Egypt’s generals ‘fighting al-Qaida in the Sinai Desert’

Military vehicles guard a police station in North Sinai

 

Originally published in the Independent, 22 August 2011

Perched high on a sandbank overlooking the slums of Gaza, a man who calls himself Abu Nafaq points to a block of canary-yellow flats just beyond the Egyptian border fence.

“That is where the Israelis bombed a few days ago,” he says, referring to the Israeli bombing raid in response to last week’s ambush by terrorists in southern Israel. According to the Israelis, the gunmen who murdered eight people near the Red Sea resort town of Eilat came from Gaza – possibly sneaking out through the warren of smugglers’ tunnels leading into the nearby Egyptian shantytown of Rafah.

If anyone should know whether that is true, it is Abu Nafaq, whose nickname means “Father of the Tunnel” in Arabic, and whose livelihood depends on the network of subterranean routes used to ferry goods into the blockaded Gaza Strip. “During the January 25 revolution there were hundreds of Gazans coming through here,” he said. “Now it’s down to around 60 or 70 a day. Of course the Eilat attackers could have come through the tunnels. But they would need the support of the Bedouin people living here, because everywhere they will find checkpoints and roads they are not familiar with.”

Last week’s attack came only a few days after Egypt’s ruling military council – which took power after the president, Hosni Mubarak, was toppled in February – dispatched hundreds of tanks to the North Sinai region following outbreaks of violence in its provincial capital, Al-Arish, about an hour’s drive west from Rafah. Egypt’s generals said the operation was intended to drive out “al-Qa’ida-inspired militants” in the region. After the Eilat attack there was an added piquancy to the deployment.

Israel has been wary of its neighbour since the fall of its ally Mubarak, and suggested the military council had lost control of the Sinai. Tensions were further heightened when five Egyptian soldiers were killed during the Israeli response to the attack, sparking angry protests yesterday outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo.

But a recent visit to North Sinai by The Independent suggested the picture is far murkier than the official narrative provided by both Egypt’s generals and leaders in Tel Aviv.

No doubt, as the Israelis have claimed, there has been some movement of Palestinian militants across the border. But some say the al-Qa’ida threat is exaggerated. One military official based in North Sinai told The Independent it was not true that the Egyptian army was hunting for Islamist extremists inspired by Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network. “There is hardline Muslim sympathy here, but no al-Qa’ida,” he said.

Yet something is up. On 29 July, the same day thousands of conservative Muslims rallied in central Cairo and called for a greater Islamic role in post-Mubarak Egypt, gunmen laid siege to Al-Arish’s police station in a battle which lasted for nine hours. Some of the attackers launched rocket-propelled grenades at the 12ft-walled compound, yet when the fighting had finished, all the assailants escaped unharmed.

It was against this background – along with several unsolved bomb attacks on a gas pipeline to Israel – that the military sent its armour in. Locals who witnessed the fighting told The Independent they believed the attackers had local support. One man, a doctor who identified himself only as Hossam, said: “The people who attacked the police station were locals from Al-Arish. They used weapons from some of the big families here.”

The idea that locals nursing anti-government grievances were responsible for the operation has some credence. For years the vast expanses of the Sinai desert have been beyond the control of central authority in Egypt. Lawless Bedouin tribes hold sway in the central regions, while in the urban north there was never much respect for Mubarak or his policemen.

Yet, Hossam added, some of the attackers were fundamentalist Salafi Muslims, the hardline Islamists who eschewed politics under Mubarak but have become increasingly vocal since his toppling.

It is a view supported by Yahya Abu Nasira, a Bedouin tribal chief from Rafah, who claimed the threat from Salafi fundamentalists was growing. “The Salafi people want to separate from Egypt and to start an Islamic state from here,” he said. “After that they want to go from city to city. That’s why there was the action in Al-Arish.”

Others on the streets of Al-Arish pointed the finger of blame at Takfir wal-Hijra, a shadowy, amorphous offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, blamed for terrorist attacks around the world since the mid-1990s.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a Salafi sheikh in Al-Arish denied his followers were responsible for any violence. Mostafa Azzem said it was “the thugs and criminals in the Sinai who attacked the police station, not Salafis”.

Others are not convinced either. Lina Atallah, managing editor of Egypt’s Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper, who has spent years covering the region around Al-Arish, said she was “in doubt” about the threat of an “Islamic emirate in the Sinai”. “Talk like that is taking it to the extreme,” she said. “I’m also extremely in doubt about the al-Qa’ida threat.”

Al-Arish itself has come under increasing Islamic influence since Mubarak’s fall. It remains a tourist city, but the niqab-wearing women who pack the streets at night during Ramadan lend it a distinctly provincial feel. And while government talk of “al-Qa’ida in the Sinai” seems far fetched, the military council has obviously been rattled by developments here.

