israeli intelligence sources, the Qassam Brigades are selling or providing weapons and offering training to IS-linked fighters with the goal of clearing its “lifeline” passage. 

So much of the mess in Sinai (and of course Gaza) is due to this disastrous blockade.

AsidesThe Editorshamas, IS, sinai, gaza
US reviewing its participation in MFO in Sinai

A potential big deal, but it seems unlikely that the US would actually withdraw, even temporarily, from the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) in Sinai. That being said, the MFO are in an increasingly precarious position with reports of attacks on or near their bases in Sinai (the MFO are extremely discreet, and I'm not sure such attacks have been acknowledged publicly). The chances Islamic State Sinai Province would target them are not negligible, if they haven't already, and some of the peacekeepers are requesting heavier weaponry. From AP's report:

Armed primarily with light weapons, armored personnel carriers and similarly limited materiel, the forces lack the capacity to take on Islamic State or other militants across the sparsely populated, desert territory. As a result, officials said, the Obama administration has been conducting an “inter-agency review” of the US posture in the Sinai.
The talks have included an examination of ways to bolster the safety of the Americans there, possibly by bringing in additional equipment to better secure positions, according to senior administration officials familiar with the discussions. But the debate also has encompassed the question of bringing the US peacekeepers home, said the officials, who weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the subject and demanded anonymity.
Although the Camp David Accords, which led to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, legally mandate the presence of the two American military units, the US can remove them — at least temporarily — if they’re in imminent danger. Still, such action could have major political implications. One official said the US does not currently believe there is an imminent threat facing the peacekeepers.
Egyptian militants outwit army in Sinai battlefield | Reuters

Rare, grim, first-hand reporting from Sinai by Reuters:

(Reuters) - Egypt's army says it is crushing Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula, but in the region's villages and towns a victory for the state feels a long way off.
In a rare visit to eight villages in Northern Sinai last week, a Reuters reporter saw widespread destruction caused by army operations, but also found evidence that a few hundred militants are successfully playing a cat-and-mouse game with the Arab world's biggest army and are nowhere near defeat. It is increasingly difficult for foreign correspondents to openly enter conflict zones in the Sinai.

Residents say the militants - a mix of Egyptian Islamists, foreign fighters and disgruntled youth - have seized control of about a third of the villages in the region and are now taking their fight closer to Cairo.

"The army is in control of the main roads but is unable to enter many villages. It can only attack them by helicopter," said Mustafa Abu Salman, who lives near al-Bars village.

"Even when the army's armored personnel vehicles enter villages they fail to arrest militants who have better knowledge of the place, which the military completely lacks."

Many residents say that the authorities' military operations are actually creating new enemies for the state.

Worth reading the whole thing, which is somewhat reminiscent of the 2004-2006 debate about regular military vs. counter-insurgency techniques in Iraq.

30,000 trafficked in Sinai

A guest post from contributor Parastou Hassouri, who lives in Cairo, works in the field of international refugee law, and specializes in issues of gender and migration.

Photo of central Sinai courtesy of  Shutterstock

Photo of central Sinai courtesy of Shutterstock

On Wednesday night, the report The Human Trafficking Cycle: Sinai and Beyond, was launched in Cairo (it was launched simultaneously in several other cities including Tel Aviv, Brussels, and Lampedusa). The 238-page report is based on interviews with 230 trafficking survivors:  persons who survived the hellish ordeal of being kidnapped, held hostage and tortured brutally in the Sinai. It is a follow-up to a 2012 report, Human Trafficking in the Sinai: Refugees between Life and Death

I was first alerted to the issue of human smuggling and trafficking in the Sinai around 2007.  At the time, I was working at the NGO Africa Middle East Refugee Assistance (AMERA).  The issue most often came up when we had to assist those who had been apprehended trying to reach the Sinai (and would be detained by Egyptian authorities, even if they were registered with the UNHCR as refugees). Back then, most of the cases we dealt with involved refugees who were voluntarily crossing the Sinai in hopes of reaching Israel, where they expected to find more work opportunities and perhaps an easier way of reaching Europe. Our biggest concern was the fact that Egyptian authorities in the Sinai were using lethal force to stop this “irregular migration,” which had resulted in numerous fatalities. There was a belief, at the time, that the Egyptian authorities were only responding to pressure being placed upon them by Israelis to stem the flow of migrants. I remember spending a lot of time advising clients against making the journey, telling them the risks were not worth it (especially as so many of them faced detention once in Israel anyway).

