After terror attack on Al-Rawda, Sisi should avoid military relation
An assault on the North Sinai’s al-Rawda mosque killed an estimated 309 people and wounded more than 128 on Friday, November 24. Roughly 40 gunmen surrounded the mosque, detonated a bomb inside the building, and proceeded to open fire on the large crowd congregated for afternoon prayers.
The attack on the Sufi mosque earned the unfortunate designation as the deadliest act of terrorism in Egyptian history and, in the 2017 calendar year, is surpassed in casualties only by the October bombing in Mogadishu.
Thus far, no extremist groups have actively claimed responsibility for the tragedy, but eyewitnesses claim that the gunmen carried ISIS flags – linking them to Wilayat Sinai, an Islamic State affiliate. In May, Wilayat Sinai targeted a Coptic bus in the northern Sinai, and, throughout Sisi’s presidency, its operatives have constituted a constant nuisance for Egypt’s security forces in the region.
In the aftermath of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, a flurry of regime changes crippled critical government institutions, and, as a result, the Interior Ministry lost administrative control of the Sinai. Subsequently, the absence of a stable governmental service coupled with an influx of criminals freed from state prisons (through pardons and pure bureaucratic ineptitude) incubated an environment that allowed radical Islamist influence to proliferate.
Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi promised to “avenge [the mosque’s] martyrs” and commanded military and police forces to restore order in the Sinai through “brute force” within three months. Shortly after the attack, U.S. President Donald Trump expressed his support for Sisi’s heavy-handed tactics.
“[A] Horrible and cowardly terrorist attack on innocent and defenseless worshipers [occurred] in Egypt,” Trump said in a tweet. “The world cannot tolerate terrorism, we must defeat them militarily and discredit the extremist ideology that forms the basis of their existence!”
Trump, Sisi, and other hawkish politicians should learn from history and reconsider their reckless, combative anti-terrorism policies.
Brute force is, and never has been, an effective means of eliminating terrorism. Rather, as the United States learned during its protracted struggle against al-Qaeda in Iraq, military might only offer a temporary, superficial solution to conflicts stemming from poverty, oppression, and other insecurities that render marginalized communities vulnerable to insurgent ideologies.
The Egyptian military presence in the Sinai consists of conscripts trained to fight wars, and protecting, governing, and interacting with civilians is certainly not its area of expertise.
Since 2013, Human Rights Watch has repeatedly raised concerns about Sisi’s indifference (or, perhaps, muted support) towards the military’s proclivity for extrajudicial violence in the Sinai. Egyptian authorities, in conjunction with countering Wilayat Sinai, have tried to quell Bedouin smuggling operations over the Gaza border, which have allegedly led to collusion between Hamas and the Islamic State offshoot. Sinai citizens, unfortunately, have been caught in the crossfire between insurgents and their own military, and a presidential mandate for unfettered brutality will only exacerbate their suffering.
“The military has never cared for civilian losses,” Sinai scholar Mohannad Sabry said in an interview with the New York Times. “The excessive and reckless use of force has killed entire families. We’ve seen airstrikes blow people up in their homes. We’ve seen villages razed off the face of the earth. That tells you something about how [Cairo] see Sinai society.”
Clearly, Sisi’s authoritarian attempts to restore order in the northwest province have done little to quell popular contempt for the government – a regime that fails to protect its citizens from terrorism while routinely subjecting them to arbitrary police brutality.
Given the situation on the ground, military escalation in the Sinai would only lend credence to Wilayat Sinai’s extremist message. Non-state terrorist organizations are innately opaque and cannot be eliminated in their entirety, and even as the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate dissolves in the Levant, it will increasingly rely on terrorist attacks – largely through affiliates like Wilayat Sinai – when conventional warfare proves impossible.
Terrorism in the Sinai will continue for the foreseeable future, and Sisi must realize that instead of blindly throwing troops at the problem, emphasizing social and economic development presents an infinitely more efficient, sustainable solution to cutting Wilayat Sinai’s deep-seated roots in the region.
If a humanitarian approach fails, then, at the very least, Egypt should redistribute its vast military budget (including an annual $1.3 billion in American aid) into intelligence and specialized training. After all, buying tanks and aircrafts become infinitely less effective when fighting guerrilla forces in a mountainous desert.
Alternatively, Sisi could seek to engage Bedouin tribesmen in antiterrorism programs similar to movements launched against al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Unfortunately, the military strongman will likely defer to what he knows, and his desire to swiftly crush Wilayat Sinai will deter him from investing in long-term approaches to peace. As Egyptians mourn their countrymen who died in the al-Rawda massacre, their president should expand his sympathies to the thousands of Sinai residents who endure daily violence from terrorist and military actors alike.
If Sisi truly wants to eliminate terrorism in the Sinai, then he should stop alienating a sizable portion of his population that lives amongst Egypt’s enemies. Yet, Sisi’s unwillingness to allow international journalists into the Sinai indicates that, for now, his antiterrorist calculus will remain unchanged, and his citizens will continue to suffer.