SHARM EL-SHEIKH – In the wake of an attack that killed 16 security officers in the Sinai Peninsula in August, the Egyptian military has ratcheted up the pressure against jihadis there. Generals have promised an extended campaign to extinguish the terrorist threat, bringing in heavy armor and firing missiles at training camps to back up their pledge. But, if past performance is indicative of future returns, the offensive is likely to be a fleeting affair. The armed forces have never shown much interest in stabilizing Sinai, and previous operations to clear out jihadis have not prevented them from returning.
Egyptians blame the strictures of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty for their military’s inability to police Sinai. The bilateral accord stipulates that Egypt can station only 22,000 troops in the western part of the peninsula, known as Zone A. In the eastern section bordering Israel, known as Zone C, the Egyptian presence is restricted to Central Security Forces personnel. Composed of poorly trained cadets, the CSF is limited to carrying out “normal police functions,” according to the agreement’s security annex.
Jihadis have exploited the security void created by last year’s revolution to reinforce their presence in Sinai. As the threat has mounted, Israel has allowed Egypt to increase troop levels in the peninsula beyond those stipulated in the peace accords. But Egypt has not taken advantage of the offer. Last August, the Israelis permitted an additional seven battalions and 20 tanks in Zone C. But the Egyptian armed forces never brought in the full number of additional troops, and did not even bother to transport the tanks across the Suez Canal.
Egypt’s approach toward Sinai troop deployments reflects its traditional neglect of the peninsula. Historically, it has deployed only 70-80% of the 22,000 soldiers that the treaty allows in Zone A. And the military has never established a regional command in Sinai, preferring to allow units temporarily stationed there to report to their superiors scattered around Cairo and its environs.
Egypt’s new Islamist leaders may want to restore “full sovereignty” over the peninsula, as President Mohamed Morsi’s legal adviser, Mohamed Fouad Gadalla, recently noted. Such saber-rattling comments vis-à-vis Israel are currently popular in the country. But the generals, who have the final say on military matters, are likely to preserve the status quo.
Egypt’s indifference toward Sinai stems from its view of Israel. When the guns fell silent following the two countries’ 1973 war, Egypt stopped viewing Israel as a threat. In the cease-fire talks that followed, the two sides made so much progress that US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, fearing that he would have nothing to negotiate when he arrived in the region weeks later, asked the Israelis to halt them. Since then, Egypt has fought a war with Libya and sporadically clashed with Sudan. But not a shot has been fired across Sinai.
Employing CSF troops in the sensitive border region where jihadis have established their strongholds is similarly indicative of Sinai’s insignificance in Egyptian military thought. Created to absorb army rejects who must still complete their mandatory national service, the CSF is a lower-rung security organization in a country whose armed forces are subpar to begin with. Its members are uneducated rural men, some of whom are illiterate. Their most crucial tasks include guarding banks and hotels.
These forces are poorly trained and badly equipped to take on fighters with experience in international jihadist campaigns. And the CSF’s track record is dismal at best. When it was deployed as part of the battle against the Islamist uprising of the 1990’s, insurgents penetrated a number of units.
The government’s counter-terrorism policies also work against an enhanced military role in quashing the Sinai jihadis. Historically, Egypt has used its intelligence services, supplemented by the police and the CSF, to fight Islamist militants. As a result, the army has neither the training nor the experience to grapple with Sinai insurgents.
The military’s recent offensive reflects this, relying on air strikes that imperiled civilians rather than a ground offensive that would have been more precise in achieving its objectives. And dropping bombs instead of arresting jihadis prevented the military from gaining valuable intelligence about future attacks and transnational ties to other organizations and networks.
But, beyond such theoretical objectives, lay the operation’s practical realities. Sinai residents claim that there were no funerals following the missile strikes. The lack of evidence of casualties has left many Egyptian analysts believing that the military’s aim was not to target jihadis, but rather to silence its domestic and international critics. If so, it is a tactic that can work only until the next attack. And that will only lead to more civilian and military casualties in Egypt’s neglected war.
Barak Barfi is a research fellow at the New America Foundation.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2012.