Over the course of months, we started to hear about situations involving hostage taking: that the smugglers who had promised to take the refugees, asylum seekers or other migrants to the Sinai would inform them mid-trip that they were being kept hostage until they could pay them more money than initially demanded.  However, the situation was one that still started out “voluntarily”:  the migrants were choosing to undertake the journey, despite the risks. The numbers choosing this route seemed to increase as the number of refugees being resettled to third countries (i.e. the U.S. and Canada) declined (this started during a period when the resettlement of Iraqis had taken priority for political reasons).The people going were from different countries:  Sudan, Ethiopia, and often Eritrea. I once assisted two men from the Ivory Coast who had been detained after being abandoned by their smuggler, when he realized he had no chance of getting more money out of them. Looking at the turn things have taken, those men are lucky they lived. 

In the years since, the human trafficking networks appear to have gotten more extensive and definitely more brutal. 

Although there are still cases of smuggling that have turned into involuntary imprisonment, there has been an alarming rise in the number of cases that start out as kidnapping. The victims are actually abducted and forcibly transported to the Sinai – sometimes the abduction takes place in Sudan, especially in Eastern Sudan near the Shagarab refugee camp. The authors of the report also interviewed individuals who were kidnapped within Eritrea.    

According to the authors, between 2007 and 2013, some 25,000 to 30,000 persons have been trafficked in the Sinai.

The other thing that astounded me was the amount of money the kidnappers are now demanding in ransom.  In some cases, ransoms of 30,000 and 40,000 US dollars are being demanded.  Again, the authors estimate that some 600 million US dollars have been collected in ransom by traffickers over the past several years.

The prime targets for these kidnappings are Eritreans (and most of the survivors interviewed were Eritrean). The authors posit several reasons for this.  First, the kidnappers choose Eritreans because the extensive Eritrean diaspora makes it more likely that the victim has relatives abroad who have the financial means to pay the ransom. The authors believe that another reason for this is the involvement of some Eritrean authorities and military officials in the trafficking network (especially given that some of these abductions are happening inside Eritrea). 

The victims are transported from Eritrea to Sudan, and then taken by boat to Egypt, where they are handed off to others who bring them to Sinai and hold them hostage until ransom is collected. Some are held hostage in “torture houses” that seem to have been specifically constructed for this purpose – for example, they feature hooks on the ceilings from which the kidnapped are hung as they are beaten.

Those who are able to pay their ransom are released. Many who are unable to are either shot, or tortured and left with no medical treatment until they die. 

The launch of the report included some readings of testimonies from trafficking survivors, who recounted in gruesome details the torture to which they are subjected while held hostage. The traffickers sometimes place calls to their relatives as they torture them, in an effort to make sure the ransom is paid. The tortures include beatings, burning of the skin, electrocution, and sexual violence. 

Some of these trafficking survivors had initially thought about attending the launch to testify about their experience in person. However, at the launch, we were informed that the survivors were concerned about their safety, since even those who are now in Cairo live in fear of their traffickers. There were also reports that there were concerns about Egyptian state security. 

Instead of testifying in person, parts of their testimony were read. Also, we were shown one video of a survivor’s testimony (although the person’s face had been obscured).

Ahmed About Deraa, a reporter from the Sinai who has been following the situation, also attended the launch. He showed several extremely graphic photographs and some film footage showing some of the survivors bearing terrible scars and disfigurements caused by the torture. 

Abou Deraa spoke of the efforts of one local Sheikh, someone he referred to as Sheikh Mohammed, who has been trying to assist some of the persons who either manage to escape or are let go after ransom is collected. 

He also spoke a bit about the situation since June 30, 2013.  According to Abou Deraa, the military operations taking place in the Sinai since June 30th have led to the army raiding some of the “torture houses” and to the release of some of the kidnapped. Unfortunately, the people who have been “saved” are simply put into detention and charged with “illegal entry” into Egypt.  Apparently, approximately 144 such individuals are currently in detention in Egypt. The Egyptian authorities want to repatriate them back to Eritrea, but expects the kidnapped to pay for their tickets back. 

Although Abou Deraa seemed to think that there have been fewer cases of kidnapping and hostage taking since 30 June, 2013, those presenting the report seemed to think that the current situation in the Sinai may simply pushing kidnappers to use different routes. 

