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Festivities marking Sinai Day are cancelled as the battle to defeat terrorists in the north of the peninsula continues. Ahmed Eleiba reports
“Sinai Day this year will be marked by the placing of wreaths on the graves of martyrs who fell in the war and beside the commemorative statue,” read the official statement announcing the cancellation of the usual ceremonies accompanying the anniversary of the liberation of the Sinai from Israeli occupation. The last Israeli soldier withdrew from Sinai on 25 April 1982.
The reasons for the cancellation are obvious: the continuing war against terror in the peninsula has led to a near unanimity of opinion that there is no reason to celebrate.
Military operations against terrorist organisations are ongoing. The terror groups draw on takfiri ideology to brand the state, the authorities, the army, and any Bedouins who cooperate with them, as heretics and, therefore, legitimate targets. They began the confrontation following the end of Muslim Brotherhood rule in June 2013. The confrontation increased in ferocity when Sinai-based terrorist groups declared their fealty to IS and founded the Sinai Province of the Islamic State. The move promoted what had been a domestic conflict with the Egyptian state into an international jihad, opening the doors to takfiri volunteers and jihad-mongers from around the world.
Assessments of the progress of military operations in Sinai differ widely. While a majority of observers and military experts say security forces have succeeded over the last two years in demolishing the terrorists’ infrastructure and that Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, the largest of the terrorist groups, is now struggling to survive on support from abroad, others point out that Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, while its operational capacities have been reduced, is still able to mount operations.
Sources in Sinai say Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis continues to exercise control over a number of areas and is able to attract new recruits. They also note that security forces face ongoing problems in gathering reliable intelligence despite recent shake-ups among senior personnel and the creation, three months ago, of a unified command.
Another crucial variable in the complex Sinai mix is the role played by local Bedouins. In what may be a significant development a statement posted on a social networking site and attributed to the Tarabin tribe, one of Sinai’s largest with clans in both the north and south of the peninsula, announced that the Tarabin was supporting the army and police following the crimes committed “by the IS Sinai Province against peaceful civilians”. The statement was signed by a number of Sinai elders and notables.
Abdallah Jahama, who occasionally acts as a spokesman for the Tarabin, questions the provenance of the statement. He told Al-Ahram Weekly that he had contacted several of the signatories. They all said their names had been included without their knowledge. While it is a “de facto reality”, Jahama added, that the tribe supports the army and police against terrorists, what they did object to in the statement was the claim that the Tarabin were in the process of forming a militia to fight the insurgents.
“It is an option that the military firmly opposes,” says Jahama. “And the army knows far better than tribal leaders the enemy they face. It is important to be discreet about Tarabin support of the army. Any publicity risks the tribe being targeted by the terrorist organisations.”
There are rumours that members of the Tarabin are among the tribesmen recruited by terrorist organisations.
“This is possible,” concedes Jahama. “We cannot claim that all people are alike. Perverse ideas will always find someone to entice.”
Another local observer, Ghazi Abu Faraj of the Sawarka tribe, is pessimistic about the results of the ongoing military operation. The security approach to the Sinai is destined to fail, he says, as long as a “policy of discrimination between tribes” continues. Some tribes are favoured while others are snubbed, he complains, and there is no material or moral compensation to those who do offer support. In reference to the statement attributed to the Tarabin, he said requests to form militias are far from new. The army has always rejected such offers. A military source confirmed this to the Weekly: “Offers to form militias have been made more than once and they are always turned down. The only state agency with a mandate to fight is army. This is a clear position adopted by the state.”
Salah Sallam, head of the North Sinai chapter of the Doctors Syndicate and a member of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), is also far from optimistic about the situation in the peninsula.
“I do not believe that a breakthrough will occur in Sinai in the foreseeable future despite all the measures that have been taken,” says Sallam. The reason for this, he argues, is because administering a successful cure first requires an accurate diagnosis of the problem and that is something that has never happened in Sinai.
Another problem besetting the security operation, say local sources, is that while claims that terrorists in Sinai are being supported from Gaza are repeatedly made no other details appear to be forthcoming.
According to one reliable source “it is true there is support but the question that needs to be asked is what mechanisms are involved in furnishing this support.”
“Some from Sinai did flee to Gaza where they have tribal connections. They are the link.”
He cites the example of an entire family from the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis stronghold of Al-Mahdiya that managed to cross the border into Gaza. The family is related to the Mani’i clan and has played a major role in funding and coordinating cross border activities.
“It is likely that the family still helps terror organisations in North Sinai by acting as a channel for financial support and intelligence. Infiltration of the border continues. There are clearly lines of communication that remain open,” he says.
“The Hamas government in Gaza has a list of the names of many people who fled the Sinai for Gaza. It has been notified of the places they fled to and the families that received them. Yet it refuses to respond to requests to hand over these wanted people,” says a government source.
Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood has continued to seek to make political capital out of the situation in Sinai. Senior military experts, including General Alaa Ezzeddin, Director of the Armed Forces Centre for Strategic Studies, has no doubt that there is direct relationship between the Brotherhood and terrorist organisations in the peninsula. “Simply consider where the interests of the Brotherhood lie,” he says. “You’ll quickly find that they are served by supporting Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis.”
Amr Darrag, senior Brotherhood member and a minister under Mohamed Morsi, recently penned an article that appeared on The Hill webpage and which describes the situation in Sinai as “an insurgency against the coup.” The military operation in the peninsula, he claimed, was a form of collective punishment against civilians rather than an attempt to target armed groups.
“The Egyptian military have broken every rule of effective counter-insurgency by alienating the local people,” wrote Darrag. “They have fomented a sense of injustice that will only result in further cycles of violence.”