Sinai: Tipping Point or Pretext for Ouster?
Much of the analysis on the causes for the military’s ouster of Mohamed Morsi focuses on the Muslim Brotherhood’s performance, or lack thereof, in domestic affairs. Glaringly absent, however, is an examination of the preeminence of Sinai in the military’s decision to intervene in otherwise civilian political disputes between the burgeoning liberal parties and the veteran Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies.
While Morsi made many mistakes to provoke a disillusioned and increasingly impoverished population to challenge his legitimacy, the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Sinai was a major impetus for his expedited ouster after merely one year in office. Morsi’s refusal to employ heavy-handed tactics to stop the increasing flow of arms and militants into Sinai, as well as to avenge the deaths of soldiers, expanded his detractors to include the Egyptian military. With the tacit support of their wary Israeli and American military counterparts, the Egyptian armed forces took matters into their own hands to preserve their financial and military interests in the status quo.
The lawlessness in Sinai, which increased exponentially after the 2011 revolution under the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and then Morsi, brought to the forefront Morsi’s shift in foreign policy and national security—a shift that left the United States and its key regional ally, Israel, concerned with their geopolitical interests in the region, thereby placing pressure on their primary interlocutor, the Egyptian military, to intervene. As the Morsi regime’s relations with Hamas strengthened, smuggling of goods and weapons from Sinai to Gaza intensified. Along with arms came militants from abroad with various political objectives ranging from staging attacks on Israel to attacking Egyptian armed forces as part of their efforts to establish an Islamic state in Sinai. The regrouping of self-proclaimed jihadists from abroad with access to military-grade arms smuggled in from Libya and Sudan alarmed Israel as to what lay ahead, and suggested the early stages of a longer-term problem for the United States’ global counterterrorism strategy. Meanwhile, Morsi’s softer approach to dealing with the kidnappings and killings of Egyptian soldiers in Sinai through mediation with tribal chiefs rather than the standard military response made him appear naïve and unfit to rule in the eyes of his military.
Morsi’s policies in Sinai, therefore, provided an opportunity for his political opposition to procure the Egyptian military’s explicit support, with the American military’s blessing, in its efforts to oust Morsi from the presidency. What remains to be seen, however, is whether Sinai was merely a pretext for a counterrevolution supported by the deep state, whose interests contradicted those of the January 25 revolution, or merely the impetus for putting the country back on track with the January 25 revolution’s initial objectives. The brutal crackdown on pro-Morsi supporters and other Egyptians opposed to the military, the resignation of Interim Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei, the invocation of emergency law, and the sudden rise in General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi’s popularity as a national hero along the likes of General Gamal Abdel Nasser signals the former rather than the latter.
If that turns out to be the case, the youth and liberal parties may find themselves back in the planning phases of salvaging their country from the latest phase of Egypt’s history of authoritarianism.
Sinai at the Center of Egypt’s National Security Policy
The historic peace deal struck between Egypt and Israel in 1979 has served as the bulwark of U.S. Middle East policy for over three decades. As such, Egypt is a key Arab ally trusted to preserve the treaty notwithstanding rising international pressures on Israel to stop its mistreatment of Palestinians and uphold their human rights. The peace accord also grants the U.S. Navy expedited passage through the Suez Canal, nearly unlimited access to Egyptian airspace, and assistance that finances the Egyptian military with American-made weapons. In addition, Egypt works closely with the U.S. government in its global counterterrorism efforts. Indeed, Egypt was a frequent destination for individuals abducted in the CIA’s secret rendition program, where they disappeared in Egyptian dungeons to be tortured and sometimes killed. In exchange, Egypt receives the second largest foreign aid package, after Israel, wherein $1.3 billion of the total $1.5 billion is allocated toward military aid.
Preserving security in the Sinai Peninsula, particularly the eastern border with Israel, is an integral component of Egypt’s treaty obligations. As a result, Egyptian security forces have employed a zero-tolerance approach against anyone they suspect of terrorism, including indigenous Bedouins historically abused by the state with little recourse. Although the state’s heavy-handed tactics are intended for alleged militants seeking to support violent attacks against Israel from Gaza, Egypt’s Bedouins often face the brunt of these tactics. The state’s neglect of the region due to an inadequate allocation of state resources for the most basic services, leaving many without running water or electricity, has forced some Bedouin tribes to resort to serving as escorts in the smuggling industry as a means of economic survival. As a consequence, Bedouins are presumed to be criminals and traffickers, resulting in collective punishment through arbitrary arrest and detention followed by military trials pursuant to the three-decade emergency law.
Prior to the 2011 revolution, Egypt’s tight grip on Sinai was relaxed in spurts to allow for consumer goods to pass through underground tunnels to the isolated and impoverished Palestinian population in Gaza. Because of Israel’s restrictive practices severely limiting the importation of consumer and food items from Israel into Gaza, savvy Egyptian businessmen covertly imported a wide range of products with the assistance of their Bedouin couriers. Such activity was permitted not so much out of humanitarian concerns than the lucrative profits it brought to corrupt Egyptian security officials. Indeed, the multimillion dollar tunnel business, which included both arms and consumer goods, thrived as military intelligence officers in North Sinai turned a blind eye in exchange for hefty bribes.
