Laboratory of Violence: Egypt Struggles for Control of Sinai
The Sinai Peninsula is both a vacation paradise and a haven for jihadists and gangs of thugs. The military and the police are trying to regain control over the region. But a new class of haughty warlords and a resentful public mean the state's chances are remote.
On the day of his departure, warehouse manager Hussein Gilbana packed his five best shirts and pairs of pants into a black suitcase, together with books and photos. He embraced his wife and kissed his five-year-old son, Omar, and his little boy, Assar.
He told the children that he would return soon, and that he would come to get them and take them to a new home as soon as possible. Then he got into his old Fiat and drove away. He was leaving his home in al-Arish, on the Sinai Peninsula, which he had grown to hate.
Gilbana and his wife had recently taken to calling their city "signa," or "prison." Al-Arish, a city on the northern coast of Sinai, had been sealed off militarily.
Gilbana and his wife had looked on as outsiders invaded al-Arish: petty criminals, Islamists and former felons. They had seen how these people tried to take over the city, and how the Egyptian government had responded with brute violence. They had become familiar with two types of murderers, says Gilbana, "murderers with long beards and murderers in polished military boots."
Gilbana, 32, is a slim and energetic man. He's a Sinai native, and a member of a Bedouin tribe called the Aulad-Suleiman. Life in al-Arish wasn't bad. He worked as a warehouse manager in a cement factory and made a good living. But then his city turned into a war zone, says Gilbana.
The entire country has descended into violence since the military coup in July, but nowhere in Egypt is the fight being waged as bitterly and violently as on the Sinai Peninsula, which is roughly the size of the Republic of Ireland.
Growing Hotbed of Terrorism
The Sinai is a laboratory of violence, a test zone. This is where the military must prove it can establish law and order, now that it has eliminated the democratically elected Islamist government of former President Mohammed Morsi. The generals must demonstrate they can save the country -- and soon, or else the majority of Egyptians will lose the last vestige of confidence in the military, and so will Egypt's allies.
But the prospects are not good, as several incidents last week demonstrated. On Monday, a car bomb exploded in front of the police headquarters building in the center of el-Tor, the capital of the South Sinai Governorate. Egyptian media reported that shrapnel ripped open the front of the building across four floors. Four police officers were killed and 48 people were injured.
On the same day, gunmen attacked an army patrol in Sinai, near the Suez Canal. Thursday, only three days later, a suicide bomber drove his car into a checkpoint outside al-Arish, killing three soldiers and a police officer. Earlier, six people were killed in an attack on Egyptian intelligence headquarters in Rafah.
Last month in Cairo, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim narrowly escaped being killed by a car bomb. The attack was most likely the work of the Islamist militant group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which is present everywhere in Egypt but has its headquarters on the Sinai Peninsula.
Sinai, an upside-down triangle, has a harsh and unwelcoming desert in its interior but one of the most beautiful coastlines in the Middle East. It is bordered by the Gulf of Suez to the west, the Gulf of Aqaba to the east and the Mediterranean to the north. Saint Catherine's, one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world, near where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments from God, is in Sinai.
Sinai has been a Bedouin region for thousands of years. The Bedouins are a tough race. Though nominally Egyptian, their loyalty was to the tribe and not an abstract state that did little to nothing for them. Poor as they were, the Sinai Bedouins lived a free life. That is, until the tourists arrived.
Tourists Scared Off By Violence
In the mid-1990s, British, French and German tourists discovered southern Sinai. It was a paradise for beachgoers and amateur divers, with clear water and luminous coral reefs, just a few hours by plane from rainy Frankfurt. In Sharm el-Sheikh alone, the number of tourists skyrocketed from 60,000 in 1990 to 1.7 million in 2000. Hundreds of hotels were built, especially in the south. Meanwhile, there were looming developments in the north that had little to do with coral and culture.
The year 2010 was celebrated as a record year. Then the revolution overthrew the brutal but stable government, and Sinai became a virtually lawless zone.
The tourists stayed away, and smugglers, human and drug traffickers and jihadists took over. Since this summer and the removal of President Morsi from power, the army, the police and special forces have been trying to regain control over the peninsula.
In September, the government declared the situation was stable in southern Sinai. Lobbyists for Egyptian tourism urged European officials to lift their travel warnings for the Red Sea beach resorts. Then came last week's series of attacks in the north, dashing any hopes that the situation would improve in the foreseeable future.
Bringing peace to Sinai seems impossible at the moment, as Colonel Ahmed Mohammed Ali knows all too well. The officer is sitting in a palace in Cairo, in a conference room filled with velvet, crystal and brocade, wearing combat fatigues and shiny boots and drinking a glass of juice. Colonel Ali is a member of the staff of the head of the Egyptian military, General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi.
Jihadists have been coming to the peninsula since 2005, Ali says. Some come from Sudan, while others arrive through the smugglers' tunnels connecting Sinai with the Gaza Strip. They have found shelter primarily in three cities: Sheikh Zuwaid, Rafah and al-Arish, the city from which warehouse manager Gilbana fled.
According to Ali, the groups have their hideouts in these three cities and about 15 surrounding villages in northern Sinai, which is now their base of operations. There are nine groups, consisting of about 1,200 combatants, along with about 7,000 to 10,000 helpers. It is very difficult to get information from the population, says Ali, because people are scared.
- Part 1: Egypt Struggles for Control of Sinai
- Part 2: New Power Structures Emerge
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