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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Islamists Blamed for Uptick in Sinai Violence After Morsi\'s Ouster

An Al Jazeera English documentary, produced by Anjali Kamat and broadcast on Dec. 18, 2012, looked at post-Mubarak Egypt through the lens of the Sinai Peninsula.

As my colleagues David D. Kirkpatrick and Kareem Fahim reported this week from Cairo, since the ouster of the Islamist president Mohamed Morsi at the hands of Egypt's military and the subsequent crackdown on Islamists, there has been “a sharp uptick in violence in the relatively lawless Sinai region,” with attacks on security forces and Christians in the strategic and volatile peninsula.

On Monday, Islamist militants there fired rocket-propelled grenades at a bus, killing three people and injuring 17, according to Egyptian state television. The Times article explained:

Mr. Morsi's opponents blame his Islamist allies in the Muslim Brotherhood for encouraging the retaliation, but leaders of the group say it has not condoned violence in Egypt since the British occupation.

Although the attacks are very likely carried out by more militant Islamists angry at Mr. Morsi's removal, some Brotherhood leaders have gone as far as suggesting that Egyptian intelligence agencies manufactured the violence or reports of violence as a way to cast blame on the Brotherhood.

Sinai is a profound strategic asset for Egypt, bordered on the west by the Suez Canal and on the east by Gaza and Israel, which occupied the region after the 1967 war.

British Pathé archival footage of the Sinai Peninsula during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Israel returned the region to Egyptian control in 1982, under an agreement that placed strict limits on Egypt's ability to deploy military forces in Sinai.

The peninsula is one of the poorest areas of Egypt and has a long history as a stage for regional conflict, official neglect and spasms of violence.

Since Mr. Morsi's ouster on July 3, at least 13 people have been killed in the recent wave of attacks and dozens more have been wounded, according to Reuters, a slow but steady toll that is contributing to a sense that Sinai - an arid and mountainous wedge of land between Egypt's major urban centers, Israel and the Gaza Strip - is slipping deeper into lawlessness and chaos.

But these attacks have not just targeted uniformed members of the security forces: Christian civilians living on the Sinai Peninsula have found themselves in militants' cross hairs in recent weeks as well. In the days after Mr. Morsi's ouster, there were anti-Christian attacks in six of Egypt's 27 provinces, according to The Associated Press, including at least two separate, grisly killings in Sinai.

On July 6, a Coptic priest, Mina Aboud, 39, was shot by unknown gunmen as he walked down a street in El-Arish, the largest city in Sinai and the capital of North Sinai province, the English-language news site Mada Masr reported.

On July 11, the decapitated body of a 60-year-old Christian man, Magdy Habashi, was discovered in a graveyard in the North Sinai town of Sheikh Zuweid, The A.P. reported. A Christian activist group, the Maspero Youth Union, posted an extremely graphic picture on Facebook, said to show Mr. Habashi's severed head sitting on top of his stomach in what appeared to be a morgue. The group referred to him as Magdy Lamaey Habib, and said in a brief statement accompanying the picture that he was “a martyr of Christ” who had been killed by “jihadist followers of Mohamed Morsi.”

Video of a burning gas pipeline near El-Arish in Sinai, posted online on July 7 by the Egyptian news site Al-Masry Al-Youm.

Lina Attalah and Mohamad Adam, two reporters for the Cairo-based Mada Masa, traveled to Sinai shortly after Mr. Morsi was removed from power to report on fears that the abrupt end of his presidency had turned the region into a “war zone.” While they met many people there who were angered by the military's latest intervention in Egyptian politics, they also found suggestions that the peninsula might have become “a tool in a power play between Islamists and the military.”

There has been no evidence of organizational ties between militant groups operating in Sinai and the Muslim Brotherhood; there are in fact reported ideological rifts with these groups condemning the Brotherhood's compromised commitment to the Islamist project.

But Islamists interviewed by Mada Masr in Sinai do not rule out that this could be a violent reaction to Morsi's ouster, out of rage at the military's eradication of what would have been the beginning of an Islamic project.

The scope of this reaction is yet to be seen, but also many in Sinai foresee deliberate exaggerations by the military to justify their consolidated grip on power. For them, many facts reported in Sinai are imaginary; and the essential fact is that the peninsula is a tool in a power play between Islamists and the military.

If the country's two most well-organized political adversaries are indeed using the Sinai as a tool in a larger power play, they would not be the first ones to do so. Outsiders have long seen the peninsula as a means to an end, as Nicolas Pelham wrote in The New York Review of Books last year.

For Menachem Begin, the Israeli prime minister who returned the peninsula to Egypt, it was a buffer zone between the Jewish state and a longtime foe, Mr. Pelham explained. Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president deposed in 2011, saw in its pristine beaches and coral reefs countless land deals waiting to be made. After regaining control of Sinai in 1982, his government began to transform its sparsely populated southern reaches into a string of tourist resorts, like the world-renowned Sharm El-Sheikh.