Lastly, even for those who are released by the kidnappers or somehow manage to escape on their own, the situation remains dire. They can try to reach Israel, which is quite difficult in light of the fence the Israelis have constructed. Once inside Israel, the migrants are subjected to the Anti-Infiltration Law which means months of detention. 

The other option is to come to Cairo, where the survivors continue to live in fear of the traffickers/kidnappers (some report getting threatening phone calls from them), and where the limited opportunities to work or study, combined with xenophobic attitudes (heightened since 30 June) and racism, make life very difficult. 

Also, these young men and women are suffering from extreme trauma, and though some are receiving some psychological counseling and support, the scale of abuse is great and the resources in Cairo are limited. 

Technically, as survivors of torture, refugees who have been kidnapped and held hostage in the Sinai should be prioritized for resettlement to third countries. The UNHCR does refer some of these cases for resettlement, but the process of resettlement is cumbersome and lengthy. Resettlement to the United States, for example, can take more than a year.

The situation described above has been going on for a number of years. It seems hard to believe that abuse of this scale can be happening with nothing really being done to address it. It seems especially hard to comprehend this, considering that some of the traffickers are identified by name in the report, that millions of dollars are being wired and exchanging hands, and that calls are being made to relatives and being received by the refugees from the traffickers. It seems like the authorities could identify and arrest at least some of the agents involved in this vicious and brutal cycle, if the political will to do something existed. It seems hard to believe that people could be kidnapped from Eritrea, taken through the Sudan and into Egypt – three countries with extensive state security networks – without any sort of detection. 

In fact, the horror of the situation is such that there was an element of incredulity on the part of some in the audience. The report was presented to a fairly large audience, most of whom were foreigners, but which included some Egyptians. As far as I noticed, the only people who asked questions tinged with skepticism were Egyptians. 

In response to one survivor’s testimony of being harassed by Egyptians in Cairo, one young man asked, almost incredulously, why an Eritrean would be harassed by Egyptians? He even said something like: “Are they wearing particular costumes that are making them stand out?” He could not bring himself to believe that the man’s foreignness and skin color would subject someone to taunts in Egypt. 

Some wondered how it could be that people were being kidnapped across borders and into the Sinai with all its checkpoints without the authorities stopping it. 

Indeed, the more one learns about the situation, the more convinced one becomes that the situation must be taking place with the complicity of officials. The report itself suggests that at least in Eritrea, military officials themselves have been implicated in the trafficking.

The launch was attended by some Egyptian journalists. One can only hope that media coverage of the issue in Egyptian papers (which so far has been virtually nonexistent) will bring more attention to the issue (and help also in countering attitudes of incredulity towards the problem).

Given recent events in Egypt, the political uncertainty and turmoil, the economic problems, people’s concern about increasing insecurity, it seems like the issue of the trafficking of African migrants across the Sinai is the last thing some may want to hear about. 

But horror of this scale cannot go on, and no one in Egypt should be unaware that it is happening. 











Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s Sinai campaign

No wonder the army wants to maintain a media black-out and its war on terrorism in Sinai:

Thirty-year-old Naeem, from the village of Muqataa, also appears to be a victim of these rising tensions. (Again, Naeem and his family asked that their surnames not be used.) Naeem and his mother, Hessa, said six army officers entered and ransacked their home on Sept. 22. They took his laptops, legal titles, television, two gas cylinders, his wife’s makeup, gold, and cash. They helped themselves to water in the fridge, and put pillowcases on the heads of Naeem’s 6-month-old twins when they cried. Then they burned his house to the ground. His home and his car repair shop were two of the buildings I saw blackening the sky with smoke the day before. The walls of his family’s home were still smoldering. Others villagers reported similar behavior.


Egypt and the Gaza tunnels

Jared Malsin, reporting for Mada Masr: 

“On the Palestinian side, they’re just watching the destruction on the Egyptian side,” says Mohammed Omer, a Palestinian journalist, describing the scene in Palestinian Rafah. “There is quite tight control. The Egyptian military are controlling across the borderline, which means they [the smugglers] cannot really operate, even if they can operate freely from the Gaza side,” he says.

On the Palestinian side, they’re just watching the destruction on the Egyptian side By all accounts, the Egyptian military’s current operation has paralyzed the vast majority of the tunnel system. Of an estimated 300 tunnels operating before June 2013, approximately 10 were operating on September 21, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian affairs. The quantity of goods moving through the tunnels is 15 percent of what it was in June.