The Camp David agreements restricted Egypt’s military operations in east and north Sinai, leaving domestic security forces with the power to police the peninsula. As the Ministry of Interior’s notoriously abusive practices were used against the politically marginalized Bedouins, the Bedouins’ deep-seated resentment of the state intensified. But because of Sinai’s remoteness from Egypt’s urban centers, coupled with the state’s influence over the media, grievances of these abuses often went unnoticed in national media. Thus, the problems in Sinai—whether related to smuggling of arms or goods, terrorism by Islamist extremists, or systemic abuses of the local Bedouin population—are of little importance to most Egyptians preoccupied with their deteriorating quality of life both before and after the January 25 revolution.
Although tensions in Sinai predated the revolution and Morsi’s presidency, the withdrawal of internal security forces from their posts after the revolution caused a security vacuum that increased lawlessness in Sinai. Morsi’s failure to give this problem its due weight among the various challenges facing Egypt would ultimately help lead to his downfall.
The Increased Lawlessness in Sinai and Morsi’s New Sinai Policy
Among the most prominent demands arising from the January 25 revolution was reform of Egypt’s abusive security forces in the Ministry of Interior. Their brutality ranged from daily harassment and shakedowns of young men to arbitrary arrests and torture of detainees. For decades, Mubarak’s state security force ruthlessly detained, tortured, jailed, and at times killed hundreds of Bedouins in Sinai. Thus, the security forces’ retreat after the revolution was a welcome change. But with it came other adverse developments that ultimately led to a renewed crackdown in Sinai, but this time by the Egyptian military.
An influx of military-grade arms, including anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles, began under the rule of SCAF and continued throughout Morsi’s presidency. Most of the arms were smuggled from Libya through northern Egypt and into Sinai, others by way of Sudan. Some found their way into Gaza via underground tunnels while others stayed in Sinai under the control of extremist groups that viewed the Morsi regime’s Islamic interpretations as too lax. Specifically, the Muslim Brotherhood’s willingness to work within a secular political system, uphold the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement, and compromise on issues surrounding the role of religion in state affairs qualified them as traitors in the eyes of these violent Islamist groups.
As SCAF’s attention was focused on governing an unwieldy transition process in Cairo and Alexandria that eventually led to its forced removal from power, violence in Sinai was on the rise. The violence continued unabated after Morsi’s rise to power. Egyptian police increasingly came under fire from self-proclaimed jihadi groups, and military personnel were abducted to be used as ransom to free convicted terrorists from Egyptian jails. Others were killed by gunmen while manning checkpoints.
In stark contrast to the hard-line responses of his predecessor, Morsi tasked his regime with holding meetings with tribal elders to hear complaints and their ideas for ending the bloodshed in the Sinai and Rafah. Rather than respond with force to their religious justifications for the use of violence, state officials were sent to Sinai to encourage an intellectual and jurisprudential revision of the interpretations of religious doctrine by extremists who issued fatwas to authorize killing innocent people. In November 2012, Morsi rejected outright General el-Sisi’s request to crack down on alleged terrorists in Sinai, reportedly stating, “I don’t want Muslims to shed the blood of fellow Muslims.”
Morsi also did what would have been unthinkable under the Mubarak regime; he ordered General el-Sisi to meet with Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in connection with the killings of 16 soldiers in Sinai. The military and internal security forces had been trained for over 60 years to view Islamists, whether the nonviolent Muslim Brotherhood or their more extremist jihadi counterparts, with deep suspicion. Indeed, many of these forces were responsible for the arrest, detention, and torture of some of the Brotherhood members who were now governing the country.
Hence it came as no surprise when el-Sisi refused to obey the president’s orders, deepening the rift between the two men—so much so that a frustrated Morsi was reported to have had to frequently remind el-Sisi of his rank as the commander in chief. In the end, Morsi’s Sinai strategy failed to stop the lucrative arms trade and moderate the extremists, but it succeeded in alienating the only stakeholder who could oust him from power: the Egyptian military.
The military interpreted Morsi’s softer approach as evidence of his conflicted loyalties between Islamist groups, notwithstanding his rejection of their use of violence, and his obligations as president to preserve security in Sinai. As more soldiers and police were killed or abducted, Morsi’s credibility within the armed forces plummeted. Questions arose as to whether Morsi and his Brotherhood backers had ulterior plans for Sinai in accordance with an international ideology that sought a pan-Islamic alliance across the Middle East, rather than Egypt’s national security interests under the Camp David peace treaty. Such concerns were not limited to the Egyptian military, but also to its Israeli and American counterparts tasked with preserving the pivotal treaty.
Although Morsi eventually employed more aggressive tactics in Sinai after it became evident that mediations failed to co-opt Islamist groups, it was too little, too late. At the same time he was authorizing the Egyptian military and security forces to flood smuggling tunnels between Sinai and Gaza, bolster cross-border interceptions of arms and migrants, and arrest anyone suspected of participating in illegal trafficking, military leaders had begun back door discussions with Morsi’s political opposition. Although the time and manner may not have yet been determined, the military had decided that Morsi was unfit to rule.
Sahar Aziz is an associate professor at Texas Wesleyan School of Law in Fort Worth and a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. She can be followed on twitter @saharazizlaw.
This article was published by the Middle East Institute on September 12, 2013. Read it here.