Perhaps it genuinely fears the influence of hardline Islamism. Perhaps, as some have suggested, it simply wants to regain control of North Sinai after six months where police authority evaporated and the Bedouin stepped in to fill the vacuum. Either way, with Israelis rattling their sabres across the border over last week’s attack and Egyptians voicing their outrage at Tel Aviv’s response, the Sinai Desert – so often the theatre of the Middle East’s most pivotal conflicts – is on the frontline once again.

What next for Egypt’s peace with Israel?

Anwar Sadat, left, and Menachem Begin with Jimmy Carter at the White House in 1979

 

Originally published in Al-Masry Al-Youm, May 31 2011

Before President Anwar Sadat signed the 1979 peace treaty with Israel and won back the Sinai Peninsula for Egypt, Moshe Dayan, Israel’s eye patch-wearing foreign minister, had no doubt about what the deal would mean for his nation’s security.

“If a wheel is removed,” he reportedly said, “the car will not run again.” In other words, if Egypt was taken away from the field of battle, the Arab world could never again pose a threat to the Jewish state.

After the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) permanently opened the Rafah border crossing into Gaza on Saturday, many in Israel are wondering if the Arab car might have found its throttle again.

“I think many people here are nervous,” said Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, a politics professor at Tel Aviv University. “There was a lot of admiration when people saw civilians going out and asking for better lives, but also concern about what was going to come.”

The SCAF’s decision to permanently open the Rafah border crossing with Gaza, which has been closed as part of a joint Israeli-Egyptian siege on the Palestinian territory since Hamas took power there in 2007, drew sharp criticism from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But for people in Egypt, it was a hopeful sign of new relations with Israel.

Ever since Sadat signed the peace deal – a move he calculated would help him emerge from the shadow of his wildly popular predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser – Cairo’s relations with Tel Aviv have been out of step with popular Egyptian feelings.

A 2007 poll by the Pew Global Attitudes project found that 80 percent of Egyptians felt that Palestinian needs could not be met while the state of Israel existed. Only 18 percent believed the two states could co-exist on an even keel.

What will substantively change as a result of the January 25 uprising? Not much, according to Nabil Abdel Fattah, an expert from Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

“I think the same Egyptian-Israeli relationship will continue as before without any significant changes in strategy,” he said.

In common with most analysts who spoke to Al-Masry Al-Youm – and in stark contrast to much of the fevered speculation that characterized Western coverage of the Egyptian uprising – Abdel Fattah predicted that the 1979 peace treaty with Israel was not in any danger.

“Even the Muslim Brotherhood will respect the treaty,” he said. “This is in the national interest, and they know that if they finish the peace treaty, then the reaction around the world will be negative.”

Despite the SCAF saying soon after the resignation of former President Hosni Mubarak that it would “respect all treaties” signed by previous presidents, the Muslim Brotherhood – which many expect will be the biggest winner in elections scheduled for September – has not been so specific, contenting itself with issuing vague statements about respecting the will of the people.

Many believe that tearing up the peace treaty would be a fool’s errand. Though public attitudes towards Tel Aviv are undeniably icy, a recent poll by the Dubai-based marketing research firm YouGovSiraj also found that 60 percent of Egyptians are in favor of maintaining the status quo. Only 27 percent think that severing ties would be a good idea, according to the survey.

“Nobody is going to risk changing the balance,” said Imam Hamdy, an expert on Arab-Israeli relations at the American University of Cairo. “Nobody can afford it.”

There will, of course, be change, said Hamdy, but it will be characterized by a subtle shift away from the warm cordiality which existed under Mubarak.

But what Israel and the West might view as an alarming disengagement from the spirit of the Camp David Accords, others should see as a return to a more normal, less imbalanced relationship, she added.

“Before 25 January there was an exceptional relationship,” she said. “The Egyptian regime was too accommodating and generous to Israel, even at the expense sometimes of Egyptian and Arab interests.”

As an example Hamdy cited the controversial 20-year deal signed in 2005 in which Egypt agreed to export cheap gas to Israel, triggering anger among some Egyptians who said the fuel was being bought at below-inflation rates.

“Now I think it’s going to be a more normal relationship. I think Egypt will distance itself a bit,” Hamdy said.

Her views were backed up by Abdel Fattah, who added: “The majority of the Egyptian people criticized the regime of Hosni Mubarak because he accepted many violations [against] the Palestinian people.”

“I think the revolutionary uprising is a message to America and Israel saying, ‘You must respect us as a country.’”