Under Mr. Mubarak, Sharm El-Sheikh and other beach towns played host to millions of package tourists and more than a few regional summits, but the peninsula's largely Bedouin indigenous population was excluded from the economic boom. They were “ostracized by the Mubarak regime,” which viewed them “as a potential fifth column” for all manner of social ills, from Islamic militancy to what some called their collaboration with Israel during its 15 years of occupation, Mr. Pelham wrote.

Mr. Pelham, who also wrote a paper on the region for the British think tank Chatham House last year, visited Sinai in August 2012, a week after masked gunmen killed 16 Egyptian soldiers, the most violent incident to take place on the peninsula in years and a shocking black eye for the country's mighty armed forces, which had turned over power to Mr. Morsi just weeks earlier.

In his Chatham House paper, “Sinai: The Buffer Erodes,” Mr. Pelham wrote: “Perhaps for the first time since Israel's withdrawal 30 years earlier, the August 2012 killing of 16 Egyptian soldiers elevated North Sinai from a peripheral backwater to center stage in Egyptian consciousness. Egyptians awoke to the reality of a security vacuum that three decades of lackluster efforts had failed to fill.”

In response, Egypt's military swept through the Sinai and Mr. Morsi demanded the resignation of the army chief, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, a move celebrated at the time as a signal that the new civilian president had brought the military fully to heel. But in Sinai, Mr. Pelham wrote, people were outraged by the government response.

To understand the visceral Bedouin anger over what at the time amounted to the rather mild response of six arrests for the killing of 16 soldiers, I had to delve into the Bedouin's troubled relationship with Mubarak's Pharaonic authority. For 20 years, the Bedouin watched as Mubarak and his cronies sequestrated their lands for the tourist industry, and gave nothing back. Bedouin attempts to obtain title deeds for long-demarcated tribal tracts were rebuffed, and their applications for posts in the army, the Interior Ministry, the foreign service and any decision-making job in the state utilities were declined. While Mubarak built his hotel complexes on Sinai's southern coast far away from the Bedouin population centers, northeastern Sinai, where Sheikh Asad and most Bedouin live, was starved of investment. Funds for a project to siphon water from the Nile to the arid coastal plain dried up soon after construction began. Frustrated by systematic rejection, between 2004 and 2006 North Sinai's Bedouin sought revenge, bombing South Sinai's hotels and killing over a hundred.

Mubarak's dragnet that followed only protracted the conflict. Barred by the Camp David Accords from sending soldiers to Sinai, Interior Ministry forces penned and tortured thousands in cells with standing room only. Many inmates and their relatives came to view Egypt as much an occupying force as they had Israel. After lying low during Mubarak's twilight years and busying themselves with the development of the alternative tunnel economy to Gaza, they saw Mubarak's downfall as an opportunity for revenge according to time-honored codes with no statute of limitations. (Sinai's Bedouin tell a joke about a man who confides that he has avenged his brother's killing after 50 years. Why the hurry, asks his cousin.)

In Cairo and other Nile Valley cities, Egyptians routed Mubarak's regime with mass protests, but in Sinai the Bedouin used rocket-propelled grenades. Former torturers were driven from cities and warned never to return. Armed groups targeted Egypt's trade routes, ambushing trucks carrying goods between Egypt and Israel, and repeatedly bombed the pipelines transporting gas to Israel and Jordan until Egypt turned off the taps.

In December 2012, Anjali Kamat, a correspondent for the Al Jazeera English program “Fault Lines,” produced a long video report that used Sinai as a lens through which to examine the many changes that Egypt has faced since the 2011 ouster of Mr. Mubarak. She found that for many of the region's residents, its history of neglect and harsh treatment at the hands of Cairo was a wound that had never been given a chance to heal.

Hossam Bahgat, the director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a human rights organization based in Cairo, was interviewed for Ms. Kamat's documentary. He told her he believed that Sinai's strategic location had been a curse for its inhabitants because it had led the government to view the region and its people through a security lens.

“Sinai's place between Egypt and Israel has been a curse. The reason Sinai never really received any attention from the central government, any fair share of development funding, is its proximity to Israel,” Mr. Bahgat told Ms. Kamat. “Since 1967 they've been going from Israeli occupation to what they now agree is Egyptian occupation, unfortunately.”

Ms. Attalah, the reporter for Mada Masr, was also interviewed in Ms. Kamat's film, where she argued that Sinai's instability can be traced back to the empty promises of an authoritarian state that once pledged to develop the region but only ever treated it as a security problem.

After Israel returned the region to Egyptian control, Ms. Attalah said, “there were a lot of promises to the people of Sinai that now that Sinai is back to the Egyptian territories, there would be massive development.” But those were promises that the central government would not fulfill, engendering widespread and slow-boiling frustration. “Actually,” she said, “it is the state that is prompting illegality, just because you have an overriding sense of political and economic marginalization.”