Sinai’s tough questions
BY SARAH EL SIRGANY
Cairo: Egypt is teeming with answers to the question of who was behind the Sinai attack. In the first reports about the terrorist act that left 16 soldiers dead, media volunteered a culprit: Jihadi groups.
Within 24 hours and before an official statement was made, Egyptians were trading theories which starkly reflected the political polarization of the country.
In the same fashion that the word “Muslim” is occasionally confused with “Islamist extremist,” “Palestinian” became synonymous with “crazed jihadi”. The ruling was out in the first hours after the tragic attack: The jihadists are Palestinians from Gaza.
President Mohamed Morsi was blamed for introducing a more humane approach to the blockaded Gaza Strip compared to the punitive measures adopted by his ousted predecessor Hosni Mubarak. Morsi’s decision to ease the movement of Palestinians at the Rafah crossing was immediately blamed.
This spurred a counter campaign. If the Gazans stand to lose the most as a result of this attack — the crossing has been closed indefinitely — why would they do it? The attack, some theorized, aimed at undermining Morsi and his Hamas-friendly foreign policy.
The Muslim Brotherhood, to which Morsi is affiliated, blamed Israel.
Amid conflicting reports and opinions, attempts to ask the right questions or look for genuine answers are overshadowed. Pieces of the puzzle could very much be lost or deliberately dismissed because they were first introduced as part of ludicrous conspiracy theories and spiteful political scuffles.
Analysts specialized in Egyptian politics and extremist movements are only offering theories and expertise at this early stage. But their efforts are either ignored or bashed.
“People underestimate the complexity of what’s going on in Sinai,” said Omar Ashour, director of the Middle East Studies at Exeter University and an expert in security sector reform and Islamist movements.
Right after the attack, Khalil Al-Anani, a scholar of Middle Eastern Politics at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University, wrote a series of tweets about extremist cells in Sinai with possible connections in Gaza. He was ridiculed by some for spreading conspiracy theories and criticized by others for vindicating Israel and pointing the finger of blame at Hamas.
Yet he had specifically said that accusing Hamas constituted “ignorance.” But at a time when Palestinians are the preferred scapegoat — Mubarak supporters even see them as one of the orchestrators of Egypt’s 2011 uprising — sensitive articulation is proving vital to the debate.
Journalist Abdelmonem Mahmoud was mindful of this in his carefully-constructed argument in which he tied Egypt-based cells with those in Gaza. He stressed that such Qaeda-influenced cells work against Hamas in Gaza. “It’s not farfetched that this Salafi, Jihadi movement … wants to embarrass Hamas” following improvements in Egypt’s relations under Morsi,” he wrote.
The same careful treatment needs to be given to the Bedouins who, for decades, have borne the brunt of all that has gone wrong in the peninsula. Ashour noted that Bedouins don’t see the military as the enemy; it is the police forces they resent for years of brutal crackdowns targeting them.
The recent attacks were symptomatic of Sinai’s complex problems: underdevelopment, repression and a security vacuum, Ashour said, echoing many analysts. It’s important, however, not to generalize when assigning blame, and to differentiate between the Bedouins and extremist enclaves.
This recent attack was an unprecedented escalation, targeting the military, specifically its personnel rather than equipment or buildings, and was brutal in its execution. Previous terrorist attacks in the 2000s targeted tourists and hotels.
“It represents a change in creed, in dogma,” said Ashour.
He speculated decentralized cells on both sides of the Egypt-Gaza border, but less institutionalized in Egypt. The attack, however, does not require as much organization as the hype suggested, he said.
Effort needs to be directed towards finding out whether there is an armed organization growing in Sinai akin to the violent groups of the 1990s, he added.
The local layer
Genuine answers will be difficult to find, not just because the security forces might end up rounding up suspects in a brutal crackdown merely to save face rather than to investigate, but because political battles are taking prominence. The soldiers’ funeral on Tuesday, where activists and officials were attacked by mourners, revealed how political disagreements can disrupt a funeral, let alone an investigation.
Misinformation is promoted to settle political scores, and opposite camps are dismissing potentially credible information out of an irrational, overtly-defensive attitude.
Another equally important question that has more chances of being sidelined is the state of Egypt’s army. Last year, Clement M. Henry and Robert Springborg wrote that the “[military’s] training is desultory, maintenance of its equipment is profoundly inadequate, and it is dependent on the United States for funding and logistical support.” US and Egyptian officers are cited in Wikileaks cables describing the degradation of the Armed Forces.
As the country grieves, many find it insensitive to raise such questions and to point out that 16 soldiers were killed in a surprise attack, while Israel managed to stop the same assailants from reaching its own border unit.
The comparison has to be made and Egyptians need to know the truth about the state of their Armed Forces; whether the underperformance is a result of the military’s involvement in politics or if it’s the accumulation of factors that have been kept from public discussion by traditional military secrecy.
On social media, Egyptians are posting pictures comparing the type of special forces deployed to disperse demonstrations in Cairo or protect commercial facilities and the poorly-groomed conscripts deployed at the border. A recent Israeli travel warning about possible terrorist attacks in Sinai is juxtaposed with a dismissive denial by the governor of Sinai.
Mahmoud noted a video, posted last June, in which young men speak of their intention to launch a similar attack.
The intelligence services are too busy chasing down activists and the military is underprepared and distracted by politics. Is this true? Egyptians may never know. It can be left to speculation without genuine investigation or even acknowledgement, further feeding the conspiracy machine that only serves to blur the facts.
These anti-truth firewalls are not only the fault of the camp that has grown defensive of any statement that is remotely critical of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, but are also the outcome of a mindset that sees this type of criticism as treason.
This cultural predisposition is increasingly being challenged by young activists and citizens emboldened by the uprising, but the top brass will use it to suppress those questioning their competence and order of priorities.
The odds are against the truth, but proper investigations are imperative to finding solutions. If the security vacuum and a host of socio-economic issues have created a breeding ground for extremism, this must be known, especially if an Islamist government is indirectly emboldening such extremists who could nonetheless be working against it. These cells and the smuggling tunnels facilitating unmonitored cross border movement could be curtailed through better cooperation with Hamas and by opening the border crossing for commerce.
More importantly, serious apolitical investigations should reveal whether our security apparatus is underprepared and skewed towards the wrong priorities. Even though Egypt is not in a state of war, the dark shadows of the 1967 defeat hang over any discussions about the state of the military.
At this critical moment amid a prolonged, turbulent transition, Egypt can’t afford reckless political games; because at some point it might be too late. -The Egypt Monocle