'With violence spreading, Egypt's Sisi needs to change strategy'

Former Pentagon official says in the Sinai, the counterinsurgency campaign is going to have to incorporate economic and educational components.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. (photo credit: AMR ABDALLAH DALSH / REUTERS)
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
As Egypt tries to cope with what appears to be a never-ending Islamist insurgency, the violence is spreading to other parts of the country, and the government needs to change its strategy to include economic and educational features, a former Pentagon official told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has “popular backing for his efforts to stem the violence, but the current approach in the Sinai isn’t working,” said David Schenker, who formerly worked on Middle East matters for the Pentagon.
Schenker, now director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that “at the end of the day, Sisi’s strategy for quelling the violence, both along the Nile and in the Sinai, is going to have to extend beyond military actions and mass arrests.”
Islamic State-affiliated groups are now targeting the homes of police officers in the peninsula, he went on. He noted that five homes had been blown up in the area a few days earlier, wounding 14 people, including four policemen. On Tuesday, a bomb exploded in El-Arish.
Across the Suez Canal this week, there were reports that four terrorist plots had been intercepted, including a plan to blow up the train from Cairo to Aswan.
“In the Sinai, the counterinsurgency campaign is going to have to incorporate economic and educational components,” he said, adding that the Sinai had been neglected for too long.
He mentioned that efforts to seal the border with Gaza in order to end tactical cooperation between Islamists there and in Egypt had undermined a significant source of income for many. Furthermore, the extensive house demolitions to clear out a buffer zone on the Gaza border have been accompanied by reports suggesting that homeowners are receiving little if any compensation.
“If true, this initiative could effectively result in making more terrorists,” he asserted.
Meanwhile, he said, “the threat of Islamists assassinating Sisi is a serious concern” – though he added that “the country’s stability is not threatened by the current spate of violence.”
Despite the ban on the Muslim Brotherhood, there is some residual support for the organization, though the vast majority of Egyptians appear to support the government’s crackdown in order “to prevent a repeat of the terrorism in Cairo, Alexandria and Upper Egypt that characterized much of the 1990s,” Schenker said.
After four years of upheaval, most Egyptians genuinely appear to want stability, Schenker continued, predicting that there would be “significant pressure on [Sisi’s] administration in the coming years to deliver economically.”
In an article in The American Interest on Tuesday, Schenker noted that there have been nearly 200 attacks outside of the Sinai region. While the Muslim Brotherhood has not claimed specific terrorist attacks, a January statement on the group’s website called for “a long uncompromising jihad” against the regime.
In the article, Schenker pointed out that the Obama administration had ended its weapons freeze and delivered 10 Apache helicopters to Egypt, but that other items “could be delayed indefinitely, especially if the death sentence verdicts against several senior Muslim Brotherhood officials are carried out.”
Schenker added that despite assurances he had received from an Egyptian general last month that “the army was ‘winning’ the war in Sinai, victory is nowhere in sight.”