If the new government that comes to power after this year’s elections hopes to reflect the will of the people, then a change in Egypt’s attitude toward the issue of the Palestinians would probably be a vote-winner. Indeed, many of the presidential candidates have already started touting their tough-on-Israel credentials as they launch their campaigns.

The SCAF has already got the ball rolling, both by opening the Rafah crossing on Saturday and also by helping to broker a deal between Hamas and Fatah, the two rival Palestinian factions, on forming a unity government. Its next test will be how it deals with Israel’s reaction to a planned UN vote in September on Palestinian statehood.

But a much more permanent change in tact will would required to shift away from Mubarak’s cozy relationship with Israel and the US.

Internal memos recently leaked to Al Jazeera shed light on the duplicity of the Egyptians in their dealings with the Palestinians.

Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s right hand man on intelligence issues, was cast in a particularly bad light. He was accused by one European diplomat of “discouraging” a rapprochement between Hamas and Fatah after the 2006 elections, while negotiators trying to break the siege of Gaza reported that although Suleiman and Mubarak were promising in public to deliver supplies, no goods were actually getting through from the Egyptian side of the border.

“Egypt’s relationship with the Palestinians was very complex,” Hamdy said. “On the one hand Mubarak wanted to establish peace for the sake of Egypt. He believed that Egypt had a stake in peace – that stake was world leadership.

“In public, it has been very supportive of a two-state solution and Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. But how far does it go when it comes to the details? That is the issue.”

The merits of drastically altering Egyptian foreign policy towards Israel – and thus endangering approximately US$2 billion of mostly military aid which Cairo receives every year from Washington as a result of the peace treaty – also seems uncertain when one considers whether it is likely to have any serious effect on changing the Israelis.

“It is hard to say whether Egypt will now have leverage on Israeli domestic policy,” said Maddy-Weitzman, the Tel Aviv University professor.

He said that Egyptian impotence in the case of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who has been held prisoner in the Gaza Strip by Hamas since 2006, was an example of how Cairo’s powers are limited.

Yet he also said the recent deal between Hamas and Fatah, brokered in Cairo, showed how Egypt’s influence has potential to grow.

“If Egypt could have a hand in bringing about a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians which is seen as acceptable then it would send a nice message to the Israeli public,” he added.

Whatever direction Egypt takes after parliamentary and presidential elections this year, there seems to be no possibility of returning to full-scale hostilities with Israel.

According to Mohamed Abdel Salam, an expert on Egypt’s military and editor of World Politics magazine, even if a new government did want to rip up the 1979 peace treaty, Egypt would be in no position to fight a war if it wanted to.

“The balance of forces would have to be 3-to-1 if Egypt wanted to attack Israel,” he said. “I don’t think the balance of power is 3-to-1.”

He added that there was absolutely no incentive whatsoever for either country to break its peace.

“There are regional realities,” he said. “There aren’t any vital interests in going to war.”

Disabled and Arab – a double barrier?

The Syrian Arab Army Band perform at the Special Olympics Opening Ceremony.

It is hard getting to the Olympics when your team lives under occupation.

According to members of the Palestinian delegation to this year’s Middle East Special Olympics in Damascus, some of the squad met for the first time only when they arrived in Syria.

Because a number live in the Gaza Strip and others are based in the occupied West Bank, they have been separated all their lives by restrictions on travel between the two territories.

The Palestinians were among the 23 squads invited to the 7th SOMENA (Special Olympics Middle East and North Africa) Regional Games taking place in Damascus this week.

Among the others who attended a fever-pitch Opening Ceremony in the 10,000-seater Tishreen Stadium over the weekend were Iran (not traditionally a “Middle Eastern” nation, but that seems to have been overlooked), UAE (whose squad looked somewhat incongruous parading around the stadium in their distinctly un-athletic jalabiyas and headscarves), and Somalia (who had a total of four athletes during the opening – because people in Somalia “don’t care much about the disabled”, according to one volunteer)

Attitudes towards the disabled in Syria and across the Middle East have long fallen short of what might be called “Western standards”.

Speak to many Syrians and they will tell you how disabled youngsters are often given the “Mrs Rochester” treatment – hidden away inside the house out of a sense of shame or embarrassment. This is backed up by a UNESCO Education for All report last year, which highlighted “negative attitudes towards the disabled” across the Middle East as having an effect on the self-confidence of children with learning disabilities.

But organisers of this year’s Special Olympics want to change all that. One of the Syrian athletes, a swimmer with Down’s Syndrome called Alaa al-Zaybak has even become something of a national poster boy, starring in a TV series about the disabled during Ramadan and being billed as a star by the Syrian newspapers.

There is a long way to go, but these Olympics seem to be doing their bit in the fight against hidebound ignorance.