This Ramadan, Egyptians were introduced to the real tragedies of the war on terror in Sinai and the western desert, through the popular show “Al-Ikhtyar” (The Choice). The 30-episode series told the story of terrorist groups' formation and the Egyptian army’s efforts to combat them. The perfect representation of the war on terror in Sinai brought into focus two important questions that Egyptians have been asking since the beginning of terrorism emergence in Sinai, in 2012.
The first question wonders about the importance of the Sinai Peninsula for terrorist organizations that make sponsor states of terrorism spend as much money to support terrorist operations, there. The second question is about the strategies adopted by the Egyptian military in fighting terrorist groups in Sinai, and why the military cannot evacuate civilians outside Sinai so they can eliminate the terrorists in direct war.
As for the first question, the strategic and historical importance of the Sinai Peninsula to the Egyptian state is unquestionable. Sinai is the eastern gateway to Egypt and the most important factor governing Egypt’s relationship with neighboring countries, including Israel. In addition, the Sinai desert is rich with mining fortunes, charming natural sights, and a religious history in Judaism and Christianity.
For terrorists, Sinai’s special complexion of demographics, geopolitics, and history is used as a winning card that they can always play on both sponsors and followers. The area of the Sinai Peninsula is six times as big as the state of Qatar. Controlling this huge piece of land that is linking the two contents of Asia and Africa should leverage the status of the terrorist group that – God forbid – succeeds in seizing it.
In addition, the proximity of Sinai to Israel makes the terrorist organizations win more followers and sponsors by claiming that they are based in Sinai to target Israel. One of the early terrorist organizations that were formed after the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in 2013, called itself “Ansar Biet Almaqdes” implying that they were formed to “liberate Jerusalem from the Jews.” This has been adopted as a sacred slogan by almost all known terrorist organizations in the Middle East region, for decades.
Also, the fact that Sinai shares northern borders with Gaza, where the terrorist organization Hamas is ruling with generous support from Qatar, gives terrorist groups a backyard to run to whenever they need food, weapons, or medical treatment. In 2012, Hamas was the first group to launch terrorist activities in Sinai, under the supervision of Muslim Brotherhood leadership in Cairo, 2012. The Muslim Brotherhood leaders promised Hamas, at that time, that they would open Sinai for the people of Gaza and remove borders between the strip and the peninsula! That was one of the many evil plans by the Muslim Brotherhood leadership that was thwarted by the people’s second revolution against the Muslim Brotherhood regime in 2013.
As for the second question about the necessity of changing the Egyptian military strategy to combat terrorism in Sinai, the answer may be too complex to detail in one article. But, in a nutshell, the Egyptian military has improved its technological capabilities and trained its personnel on guerrilla war tactics. This helped Egypt destroy the majority of terrorist focal points in Sinai over the past three years.
However, evacuating the innocent civilians of Sinai so the military forces can finish terrorists in a face-to-face war is not an option and is not as simple as some might think. That is due to the Egyptian state’s compliance with international law, regional treaties, and international norms, in addition to Egypt’s commitment to many security and political considerations with neighboring countries. Even if the evacuation is implemented for a limited period of time and under the approval of Sinai citizens, this may encourage international bodies to intervene in Sinai with the purpose of protecting civilians. This would limit and compromise Egypt’s sovereignty over Sinai. This scenario is a nightmare for the Egyptian state and the last thing Egyptians would ever want. Nevertheless, evacuating the citizens of Sinai will encourage Hamas and the people of Gaza to leak into the peninsula, slowly but surely, and occupy the land while its native citizens are absent.
Development is the best strategy to fight terrorism in Sinai. The Egyptian state has already started the path towards improving the living conditions in Sinai. But, this shall take long years and an enormous effort and financial investments. Until then, the Egyptian military will remain the one barrier against terrorist organizations in Sinai, and the sponsor states behind them.