Sinai: Egyptian Maneuvering and Risky US Choices

Sinai militia carrying al-Qaeda flags head for a funeral of killed militants (Hisham Allam/IPS)

by Wayne White

Last week, Jasmin Ramsey pointed out how problematic the recent US decision to deliver attack helicopters to Egypt is in terms of US human rights policy. The move also portrays the US as actively taking sides in a conflict pitting a repressive regime against armed opposition, with potentially adverse consequences for the US and its citizens. It mirrors Washington’s decision earlier this year to send Iraq’s abusive Shi’a-dominated government advanced weaponry to use against Sunni Arab militants. And then there is the possibility that Egyptian leaders might not have done all they could to secure Sinai, in part to extract US military aid.

Smokescreens and inconsistencies

Seemingly in no mood to help Washington defend its decision, Egypt declared officially on April 24 — two days after the delivery of 10 US Apache helicopters and $650 million in military aid to Egypt was announced — that its army had “complete control over the situation” in the Sinai! This statement directly contradicted the Pentagon’s rationale for delivering the helicopters:  to “counter extremists [in Sinai] who threaten US, Egyptian and Israeli security.”

The Egyptian army’s claim appears to be unfounded, merely self-serving propaganda. A less questionable source, a recent Reuters investigation, concluded several hundred militants were still at large in Sinai and “are nowhere near defeat.” To wit, the day before the army’s announcement, a Sinai-based group almost certainly carried out a bombing that killed an Egyptian police general near Cairo (in addition to various attacks by Sinai militants in recent weeks).

Jihadist activity in and emanating from Sinai soared following the military’s overthrow of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi last year. Three groups stand out: Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM), Ansar al-Sharia of Egypt, and, since early this year, Ajnad Misr (AM).  Although there have been attacks against the Israeli border and foreigners, the vast bulk of them since Morsi’s overthrow have targeted Egyptian military and police personnel.

Despite the army’s sweeping public reassurance concerning Sinai, senior Egyptian officials must have shared a more sober assessment with Washington. Indeed, more pessimistic Egyptian analysis was likely discussed during Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s exchange with his Egyptian counterpart last Tuesday.

Meanwhile, US policy aimed at reducing repression in Egypt, already struggling, has been further undermined.  To justify the helicopter delivery, Kerry on April 29 cited in his news conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy the passage of the Egyptian constitution as a “positive step forward.” This is hardly in line with the facts. It hands more power to the military, and was passed with a highly suspicious 98% of the vote amidst relatively low turnout. Kerry himself back in January expressed great concern about the entire constitutional process, noting “the absence of an inclusive drafting process or public debate before the vote, the arrests of those who campaigned against it, and procedural violations during the balloting.”

The decision to go forward with the helicopter delivery became especially embarrassing on April 28 when the Egyptian government resumed its harsh repression in a stunning fashion: a judge sentenced Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie and nearly 700 supporters to death. This threw Kerry even more on the defensive; while sticking with the helicopter decision, he conceded in the same news conference, among other things, that “disturbing decisions in the judiciary process” pose “difficult challenges.”

Terrorism trumps pluralism and human rights

An ominous pattern of US regional policy choices appears to be taking shape that, effectively, sweeps aside very real concerns about widespread repression and abuse in order to help regimes friendly to the US crackdown on Muslim extremists.

To place this in perspective, despite what many believe, extremists do not typically place a high priority on attacking Americans, the US and other foreigners. Most are highly localized franchises, seeking mainly to overthrow local regimes. And even when they do target foreigners, attacks almost always involve only those inside countries where the violence is taking place.

Related to the pattern noted above, for years the US has pressed Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to end his exclusionist, repressive policies toward much of Iraq’s Sunni Arab community. Maliki ignored these appeals. Mostly the result of Maliki’s purging from government, arresting, and even assassinating Sunni Arabs, al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) — nearly defeated during Iraq’s Sunni Arab “Awakening” (welcomed by the US, but largely shunned by Maliki) — has rebounded dramatically in a devastating wave of violence.

