icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Youtube
Egypt’s Expanding Jihadist Threat
Egypt’s Expanding Jihadist Threat

Egypt’s Sinai Question

Terrorism returned to Egypt in 2004 after an absence of seven years with successive attacks and the emergence of a heretofore unknown movement in Sinai. The government’s reaction essentially has been confined to the security sphere: tracking down and eliminating the terrorists.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

Executive Summary

Terrorism returned to Egypt in 2004 after an absence of seven years with successive attacks and the emergence of a heretofore unknown movement in Sinai. The government’s reaction essentially has been confined to the security sphere: tracking down and eliminating the terrorists. Egyptian and international NGOs have focused on the human rights violations which have been prominent in police procedures. The media have been preoccupied with whether al-Qaeda was responsible. Both the state’s response and wider public discussion have been confined to the surface of events and have ignored the socio-economic, cultural and political problems which are at the heart of Sinai’s disquiet. The emergence of a terrorist movement where none previously existed is symptomatic of major tensions and conflicts in Sinai and, above all, of its problematic relationship to the Egyptian nation-state. Unless these factors are addressed effectively, there is no reason to assume the terrorist movement can be eliminated.

Sinai has long been, at best, a semi-detached region, its Egyptian identity far from wholly assured. Under Israeli occupation from 1967 to 1982, it has remained under a special security regime mandated by the 1979 peace treaty, which significantly qualifies Egypt’s freedom of military action. Its geo-political situation – it comprises the whole of Egypt’s frontier with Israel and with the Palestinian enclave of Gaza – makes it of enormous strategic significance to both Egypt and Israel and sensitive to developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The population of approximately 360,000 – some 300,000 in the north, 60,000 in the south – is different from the rest of the country. A substantial minority is of Palestinian extraction, even if often Egyptian-born; the rest, labelled “Bedouin”, are longstanding natives of the peninsula. The Palestinian element is extremely conscious of its identity and ties to the populations of Gaza and the West Bank. The Bedouin (only a small minority are still tent-dwelling nomads) also possess a distinct identity. Very aware of their historic origins in Arabia and belonging to tribes which often have extensive branches in Israel, Palestine and Jordan, they, like the Palestinians, are naturally oriented eastward rather than toward the rest of Egypt. Neither Palestinians nor Bedouins have any share or interest in the Pharaonic heritage common to the populations (Muslim and Christian) of the Nile Valley.

These identity differences have been aggravated by socio-economic development promoted by the authorities since 1982. The government has not sought to integrate Sinai’s populations into the nation through a far-sighted program responding to their needs and mobilising their active involvement. Instead, it has promoted the settlement of Nile Valley migrants, whom it has systematically favoured, while discriminating against the local populations in jobs and housing in the north and in the rapid development of tourist enclaves (for Egyptians as well as internationals) in the south. These developments have offered scant opportunities to locals and often have been at their expense (notably with regard to land rights), provoking deep resentment. The government has done little or nothing to encourage participation of Sinai residents in national political life, used divide and rule tactics in orchestrating the meagre local representation allowed, and promoted the Pharaonic heritage at the expense of Sinai’s Bedouin traditions.

Thus, beneath the terrorism problem is a more serious and enduring “Sinai question” which the political class has yet to address. Doing so will not be easy. Since this question is partly rooted in wider Middle East crises, above all the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a definitive solution depends on their resolution. But the solution also requires the full integration and participation of Sinai’s populations in national political life, which means it is also dependent on significant political reforms in the country as a whole, which are not at present on the horizon.

While a comprehensive solution of the Sinai question cannot be expected soon, the government can and should alter a development strategy that is deeply discriminatory and largely ineffective at meeting local needs. A new, properly funded plan, produced in consultation with credible local representatives and involving all elements of the population in implementation, could transform attitudes to the state by addressing Sinai’s grievances.

Cairo/Brussels, 30 January 2007

Egypt’s Expanding Jihadist Threat

Egypt’s security suffered serious setbacks in 2017 with local jihadist attacks killing hundreds of people. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018, Crisis Group recommends that the EU and its member states urge the Egyptian government to change its approach to counter-terrorism and improve the security for minority groups.

This commentary on the expanding jihadist threat in Egypt is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2018.

Egypt’s security situation has deteriorated considerably in 2017 with local jihadists perpetrating attacks that have targeted civilians and claimed hundreds of lives. This trend is likely to continue in 2018, given the government’s inadequate efforts to protect vulnerable groups, its counterproductive habit of labelling political dissidents as terrorists, and its ineffective counter-terrorism and, in the Sinai, counter-insurgency policies. The EU and member states should encourage the Egyptian government to change its approach while adjusting their security cooperation to address these issues.

Rising jihadist threat against civilians

Egypt has experienced numerous jihadist attacks in recent years, especially in the Sinai peninsula where an insurgency has raged since 2013. But there was a qualitative and quantitative change in the nature of major attacks carried out against civilians in 2017. Two religious groups – Christians, who account for 10-15 per cent of Egypt’s population, and Muslims who follow Sufi practices – increasingly are targeted by local affiliates of the Islamic State (ISIS), which had initially focused almost exclusively on security forces.

