The devastating attack on a mosque in the northern Sinai Peninsula has largely been identified by observers as primarily an act of religious sectarian violence. To wit: Salafi-Wahhabi terrorists in the Wilayat Sinai and allied with the Islamic State, killed Sufi Sunni Muslim worshippers because they consider them heretics.
I don’t think this was an adequate explanation for motive behind the massacre. Rather, it was a horrific episode in the simmering war in Sinai between the fundamentalist Wilayat Sinai group and at least two main tribes in the Sinai Peninsula that have sided with the central government of Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to fight the insurgency.
Sinai is Egypt’s domain of Bedouins, the traditionally nomadic tribes whose extended family relationships stretch across national boundaries into the Gaza Strip, Israel, Jordan and beyond. Successive Egyptian governments have marginalized Bedouin tribes from national life. Caught up between the triangle of concerns and conflicts between Israel, the Palestinians and Egypt, have subsisted for decades by small scale farming, grazing and smuggling.
Despite this history of alienation, at least two tribes—the Tarabin and the Sawarka—have allied themselves with Sisi in the conflict in Sinai. The mosque in Bir al-Abed where more than 300 worshippers died was frequented largely by Sawarka members.
No one has yet proclaimed responsibility for the mosque attack, yet it makes cruel tactical sense for Wilayat Sinai, to have masterminded such an event. It is important for the jihadist group to keep the bulk of the Sinai Bedouin population at least neutral, if not on its side, in its battle against the central government.
Non-rebel Bedouins serve alongside Egyptian soldiers at checkpoints and have helped them navigate the mountain redoubts of the insurgents. They also spy on suspected terrorist militants. In May, the Sawarka tribe, also prominent in north Sinai, formally joined the Tarabin in an anti-Wilayat alliance.
The Tarabin-Sawarka alliance is successor to sporadic Bedouin security collaboration with Cairo that began as early as 2012 after the fall of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Then, several tribal sheikhs opted to forestall heavy government crackdowns on the whole population due to growth of rebel groups, increased infiltration of jihad terrorists from the Gaza Strip and an influx of arms from Libya. At least eight tribal sheikhs were assassinated in the years following Mubarak’s 2011.
After Sisi ousted elected president Muhammed Morsi, a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood, in 2013, the terrorist group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, forerunner of Wilayat Sinai, changed its formal goals. Not only did it declare itself a prime opponent of Sisi’s takeover and champion of Bedouin rights, it dedicated itself to the Islamic State’s quest for global Islamic revival through violence. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis changed its name to Wilayat Sinai, meaning it had become a “province” of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate.
Until the mosque attack, the gravest terror action took place in 2015, when a Russian passenger jet exploded in mid-air, killing 224 people. The rebels also stepped up their campaign to kill tribal members who cooperated with Cairo and those whom it declared were Israeli spies. The chief target was the Tarabin tribe, the most outspoken and active of the anti-Wilayat groups.
In response to the Bir al-Abed attack, in which the terrorists employed bombs and rocket propelled grenades, Sisi has launched a heavy military campaign that includes aerial bombing and ground operations. Presumably the Sawarka and Tarabin will applaud and perhaps seek their own vengeance, although in past crackdowns, such heavy handed government assaults have offended many Bedouins by killing civilians and destroying villages. In any event, the mosque massacre points up Sisi’ inability to crush the jihad in Sinai.
More than four years into his reign, the military strategy has failed. As in other Middle East instances where chronic discontent erupted in civil war and terrorism, it would serve Sisi to persuade Sinai Bedouins that security cooperation will lead to development, prosperity and some sort of mechanism (democracy?) for Sinai concerns to be heard in Cairo.
Already, Sisi has promised a multi-million dollar development scheme for the Sinai. Unfortunately, Egypt’s problems go well beyond region and elsewhere in Egypt, Sisi’s projects and pledges of prosperity and democracy have gone unfulfilled while economic and social problems pile up.
Fully a quarter of Egyptians live in poverty, far higher than before Mubarak’s fall. The young are mostly unemployed or underemployed. Only employment in the bloated public administration has expanded. Sisi has made some conventional economic reforms meant to harvest a $12 billion loan from the IMF. They include levy of a value added tax, and a limit on government salary increases, fuel subsidy cuts and letting the Egyptian pound float. The reform measures, however, came at a cost of bringing the yearly inflation rate to near 20 per cent with no relief in sight.
The Sisi government’s idea of economic development seems to focus on expanding the creation of military-run of factories and having generals oversee mega-projects like expansion of the Suez Canal and the planned creation of a new capital city.
While fighting a war against terror, Sisi has also found plenty of time to shut down limited freedoms that grew during the last years of the Mubarak regime. Jails are full not only of Islamist dissidents but secular democracy and political rights advocates.
Sinai fits into a distressing Middle East pattern, where civil conflict incites a strong military response, but in which the political and economic outreach necessary to definitively end hostilities is lacking. In Iraq, a long running civil war continues where the large and restive Sunni Muslim minority has been marginalized by the sectarian Shiite government in Baghdad. It remains to be seen whether Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad converts his apparent advantage in the current civil war into political reconciliation with the restive Sunni majority should he finally win.
Can Sisi do better in Sinai? In Bir al-Abed, his Bedouin allies have already paid a heavy price for their bet on him.