The Islamic State, or ISIS, and their affiliates are increasingly showing organizational skill and willingness to engage targets on foreign soil. But one of the key frontiers for this ruthless, extremist group is the Sinai Peninsula. Here, ISIS is building a new generation of jihadist fighters. Mohannad Sabry, a journalist based in Cairo, has just published a book based on the security and political situation in Sinai, Sinai: Egypt’s Linchpin, Gaza’s Lifeline, Israel’s Nightmare. It was published a day before the Russian plane came down over Sinai, an eery reminder of the frequency of terrorist attacks and, ultimately, our lack of comprehension of the ISIS force.
Sabry talked to Rebel Economy about how ISIS has become a “magnet in the field for militant groups, attracting every wannabe,” including the young and the amateur. For these young terrorists, the fall of the Metrojet flight to Russia, the killings of hundreds in Europe and beyond, is considered impressive. Sinai, Sabry says, “has become Beit El Harb, a House of War.”
It’s a possibility, but do we have any evidence? I don’t think so. The only evidence we have is residue left on the plane. There’s little hope in having transparency on the subject. But you cannot just say you have a bomb on board without having any evidence. The intelligence didn’t tell us anything detailed. They just said we have theories, but nothing solid. That opens up a lot of speculation. Simple we have a very valid theory, but until we are given more evidence on the ground, we cannot confirm this theory. Is it 90% possible? Yes it is, but it’s not confirmed. We’re not getting any detailed information from the intelligence and the fact that the Russians and Egyptians are running the investigation is not helping, those countries do not have a track record of transparency.
They are denying any kind of crisis or scandal which is the usual Egyptian goal, the easiest thing to do for the Egyptian regime is to simply deny anything, and then everyone forgets about it. This is exactly what has happened after every crisis. After the Rabaa massacre, they said we didn’t commit the massacre. They thought they’d deny the scandal and no one would react. But this time the crisis is much bigger than anything they’ve ever handled before. And let’s not forget we are living in the post 9/11 world so anything that involves planes or flight security is terrifying for the world. It is unprecedented and something that Egyptians are not used to.
So now, the Egyptians are using a friendly rhetoric.
By simply holding a press conference instead of not acknowledging the crash, and the fact that one of the investigation team said that he heard the last minute recording of the black box demonstrates a difference in their tactics. The fact they brought Russian and British investigators to Sinai is unprecedented. They’ve been denying other countries access to Sinai and now we’re seeing access given by the Egyptians. But unfortunately it took a passenger flight to crash to change their actions, and 224 lives.
The Suez Canal is far from the major Islamist territories of Sinai, it’s more than 200km away. There was one attack in 2013, and since then the egyptian military understands the importance of the Suez Canal. It’s an international investment and there’s an international collective concerned with securing it. We’ve seen groups infiltrate Ismaila, and in the capital where the Interior minister was killed. But the Canal is hundreds of kilometres long. Are they [militant groups] capable of causing more damage? Yes, it’s a possibility.
In 2011 there was a dozen groups in Sinai, half of them were online and amateurs. Jeish el Islam, Tawhid Wal Islam, and others are among the groups associated with that region, but clearly the main group is Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, and they are a very understandable dynamic, and the bigger group in Sinai. They are doing what the Al Qaeda campaign did in the 1990s, when declaring global jihad and they ended up attracting other groups to them. What happened then is happening again with ISIS. They are a magnet in the field for militant groups, attracting every wannabe, including young and amateur Islamists. In the overall context, Sinai has become Beit El Harb – a House of War, not a House of Peace. This is actually more dangerous than having weapons – having a reputation and this is helping lure in the kids and the fragmented groups.
North Sinai is in the news every couple of days, there’s attacks all the times. Egypt is fighting a war with a guerrilla army, you’re talking about a military institution that relies mainly on conscripts that are simply ill-trained and unfortunately we’ve seen so many of them killed because they’re not trained to deal with a guerrilla war. There has been countless examples of intelligence failure, where in the best case scenario they failed to utilise the intelligence. All of this collectively explains why we are not winning the war.
The state doesn’t trust the Bedouin community, and they don’t want their help. I’ve met the tribal king pins and they’ve offered the Egyptian military help, but they’ve always refused this.
If it’s a case of why tribes haven’t taken out the Islamists, it’s more complicated than hiring a few Bedouins.
Intelligence requires sources to report what they see, like a Bedouin who sees an Islamist planting a bomb. That’s impossible in Sinai, though, because the Bedouin community is not being protected. Dozens of Bedouins have been beheaded. Yet the Bedouins have proved themselves loyal to the state – who freed the kidnapped tourists? Who freed the kidnapped soldiers under Morsi? But what do those guys get, they get nothing from the state.
