Egypt's Sinai Problem
Egypt's Sinai Problem
Reducing tensions as Ethiopia Moves to Fill its Blue Nile Dam
Reducing tensions as Ethiopia Moves to Fill its Blue Nile Dam

Egypt's Sinai Problem

The latest bombing in Egypt’s Sinai is as likely to add to the mystery surrounding these events as to resolve it.

Monday’s attack at Dahab resembled those at Sharm El Sheikh last July and at Taba in October 2004. That the same organization carried out all three is suggested by the targets (resorts on Sinai’s east coast) and techniques (multiple bomb attacks on civilians without warning) and the fact that they have all occurred on or near key Egyptian anniversaries: the day after the annual celebration of the 1973 war on 6 October (Taba), the anniversary of the 1952 revolution (Sharm El Sheikh) and now the eve of Sinai Liberation Day, which commemorates Egypt’s recovery in 1982 of the peninsula occupied by Israel since the 1967 war. But the Dahab attack raises once again the question of who perpetrated these attacks and what their motive is.

Before 2004, no terrorist incidents had occurred in the Sinai. The region had seemed entirely insulated from jihadi violence throughout the insurgency of the 1980s and 1990s which climaxed with the massacre at Luxor in November 1997. Long before the Taba attack, the main jihadi movements, the Gamaa Islamiyya (Islamic Group) and Tanzim al-Jihad (the Jihad Organization), had ended their campaigns against the Egyptian state; the Gamaa had renounced its violent strategy, and members of the Jihad Organisation outside the country who had stayed in business had redeployed to Al-Qa‘eda’s global jihad against the West, abandoning jihad inside Egypt.

None of the versions circulated to explain these attacks has so far really done so. Claims that the Sharm attacks were the work of previously unheard of movements, the so-called “Abdallah Azzam Brigades” or the “Holy Warriors of Egypt”, were generally discounted by Egyptian experts. The official claim that the Taba bombings were the work of an isolated Palestinian, Iyad Said Saleh, who had grown up in the coastal Sinai town of El-Arish and won over a small network of locals to his Islamist sympathies, failed to explain either why the security services felt it necessary to arrest several thousand Sinai residents at the time and keep many of them in custody to this day, or how this network was able to carry off the Sharm (and now Dahab) attacks after Saleh’s death in the Taba affair.

The authorities’ reluctance to accept that Al-Qa‘eda may have been behind these events is understandable given the effect this admission could have on the tourist trade and may even be valid, but only underlines the mystery. The fact that most of the victims have been Egyptians, not foreign tourists, tends not to support the Al-Qaeda thesis. But the comparative sophistication of the terrorist organisation and its ability to survive security crackdowns is hard to square with the notion that disgruntled locals are behind these incidents.

However, there is no doubt that these repeated attacks are symptomatic of two factors specific to the Sinai. The first is the fact that, under the 1979 Camp David Agreement which secured the return of the peninsula to Egypt, the Egyptian state has less than full sovereignty over the region and its security forces are accordingly constrained in their attempts to control it or pursue terrorists within it, especially on the eastern side of the peninsula. The second is that the region’s population remains to be properly integrated into the Egyptian national community. Its longstanding marginality, aggravated by Israel’s 15 year occupation, has not been overcome since 1982. In particular, Egypt’s political parties have little presence among or appeal to the region’s population.  The problem is that, at present, the Egyptian state is badly placed to address either of these factors underlying Sinai’s current propensity to generate or host the latest brand of terrorism to plague the country.

Video / Africa

Reducing tensions as Ethiopia Moves to Fill its Blue Nile Dam

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Reducing tensions as Ethiopia Moves to Fill its Blue Nile Dam

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