CAIRO – The Apache attack helicopter has become a symbol of Egypt’s war on terrorism in Sinai.
Local politicians speak glowingly of the American-made war machine.
In 2014, the US delivered 10 of the helicopters to Cairo and since then they have a played a key role in fighting extremists in Sinai and securing the country.
On Wednesday night, Iron Dome intercepted three rockets fired from Sinai near the Red Sea city of Eilat.
A fourth struck in an open area. An ISIS-affiliate in Sinai took responsibility for the attacks. This once again sheds light on the ability of Islamist groups to operate from the peninsula. For Egypt, the destruction of these groups, which often target Egyptian security forces, has been a priority for years.
Terrorists targeted tourists in Taba in 2004 and in Sharm e-Sheikh in 2005. Attacks by extremists in Sinai began to increase in 2011 following the Arab Spring protests in January of that year. By 2012, they had expanded to dozens of attacks on Egyptian security personnel and became one of the factors motivating the military to step in during mass protests in 2013 and oust the Muslim Brotherhood from power.
Attacks in Sinai and the murder of Egyptians had led the military to conclude that the Muslim Brotherhood government was feeding extremism and instability.
Since then the defeat of groups such as Ansar Bait al-Maqdis (“Supporters of Jerusalem”) and later Wilayet Sayna (“Sinai Province”), which is affiliated with Islamic State, has been a priority for the Sisi government. Their role in Sinai is concentrated on recruiting Beduin who have been radicalized. They also play a role in the arms trade with Hamas in the Gaza Strip and they have attacked strategic targets such as pipelines and ships, as well as targeting Israel.
Tourism is a key part of the Egyptian economy. The downing of Russian passenger airliner Metrojet Flight 9268 on October 31, 2015, over north Sinai following its departure from Sharm e-Sheikh, killing 213, by a suspected bombing led to a mass exodus of almost 20,000 tourists. Sharm e-Sheikh became a “ghost town,” according to the Daily Mail. In October 2016, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared a state of emergency in north Sinai.
Conversations with security and diplomatic experts and insiders as well as with politicians and civil society activists in Cairo paint a clear picture of how the Sinai ulcer affects Egypt. It has led to closer cooperation with Israel, which some described as a “golden age,” of relations. Egypt’s government felt that the US under Barack Obama did not care enough about the issues it faces in Sinai. They hope the new administration in Washington, which says it wants to confront terrorism, will support Egypt’s efforts.
Israel plays a unique role in the Sinai issue because the peace agreement with Cairo is predicated on a certain amount of demilitarization on the Egyptian side of the border.
Into this vacuum terrorism crept.
“We received support from Israel when we have terror in Sinai, and no restrictions on deploying troops, tanks, Apache helicopters and even use of F-16s,” one politician said. According to the news website Aswat Masriya, Sisi commemorated police who had been killed in Sinai as “martyrs” struggling in what is “effectively a war.”
At the 65th commemoration of Police Day on January 24 he said, “We are now living in a war like that of 1967 which lasted until 1970 and ended with the 1973 war.” He claimed the government had succeeded in interdicting and finding explosives and destroying other ordinance terrorists had stockpiled.
The comparison with the trauma of 1967 and the 1973 war clearly paint a picture of Sisi’s time frame for defeating terrorism and the serious affect he thinks it has on society and the military. He has staked his reputation on defeating terrorism in Sinai and shoring up the peninsula.
Success in Sinai addresses one part of a security issue that also affects the Egyptian border with Libya.
Egyptians realize the issue in Sinai goes beyond fighting terrorism.
The local Beduin felt marginalized for decades. Now officials say the government seeks to provide a twopronged approach, of military force combined with development and investment. The investment will involve financing from the World Bank and Saudi Arabia, and focus on mining, agriculture and other projects. The government hopes to attract private investment totaling more than $10 billion as well as public sector funds. Interviewees said that this is in contrast to the Mubarak era when investment concentrated on tourism. In the early 2000s for instance numerous hotels were built.
“We want them [Beduin] to feel they belong, and receive education and healthcare. In two years it should be settled,” one of those interviewed, who asked his name not be used, said.
Cairo has also sought to impress on Hamas the importance of distancing itself of any relations with extremists in Sinai. Egypt has been trying to cut off the arms trade in the peninsula, destroying tunnels that link it with Gaza.
Egyptians feel the confrontation in Sinai is symbolic of a larger issue with regional and global ramifications.
It is closely connected to the military support from the United States.
“We are fighting it strongly,” says Rev. Andrea Zaki Sephanous, the president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt. “We almost cleared up Sinai and we thank the Americans for their weapons, such as the Apache helicopters, which helped our army. If we [were to] fail against terrorists, the whole world will fail.” He argues Egypt is on the front line, and Sinai is a part of that fight, connected closely to every country suffering terrorism and radicalization. “We need solidarity in fighting radicalization.”
In this respect the progress in Sinai is closely linked to events of the Arab Spring and also to the US and Israel. After Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011, weapons from the chaos in Libya were trafficked to the peninsula.
The brief rise of the Muslim Brotherhood after 2011 coincided with an increase of terrorist attacks in Sinai. Egyptian journalist Mohannad Sabry, in a 2015 book, described the Sinai insurgency as a nightmare affecting Israel and Gaza. It could be seen as having fueled the 2012 and 2014 wars Israel fought with Hamas and represents a continued security threat to Israel as evidenced by last week’s Eilat rocket attack. As Cairo increasingly confronts the insurgency, the effort shores up Egypt’s stability and its relations with the US and Israel, and weens Hamas from the weapons it has used in the past, encouraging the Islamist group to choose a different path.