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September 20, 2013

Despite Crackdown, Sinai Security Remains Elusive

by Elizabeth Arrott

Egypt's military is in the midst of a massive crackdown on Islamist militants in Sinai, but results so far are mixed.

Egyptian authorities are hailing as a success their biggest military operation in Sinai in decades. 

For supporters of the military-backed government, the projected months-long crackdown is a direct counter-offensive to the polices of ousted President Mohamad Morsi. 

"[It's] very much unstable thanks to Mr. Morsi, the previous president, who released thousands of Islamic fanatics from Egyptian jail by presidential declaration.  All of them went to Sinai,  and thanks to him again because he allowed al-Qaida to come to Sinai," said former intelligence officer and security analyst Sameh Seif al-Yazal.

​​​The situation in the strategic region, extending from the Suez Canal to the borders of Israel and Gaza, has been dire for years: underdeveloped, open to criminal gangs and, more recently, weapons from Libya.

And for all the blaming of the last president, Sinai security was also the responsibility of Morsi's defense minister, General Abdel Fatah el-Sissi, the de facto national leader.

With the nation's “war on terror” the narrative has changed, and Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and Sinai's jihadi militants have become one. 

“The army, in its attempt to assert itself as the protector of the nation, as caring, you know, about the core interests that Morsi had abandoned, needs to do a better job in the Sinai,” said Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

State television replays countless images of the army closing illegal tunnels to Gaza, clearing areas near the border and attacking Jihadist positions.  It's hard to confirm how well the operation is going.  One of the few journalists there, Ahmed Abu Deraa, contradicted government claims of success.  He is now on trial for reporting false news.

But one factor is clearing going the army's way, relations with Israel, whose leaders were wary of Morsi. 

"The Egyptian military is actually happy that Israel supported its coup, or, you know, did not vocally oppose what happened on July 3rd," said analyst Hokayem.

As for Suez, Egypt also has international backing in keeping it secure.  Despite recent reports of a failed attack on the key shipping lane, retired general al-Yazal believes it is firmly under control.   

“Suez Canal is under severe protection as well as severe measures.  The army, they know quite well they cannot joke with Suez Canal,” he said.

But the security crackdown may create some problems of its own, namely further recruitment of militants from across the region.

"Just like the repression against the Muslim Brotherhood is not going to help create a more inclusive and stable Egypt, going hard into the Sinai may well exacerbate  problems in the medium term," said analyst Hokayem.

Analysts say any long-term security must be based on political dialogue and economic investment - both commodities in short supply in tense and troubled Egypt.