Then, with its fortunes declining in Syria, fielding a sizeable Iraqi component, and responding to protests against Baghdad’s ill treatment of Sunni Arabs, a contingent of the jihadist Sunni Arab Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group seized and held the Iraqi city of Fallujah (and a few portions of nearby Ramadi) in early January; it was joined by some disgruntled Sunni Arab tribesmen. Unable to oust ISIL from Fallujah, Maliki appealed for urgent US military aid.

Despite Maliki’s role in provoking Sunni Arab violence and ignoring US pleas for moderation, Washington quickly dispatched Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, as well as ScanEagle and Raven drones to help him retake Fallujah. Since then, ISIL and its allies in Fallujah have suffered significant losses from Hellfire missile strikes.

There was, of course, a long history of American military assistance to governments with loathsome human rights records going back decades — driven by Cold War imperatives and the “friendliness” of such regimes.  More recently, however, with the emergence of robust militant Islamic groups, a new driver for such aid emerged: terrorism. This trend became especially compelling after 9/11.

Potential anti-US blowback

There is, however, danger associated with such assistance: the US risks becoming a far more important target of extremist groups on the receiving end of regime repression than is the case now.

With respect to Algeria, the US distanced itself from a military-backed regime never close to the US during most of the 1990’s in reaction to its anti-democratic and ruthless behavior that played a major role in triggering and sustaining a huge Islamist uprising. Up to 200,000 died in a savage conflict that eventually spawned several extremist groups.

By contrast, France helped the Algerian regime crush the rebels and became a prime target for extremist reprisals. When the last militant holdouts morphed into al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), they shifted their operations out of Algeria into the weaker nations of the Francophone Sahel.

France was compelled to step in militarily last year to prevent Mali from being overrun by a collection of northern Malian separatists, AQIM and other extremists.  In defeat, AQIM and closely aligned militants fell back into a lawless portion of Libya, but quickly lashed out at a southern Algerian natural gas facility in order to get their hands on foreigners there.

Likewise, Sinai extremists along with ISIL in Syria and Iraq, especially in their bitterness if and when they are defeated, could shift from a narrow focus on Egyptian, Syrian and Iraqi government targets toward Americans and the US. Yet, whether Iraq (where Maliki never retook Fallujah), Syria (where ISIL’s woes stem mainly from regime forces and rebel rivals), and Egypt (where US military aid probably will not determine the outcome in Sinai), the US could loom far larger as an enemy and scapegoat.

In Sinai, for example, surviving jihadists could make a far more serious effort to target the largely American Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) peacekeeping contingent based along the southern coast. Until now, MFO has been left alone except for one September 2012 attack against its base camp.

Egyptian scheming?

Lastly, Egyptian leaders appear to assign Sinai security a much lower priority than Egypt proper despite US and Israeli concerns. I learned when I served a year in Sinai as a peacekeeper that Egyptian troops loathed duty in Sinai, regarding it as a wasteland of little value compared to Egypt’s Nile Valley core. And unlike more rugged south Sinai, the north (where most attacks occur) is considerably less difficult to monitor.

This negative Egyptian attitude toward Sinai, combined with the government’s keen desire to secure renewed US military support, might have inclined Egypt’s military brass not to pursue Sinai security full-bore. If true, not pressing the fight to the maximum while Sinai simmers might be meant, at least in part, to increase Egypt’s chances of getting US policymakers to do precisely what Cairo wanted: release their hold on attack helicopters of great value in suppressing opposition in Sinai, but also in Egypt proper.

Photo: Sinai militia carrying al-Qaeda flags head for a funeral of killed militants on August 10, 2013. Credit: Hisham Allam/IPS.

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.


One Comment

  1. The whole M.E. group, including Israel, don’t give a crap about what the U.S. wants, only what they can get from the U.S. Witness Israels actions, getting even more than usual from the U.S., while giving the middle finger to the “O”, Kerry, and anyone else in the U.S.Government. The others have taken Israels lead, and sorry to say, there’s no turning back, save for washing the hands of the whole mess. Of course, that won’t happen, because this administration is run by a bunch of immature idiots who can’t weven take care of things at home, regardless of party affiliation.

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