Egypt is not willing to cooperate with the Bedouins and trust the community. But the easiest thing to do to gather intelligence is to secure the friendly relations of the people and to protect them from the killing.
In the midst of the worst recession in America since 1929, Ben Bernanke, the former head of the Fed was asked simply, ‘When will this end?’.
This was his response:
The lesson of history is that you do not get a sustained economic recovery as long as the financial system is in crisis.
Sounds logical. Especially coming from the man who was considered the most powerful person in the U.S. working to save the economy, and eventually he did.
Yet, apply this logic to Egypt, which has for so long languished in its political mess, and you see it doesn’t fit. Policies have been made and then broken, currency devaluations have been enforced, slowed and then prevented, and interest rates have been held and occasionally cut, and still reserves are pretty much where they were four years ago – sitting at just over $16 billion, enough to cover about three months of imports—the minimum the IMF considers advisable.
Up till now, Egyptian tourism has survived big setbacks. If there was any trouble in the desert or along the Red Sea, it was small, and tourists were not the targets (at least, under Sisi.) Yet, memories of an Islamist uprising in the 1990s that took years for then President Hosni Mubarak to crush have been aroused of late. In September, Egyptian security forces mistakenly bombed a convoy of Mexican tourists in the western desert while pursuing militants. Last year, the bombing of a tourist bus in Sinai killed two South Koreans and an Egyptian.
The problem now is that Egypt’s economy is much weaker and cannot sustain a drop in foreign currency. Foreign direct investment (FDI) amounted to $6.4 billion in the last fiscal year (from the financial year running July until June), and the government is hoping (unrealistically) for $10 billion this year. Unemployment has hovered at a record high of over 12 percent since the beginning of 2011 and the biggest issue, the current-account deficit, is still high. That’s because Egypt is still spending a lot more (on oil, wheat, cars, metal and other goods totaling roughly $60.8 billion) than it is exporting (just $22 billion last year.) And that’s been happening for more than ten years.
Unlike the 1990s, Egypt’s economy is in a much more precarious position.
Take these graphs, from Capital Economics, on the number of tourists flying to Egypt and the foreign currency reserve level:
According to estimates from Jason Tuvey, a Middle East economist at Capital Economics, export revenues (because tourist receipts are counted as a service export) could fall by as much as $3.5 billion, or a massive 1.3 percent of GDP, over the next year. That is a huge chunk out of the tourism industry, which accounts for 6 percent of Egypt’s GDP already and 1.3 million jobs. It’s especially bad because the Red Sea resort towns of Sharm El Sheikh and Hurghada were among the most successful tourist sites, even more so than the desert destinations. Daily occupancy rates reach more than 70 percent here at the start of June. It even prompted the tourism minister, Hisham Zaazou to tell Reuters this in September:
“I will focus on the bulk of tourist movement. While desert tourism is important, the highest figure for it was 350 thousand (people a year). Sharm El Sheikh, on the other hand, received more than 4 million tourists at some point, on its own,” he said.
“I am going to work on everything related to those areas, from securing them and all else.”
Good job securing that…
The country is back to square one having barely recovered from the ‘second’ revolution of 2013, let alone the ‘Arab Spring’ uprising of 2011. And, somewhat more unsettling is the risk to the neighboring Suez Canal, the fastest shipping route between Europe and Asia and one of the country’s main sources of foreign currency.
Despite security efforts, there have been multiple attacks on the Suez Canal. In 2013, an Islamist terrorist group called Al-Furqan took responsibility for hitting merchant vessels passing through the Canal with rocket propelled grenades. This is a clear video of the attack, which happened in broad daylight:
It was the second attack in just under three days (the first was allegedly under the cover of darkness), and demonstrates one example of how Egyptian security forces have taken a reactive approach to military threats, rather than mitigating the risk. According to Stephen Starr, a journalist that wrote a summary of the security risks to the Canal, “the threat of serious attacks by militants—operations that could sink a major vessel and thus block the canal—is a real one.”
President Sisi has his eye on a mega $8-billion expansion of the canal that aims to double daily traffic by 2023 and increase annual revenues to more than $13 billion by 2023, from just over $5 billion in 2014. Yet, none of this is meaningful if the government continues to resist structural reform which has left the economy floundering for years. It is also resisting the simple fact that there was likely a bomb on flight.
Egypt will certainly need international support once again as foreign direct investment dries up, but officials are alienating themselves by mismanaging the crash inquiry. It is no secret that European countries are among the heavyweight influencers on the IMF board, a organization that has had on-and-off talks with Egypt for years. So, if Egypt really wants to dispel concerns from its donors, in the hope of sourcing funds, transparent investigations are required.