AsidesThe Editorsgaza, tunnels, sinai, egypt
Sinai journalist in military court

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.  

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. 

Our In Translation series is made possible with the support of the industrious Arabists over at Industry Arabic. Do try them out.

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. 


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. 


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. 


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.” 


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.

Faultlines and Pelham on Sinai

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.

Weekend long reads

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.

1. Sinai: The Buffer Erodes 

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.

2. The Politics of Security Sector Reform in Egypt 

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.

On a related note, see this NYT piece by Kareem Fahim on the issue of police reform, and this report by the One World Foundation on the same topic.

 3. The Revenge of the East? 

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.

4. Indecision as Strategy 

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.

5. Why India’s Newspaper Industry Is Thriving

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.

Sinai's human traffic horror

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.

Sinai moves to centre-stage

Sinai moves to centre-stage 

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.

Egypt, Israel and Sinai: The need for triangular co-operation

✚ Egypt, Israel and Sinai: The need for triangular co-operation

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.

On the attacks in Sinai

The attack that took place yesterday on a checkpoint on Egypt's border with Gaza and Israel is a serious escalation of armed activity in the Sinai Peninsula, with a wide range of consequences on the young presidency of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's relationship with both Israel and the Hamas government in Gaza, as well as the question of who controls Egypt's foreign and national security policy: the president, the intelligence services, the military, the ministry of foreign affairs, or all of the above (up till now, on diplomacy at least, Egypt had a dual foreign policy: one run by the presidency, another by SCAF/Intelligence — it was not going to last without some confrontation.)

This post serves as my initial notes on the incident.


Just around sunset on Sunday, as soldiers prepared to sit for iftar, three 4x4 vehicles (Toyota Land Cruisers, commonly used in the area) raided two checkpoints manned by Border Guards and Central Security Forces at Massoura, just south of the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula. Sixteen officers and conscripts were killed in the ensuing firefight and five more wounded, while an unconfirmed eight assailants were killed. The firefight took place using automatic weapons, mortars and RPGs. Two lightly armored personnel carriers were stolen by the attackers, which then headed to the Karm Abu Salem crossing (a tripartite crossing between Egypt, Israel and Gaza through which most humanitarian goods go through under Israeli supervision). According to the Israelis, the first vehicle was made to explode as a diversion while the second vehicle headed into Israel. It was destroyed by an Israeli Apache helicopter after opening fire on Israeli border patrols. Egyptian troops also followed the attackers to the border and engaged with them there, reportedly arresting some of them.


  • North Sinai has been placed in a state of emergency, with the military reinforcing its positions at the border. The Rafah crossing has been closed indefinitely, with angry residents of Egyptian Rafah also taking part in sealing the border. Attack helicopters have been dispatched to the border area (I'm not sure about this, but this may be the first time Egypt takes full advantage of a 2011 agreement with the Israelis to increase deployment along the border — previously, the Egyptian military did not use the full options they had under the agreement.)

  • The checkpoints along the Suez Canal have been reinforced and are subject to extra controls, as are those inside the two Sinai governorates. There are ongoing searches in both Israel and Egypt for accomplices, Egyptian Rafah is encircled by the army, and reports that Israel has also shelled Gaza soon after the attack.

  • SCAF and President Morsi, meeting last night after the attack, have both vowed to find the culprits and avenge the fallen, with Morsi adding that there is "no room in Egypt for this type of aggression and criminality." The Armed Forces say they will pursue the attackers "inside Egypt and abroad." Morsi also visited Rafah on Monday night.

  • Security sources have leaked to the press that the perpetrators came from Sinai-based groups as well as well as Gaza-based groups.

  • Political parties and revolutionary movements from across the political spectrum have denounced the attacks and expressed their solidarity with the army.

  • Israel is said to have warned of attacks in the last few days, while jihadist videos of military exercises in Sinai had circulated online. Minister of Defense Ehud Barak addressed the Knesset today, the NYT reports:

“I think that the risk of a very large terrorist attack was averted,” Mr. Barak told Parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday morning, “and this was a very important operational success in the battle that is raging there and maybe a proper wake-up call for the Egyptians to take matters into their own hands on their side in a stronger manner.”

  • Hamas has strongly condemned the attack as a "heinous crime" while some Hamas figures suggested it was carried out by Israel to sow discord between Egypt and Palestinians. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's own website has expressed suspicion that Mossad is behind the attack, according to Reuters. Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren has blamed Iran, even though his own government said al-Qaeda was responsible (and since Oren retracted his comments.)


