Following the al-Rawdah mosque massacre in November 2017, in which more than 300 worshippers were killed by allegedly Salafi-Jihadist militants connected to the Islamic State’s branch in Egypt, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi formally announced the launch of a new military campaign called “Comprehensive Operation-Sinai 2018” in order to put an end to terrorism and to restore security and stability in the Sinai Peninsula and in the whole country.
The structural dimension of the Sinai crisis has its roots in the aftermath of the Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula in 1982, as foreseen under the Camp David Accords. Basically, for over 30 years Egyptian authorities have promoted unequal policies that have created the current situation. The resultant conditions of marginalization and alienation have permitted the proliferation of illegal and criminal activities (such as weapons smuggling, human trafficking, kidnapping for ransom, contraband and also narcotic plant cultivation) led by local inhabitants, transforming Sinai into a “safe haven” for illegal phenomena. The emergence of these issues, combined with other instability factors like underdevelopment, social grievances and strong resentment towards national authorities, fostered the growth of radicalism and violent extremism that have consequently exacerbated other typical problems within the region, creating ungoverned spaces. The present situation is indeed a reflection of what happened in the past and again in 2011, after the fall of Mubarak’s regime, when the Sinai Peninsula underwent a deep political and security crisis that transformed the hinterland of the state into a lawless land and a hotbed of violent extremism. For all these reasons the Sinai Peninsula has remained a “magnet” for terrorists and the Islamic State, who have exploited this situation to convert the Sinai into a regional hub for terrorism. Especially since the second half of 2015, Sinai has been the stage for a bloody, intense and protracted guerrilla-style insurgency in which militant terrorists have launched multiple attacks against Egypt’s central authorities.
To face these threats, the Egyptian government has adopted both counterterrorism and counterinsurgency approaches to contain violence and to eradicate extremism in the region. Despite a certain optimism promoted by the regime and frequent statements about freeing Sinai from terrorist threats, the Egyptian state uses this as a red herring and an enemy against which people can unite in order to divert public attention from other atrocities and ordinary Egyptian structural problems. In this sense, the war on terror and especially “Operation Sinai-2018” are a perfect distraction that might lead to a new, long-lasting attempt to institutionalize securitization policy at all levels of rule in the country. At the same time, this campaign seems aimed at defining a new step in the militarization of the restive northern part of the Sinai Peninsula, where the state and the army have reasserted their control over the territory, implementing authoritarian policies based on brutal force responses and harsh methods, against, or without the support of, the local population. Nevertheless, a change in Sinai is possible. In fact, the Egyptian government could rethink its policies to safeguard state interests, especially in terms of human security strategy policies. The authorities could improve the inclusiveness of local communities, economic growth, poverty alleviation and the protection of basic civil and political rights. One important decision could be devising a policy of appeasement. For example, the central authority should recognise the key importance of human rights, the rule of law and democracy as fundamental strategies to stabilise Sinai and Egypt’s mainland.
Other measures could be the empowerment of citizens, the creation of dialogue with minorities
and oppositions, as well as an attempt to re-engage with outlawed forces in order to break the cycle of violence. A new political approach could favour a rapprochement with local communities and a stabilisation of the peninsula and, finally, it might be the best way for the Egyptian government to maintain control over the territory. Considering the failure of the counterinsurgency and counterterrorism strategies in Sinai and in general in the country, this situation reveals the need for changes on all levels. When and how they will be addressed will tell us if these challenges were merely yet another missed opportunity for the whole country.