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Chaos by design: How a violent and lawless Sinai benefits Sisi

A new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) has for the first time detailed the extent of the crimes committed by the Sisi regime in the Sinai Peninsula.

The population of that long-suffering part of Egypt has been subject to military airstrikes – with the help of Israel – that target civilian areas, as well as forced evictions, house destructions and arbitrary arrests or more accurately, state kidnapping, torture and extra-judicial executions.

Tens of thousands of people have fled the Sinai, specifically the North Sinai Governorate, due to the “scorched earth” practices of the Egyptian regime, with entire towns being abandoned over the past six years of Sisi’s rule.  

Pro-government militias known as “manadeeb”, or “agents”, mostly comprised of “baltagiya” – government-employed thugs often linked to organised crime – who are armed by and often embedded with the military, are a law unto themselves, often carrying out the worst atrocities against civilians.

In addition to this, the Islamic State-affiliated Wilayat Sina group practices its own cruelties against populations who resist it. The world was made well aware in 2017 of the notorious attack by the group on the El Rawda mosque, which claimed over 300 lives, and which is eclipsed only by the regime’s massacre of pro-democracy protesters as the most deadly massacre in Egypt’s modern history.  

But what’s rarely covered is the fact that in the areas of the Sinai controlled by Wilayat Sina, such as in and around Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid, the mostly Bedouin population are subject to the group’s vicious and fascistic interpretation of Sharia law.  

Residents are subject to bogus trials, as well as checkpoints set up by the group’s Hisbah (religious police). Christians in places such as El Arish have been murdered by the group, forcing most of the Christian population in North Sinai to flee to the Nile Valley.

But while precious little is known about the inner workings of Wilayat Sina, one aspect of the group is beyond doubt: Its very existence, in its current form, can be attributed to Sisi’s brutal coup and subsequent crushing of democracy and all opposition.  

Of course its predecessors were present in the Sinai prior to the overthrow of democracy by Sisi, but the coup was the impetus the group needed to unify disparate forces under its banner, and gain official status as an affiliate of Islamic State.

For almost all of its history, the peninsula has been neglected by central governments and authorities in Egypt. The majority of its population belong to Egypt’s Bedouin Arab minority, who are treated as second class citizens who are effectively banned from government employment and are unable to own the very land on which they live.  

Its harsh, resourceless terrain was never going to command attention from Egypt’s successive tyrants. When the Sinai did find investment from the central government, such as in resort cities such as Sharm El Sheikh, not only were Bedouins cleared from their land as part of the development process, but Egyptians from the Nile Valley were shipped in to take the jobs, with locals once again being locked out of socio-economic life.  

This flagrant discrimination and neglect has led to a situation in which the local population harbours a festering hatred for and despair towards the Egyptian government, and what might be called the majority Egyptian culture.

It’s of no surprise, then, that extremist ideology, with its appeal to those who live precarious lives and those who have been pushed into a brutal form of survival, could find a foothold in the Peninsula.  

That said, even by the time of the coup in 2013, it’d be unfair to say that the majority of the “insurgents” in the Sinai were religious extremists.

In fact, though the insurgency was still active under the democratic presidency of Mohamed Morsi, it was relatively calm compared to its current state. Though the Egyptian armed forces wanted to push ahead with a strategy of sheer force, Morsi had other ideas on how to tackle the underlying causes of the uprising.

In fact, though a coup was in the making almost from the moment Morsi took office, its urgency in the collective mind of Egypt’s praetorian kleptocrats was hastened by two main actions.

The first was Morsi’s decision to halt the military crackdowns on sites of dissent in the Sinai, while the second was his bill that would stop foreign and, most importantly, dual national Egyptians from monopolising land in the Peninsula.

The latter policy was a moderate first step by Morsi to establish a balance between the socioeconomic involvement and power of ordinary Egyptians, and the huge unchecked power of Egypt’s kleptocratic cartels who were involved in several rackets involving both dual national ownership of land and allowing foreign corporations to own land.

Obviously this could not stand with Egypt’s ruling elite and its foreign supporters. Morsi’s attempts to de-escalate violence in the Sinai were invariably described as his will to give a “free hand” to “Islamists in the Sinai”, while his moderate attempts to devolve economic power to local Egyptians was depicted as a potential catastrophic event for the Egyptian economy.

It was just a few months after both of these developments that Sisi would order Morsi’s unlawful arrest and begin the ongoing counter-revolutionary process of crushing democracy in Egypt, and reshaping it into a merciless “democracy-proof” dictatorship.   

The attempts initiated by Morsi to address the insurgency in the Sinai were abandoned.

The Sisi regime not only re-established its policy of brute force and scorched earth tactics, but, as described in the HRW report, it hugely escalated these things.

In turn, the Sinai insurgency began to grow stronger and acquire a distinctly extremist form – the attacks of the insurgents grew more brutal and began to expand into the rest of Egypt.

Of course, this suited Sisi well. Islamic State spreading to the Sinai was a key part of his sales pitch, to the West, as someone who was “fighting terrorism”, and the general idea that tyranny is the only answer to extremist chaos. The West, especially Europe and the US, didn’t need much convincing to buy into what Sisi was selling.

The fact that such tyranny is the main progenitor of this chaos is apparently lost on those who claim to be bastions of democracy and “human rights”. And that many of the weapons used by the regime to kill, maim, torture and brutalise Egyptians in the Sinai have “Made in America” or “Product of France” emblasoned on them, will not be lost on their victims.

The Sinai presents an admittedly extreme microcosm of Egypt in general – a regime that seemingly knows only how to escalate its own brutality, while neglecting, exploiting and oppressing its own population – aided and abetted, as ever, by the West and Russia, as well as Saudi and the UAE.

Sisi, the self-proclaimed bastion of “stability” and “order”, could very well make a Sinai out of all of Egypt.

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