This deadly Sinai attack in many respects makes no sense: what exactly were the perpetrators trying to accomplish? Attacking a checkpoint, stealing Egyptian army and security vehicles and making a run for Israel to attack border guards there? If this was their plan, while it may have been deadly it would have hardly achieved any substantial objective — either as a terrorist attack (there have been reports of much more damaging attacks on Israeli civilians by persons going through Sinai in the past) or as an act of defiance. But one cannot know what those people think, especially when we don't know who they are or what they represent (to my knowledge, no group has taken credit.) Terrorists are not necessarily smart.

But let us consider the context:

  • A Muslim Brotherhood president in Egypt has vowed to further open the Rafah border and tighten relations with Hamas-controlled Gaza. Morsi is also reported to be considering a trip to Iran at the end of the month, a first for an Egyptian president in 30 years. There is a desire to end the blockade in Gaza and normalize Hamas' status. Hamas has given Egypt — or its allies there, the Muslim Brothers — peace and quiet on the eastern front for over a year to ensure that their positions are not weakened.

  • Palestinian reconciliation is not really making any progress, and the Palestinian Authority is worried about the new Egyptian president. Radical groups in Gaza that are being held back by Hamas, which does not want to upset the Egyptians, are angry about Hamas' pressure on them and its hegemonic control of the Gaza Strip. They may have ties with nascent radical groups in Sinai (masquerading as "al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula" and see Muslim Brotherhood type groups as traitors. In the meantime there have been reports that Hamas is considering officially abandoning violence in its conflict with Israel.

  • Inside Egypt, a nascent tug-of-war over who controls policy towards the Palestinians and Israel is starting between the presidency and the intelligence services. The question of national security is still in the army's hands, and attacks such as these can be very effective wedge issues against an Egyptian-Hamas rapprochement (see for instance the 2009 raid by Gazans on the Rafah border.) The attack has effectively ended efforts to open up the Rafah crossing (eventually towards trade of goods, not just people traffic) for some time to come.

  • And then there are the micro-local politics: the economy of the border area has been criminalized by the blockade of Gaza, with smuggling gangs bringing massive disruption and wealth to the Bedouin tribes that dominate the region in the context of a depressed economy. The tunnels they control are necessary as long as the blockade lasts, and no doubt those who run them are worried that a more open official border will make them irrelevant.

No wonder all sorts of conspiracy theories are afloat. To me, they are beside the point.

What is most worrying is the lack of law and order, and presence of the state, in Sinai since the January 2011 uprising — and the continuing absence of policies to deal with the neglect of this region for the last 30 years. I wrote about this last September and continue to believe that Egypt needs to act to reimpose itself strongly in the area: through a zero-tolerance for criminal gangs and armed groups, Bedouin or foreign, and through a genuine policy of development, job-creation and integration of Sinai into the national economy. It's not easy, it's long-overdue, and it needs to start sooner than later even if strong-arm tactics that will probably be involved may cause more trouble in the short-term. What there should not be is more tolerance for tribal custom, forgiving the recent increase in crimes such as kidnappings (not only is kidnapping a serious crime, but one of these will inevitably turn ugly sooner or later), and more meetings with tribal elders that have led to very little tangible progress.

Yes, the inhabitants of Sinai have suffered from being relegated to second-class citizens and a policy of what can only be termed deliberate under-development for years. For this they should be compensated, as for the terrible abuse by police of the last decade in particular. But the approach cannot be one of finding some compromise with local actors. It has to be that they are Egyptians like any other Egyptians, and do not get dispensation on certain things (smuggling, owning weapons without a license, etc.) because they are Bedouin.

I agree with the tweets put out by Ezzedine Fishere earlier today — he's very much an expert on the issue. Egypt needs a comprehensive Sinai policy alongside a clear policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that makes clear its commitment to justice for Palestinians, Palestinian reconciliation, and refusal to be dragged into a confrontation with Israel or Hamas.

Ending the blockade of Gaza, pushing for Palestinian reconciliation, restoring order in Sinai and addressing its inhabitants' grievances: this is what has to be done to avoid a repeat of this. One fears that Egypt, being so politically divided, is hardly in a position to take up this challenge.

Sinai's Bedouins and the MFO

Bedouin Standoff Raises Tensions in Egypt -

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.