Since December 2016, terror attacks on churches and the Christian community have killed over 100 civilians and injured hundreds more. In northern Sinai, Christian residents have been almost entirely driven out due to attacks and threats by the ISIS branch there. The attacks have sparked anger at the government for failing to protect houses of worship, particularly as they followed explicit ISIS threats that Christians would be a major target of its violence.

Sufi Muslims also appear to have become a priority civilian target in 2017, with ISIS/Sinai killing several local religious figures. Most significantly, on 24 November 2017, jihadists believed to be affiliated with the group attacked al-Rawda Mosque in Bir Abed in North Sinai, killing over 300 worshippers and their families who had gathered for Friday prayers – the deadliest terror attack in Egypt’s history. Because of the mosque’s gender segregation, most victims were men, meaning the village lost much of its male population. The mosque is associated with a Sufi order and most residents in the surrounding area hail from a tribe that is collaborating with the military against ISIS.

Fragmentation and disarray among jihadists may make them more dangerous

Why ISIS has changed its tactics remains unclear. Authorities attribute the shift to the return of Egyptian foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria; the suicide bomber who carried out the December 2016 attack on a Cairo cathedral, for instance, was a former student activist who had been jailed after the 2013 coup and later travelled to Syria. Another probable cause is the desire to foment sectarian strife and undermine the regime’s credibility both within Egypt and abroad. The focus on civilians may also reflect a loss of clarity and purpose among ISIS members in Egypt – a “lashing-out” resulting from the failure to reproduce the territorialisation strategy pursued elsewhere.

ISIS also faces challenges and attacks from jihadist groups claiming allegiance to al-Qaeda (such as Jund al-Islam and Ansar al-Islam). An al-Qaeda affiliate claimed responsibility for the October 2017 ambush of a security convoy in the Western Desert, which killed at least sixteen security officers. The location of the ambush suggests that a new theatre of operations linked to Libya may be emerging. Furthermore, attacks on security personnel by smaller groups, such as Liwaa El Thawra and Hassm, have increased mostly in urban areas, particularly within the Cairo and Giza governorates. These organisations have a more political, anti-regime agenda, and have not yet adopted jihadist rhetoric.

The post-2013 crackdown on researchers, journalists, academics, civil society actors and dissidents continues, which means there is little independent information about the jihadist threat available. Journalists have been effectively banned from reporting anything beyond official statements. Stories that contradict the state narrative can result in accusations of terrorism or supporting terrorist activity, charges that now carry the death penalty. Access to the most insecure areas (such as North Sinai and parts of the Western Desert) is nearly impossible, primarily due to the establishment of militarised zones that bar civilian entry.

Despite the considerable threat from jihadist groups, Egypt’s counter-terrorism approach has evolved tactically [...] but not strategically.

Despite the considerable threat from jihadist groups, Egypt’s counter-terrorism approach has evolved tactically (mostly through improvements in military operations in Sinai, particularly in countering improvised explosive device, IEDs) but not strategically. The government continues to conflate terrorism and political opposition, particularly in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood, which it has declared a terrorist organisation, exacerbating the polarisation that resulted from the 2013 coup. Together with repression and poor prison conditions, this conflation of dissent with terrorism helps drive people toward violence.

The government has also enacted legislation that enables it to bring charges of terrorism for any criminal act, using this authority to arrest civilian dissidents, including thousands of students who protested during the 2013/2014 academic year. At the same time, as the 2017 attacks suggest, authorities have responded inadequately to genuine and known threats. Authorities ignored numerous specific threats prior to the al-Rawda Mosque attack; when it occurred, nearby security units were slow to react.

What the European Union can do

The EU recently agreed on new partnership priorities with Egypt in accordance with the EU-Egypt-Association Agreement. Priority Three – Enhancing Stability – includes a focus on Security and Terrorism. In addition, the EU’s new Single Support Framework with an indicative allocation of €432-€528 million for the 2017-2020 period aims to promote stability by supporting socio-economic development and improved governance in Egypt. But there is little discussion among EU’s policymakers, or between Brussels and Cairo, of the dangers in Egypt’s counterterrorism strategy.

The EU should improve collaboration with Egyptian intelligence and law enforcement agencies even as it remains criticising their deficiencies and counterproductive policies. It should raise with Egyptian counterparts the government’s labelling of its political opponents as terrorists and levelling of terrorism charges against them. The European External Action Service (EEAS) should pursue plans to place a counter-terrorism/security expert at its Cairo delegation to monitor such issues. It should also push for greater access for independent journalists, aid organisations, civil society groups and foreign partners to the Sinai and other areas of jihadist activity, to better understand both the threat and the government response.

The EU should push for improved access to prisons for organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, which could provide valuable insight into both prison conditions and jihadist recruitment. More generally, it should encourage the Egyptian government to allow greater freedom to report on and research these issues.

The EU should also urge Egypt to address the security of Christians and other groups that are potential jihadist targets, including Sufi and Shiite Muslims. Security precautions around churches outside of Cairo appear highly inadequate. The EU should push for improved and consistent security for places of worship, as part of a more civilian-centric approach to counter-terrorism.