Photo Gallery: Egypt's Fight for Sinai

Foto: Khaled Elfiqi/ picture alliance / dpa

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.

New Power Structures Emerge

Ali says the terrorists have proclaimed a sort of fatwa, or religious decree, even though they lack the theological authority to do so. According to this pseudo-fatwa, all soldiers and police officers are to be seen as infidels and are therefore legitimate targets for killing.

The terrorists have all sorts of light weapons, says Ali, along with mortars, surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles. Three or four large arms caches are found every week, but there are many more, says Ali.

Terrorism and Sinai expert Samir Ghattas, the director of a Cairo think tank, explains why Sinai will likely remain a war zone for a long time to come. The traditional tribal structures have been destroyed, says Ghattas, and have been replaced with new centers of power. Ghattas blames the tunnels for this.

Under the 1993 Oslo Accords, Israel opened diplomatic representations in various Arab countries. Former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak had feared the loss of his political monopoly as Israel's Arab negotiating counterpart, says Ghattas, and that was why he allowed the smugglers to do as they pleased: as a threat to Israel and as a bargaining chip for Egypt, because it strengthened Mubarak's position. But there is more to the story than that, says Ghattas.

As a result of the smuggling activities between Egypt and Gaza, young men have made a lot of money and gained considerable influence in the last decade, says Ghattas. A new elite has emerged from nowhere, young warlords who no longer acknowledge the traditional status and authority of tribal elders. In addition, the tunnels strengthen the Islamist group Hamas in Gaza.

Many of the smuggler barons, says Colonel Ali, are now giving themselves an additional religious veneer. "A bit jihad cosmetics provides them with prestige and justification, in addition to money and weapons," he says. "They're so cocky that they have people call them 'emir' or 'prince.' They feel grand in the role they are playing, that of the Islamist liberator."

To make matters worse, says the colonel, prisons were stormed after the 2011 revolution, in places like Wadi Natrun, Tora and Faiyum. From there, many freed criminals went to Sinai. Under the aegis of the Morsi government, smuggling activities in the direction of the Gaza Strip became easier because Morsi's interior minister had called off the army and the police. The military still wielded substantial power. It could have intervened, but apparently it chose not to.

'Recalibration' of US Military Aid

Hussein Gilbana, the man from al-Arish, didn't vote for Morsi. Nevertheless, he believed that the Morsi government should have been accepted, because it had come into power in a democratic election. Instead, the military seized power and violence escalated.

There were many nights when Gilbana and his wife lay awake in bed, listening to the gunshots and talking about fleeing from al-Arish. They knew that if they stayed, they would eventually be caught between fronts.

Many feel the same way as Gilbana. The military, for its part, is now feeling the dire consequences of its failure to build trust with people in Sinai during the Mubarak era.

The warnings from their American allies have also done little good. In the middle of last week, officials in Washington told Cairo they had decided to "recalibrate" US military aid to Egypt, which is currently worth a little over $1 billion (€740 million) a year. This probably means that deliveries of tanks and helicopters will be curtailed for the time being. But Egypt has also found support among Israelis, whose powerful lobby in Washington has urged US lawmakers to send money and weapons to Egypt after all. Indeed, military support for Sinai has remained untouched, although the public is not told exactly how the millions of dollars are being used.

One of the characteristics of this Sinai war is that it is being waged behind the scenes. It has become difficult for journalists to move around in the region, where they run the risk of being kidnapped or killed by jihadists -- or ending up in a military prison.

Attacks on the Press

That was the fate of reporter Ahmed Abu Deraa, 38, who works for the respected daily newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm and various television stations. "We suffered under the police state during the Mubarak era," says Abu Deraa, "but now things have gotten much worse."

On Sept. 3, Abu Deraa was in al-Arish taking pictures of a mosque and three apartment buildings that soldiers had set on fire. An Egyptian TV station aired his photos, together with an interview with the reporter, in which he said that civilians had also been hit by the attack. He knew this, says Abu Deraa, because a distant relative was among the injured.

The relative had been taken to army barracks in the city. When Abu Deraa went there to visit him, he was arrested. "I was accused of spreading false rumors that could damage the military," he says.

Abu Deraa was taken to a tiny windowless cell. His family was not allowed to visit, and it took 11 days before his attorney came to see him. "Fortunately, my colleagues and the journalists' association protested on my behalf," says Abu Deraa. After he spent 30 days in the cell, a military court sentenced him to six months' probation and ordered him to pay a fine of 200 Egyptian pounds, or €21.39. He was released on Oct. 5.

He wants to continue working as a journalist, says Abu Deraa, even though it has become virtually impossible to do so. "The situation in Sinai has gone from bad to miserable."

And while Abu Deraa was on his way to a meeting of the journalists' association last Friday evening to celebrate his release, Hussein Gilbana, the warehouse manager from al-Arish, had arrived in Cairo. He had picked up the key to his new apartment, which isn't far from Tahrir Square. The monthly rent is reasonable, at 1,100 Egyptian pounds, or about €110. He bought two small beds for his boys, a double bed, a closet, lamps, dishes and a pot. He planned to drive back to al-Arish the next day to pick up his family.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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