An ISIL-affiliated group remains powerful in Sinai, despite the military’s repeated claims of defeating it.
“Under control is not an enough to describe the situation [in Sinai]… the situation is completely and absolutely very stable,” said the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi from an undisclosed location in Sinai, while wearing a military fatigue.
The statement seemed to contradict his uniform, the statement from his prime minister that “Egypt is in a state of war”, and – most importantly – the 15 military targets that Sinai Province (SP) fighters were able to simultaneously attack two days earlier.
The July 2015 attacks were certainly SP figthers’ most sophisticated so far.
They featured the use of S-16 anti-aircraft guided missiles that sent assaulting Apaches helicopters away. SP fighters also utilised several light mortars, heavy machine guns, Grad rockets that bombed al-Arish Airport, anti-tank missiles, and multiple versions of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), including remote-controlled IEDs (RCIEDs) and car bombs.
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According to local residents, around 300 SP fighters took part in the operations that lasted over 12 hours. During the fighting, SP fighters were able to temporarily cut off targeted posts from incoming reinforcements, mainly by using a mix of IEDs, snipers and light artillery.
When they withdrew, the rebels mined their retreat routes to fend off tracking attempts. The number of dead army soldiers and officers is contested. Official sources claim 17, while unofficial sources claim over 80.
The disturbing developments come after more than 18 months of extremely brutal-but-ineffective “counterinsurgency tactics”, which intensified since the military escalated its operations North Sinai in October 2013.
Adding the numbers dead fighters given by the army’s spokespersons, the army claims to have killed well-over 3,000 of them. This is in addition to razing down over 5,000 houses – not only in Eastern Rafah to clear the borders with Gaza – but also far away from the borders in the middle of Sheikh Zuweid as a collective punishment for families of suspects.
Sinai’s “insurgency” survived and expanded then, especially after SP gave an oath of loyalty to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in November 2014.
The organisation’s military prowess is unmatched by any Egyptian rebel group in Egypt’s modern history. But how significant is its military capacity? And what does that mean for the political environment in general?
SP targets and attacks
The further deterioration in the security situation has caused rifts within the SCAF, Egypt's most powerful political entity at the moment. Whether these rifts will expand or shrink remains to be seen.
SP fighters and other groups conducted numerous attacks between 2013 and 2015. The overwhelming majority of the attacks targeted either military or security and took place in the Northern coastal road between al-Arish and Rafah.
Other attacks were conducted against Israel or soft civilian targets, such as gas pipelines, the organisation was also able to carry out significant attacks outside of Sinai, most notably in Cairo, Central Delta, North of Upper Egypt and Western Desert, more than 1,000 kilometres away from North Sinai.
SP’s clearly aims to engage and sustain engagement with the regular forces in a long, costly war of attrition. It relies partly on subversive tactics to lower the morale and raise the costs of war for the regime. This is similar to a traditional Maoist guerrilla strategy.
The aim here is to target regular forces and their local support networks (mainly informants from different tribes), to destroy or undermine the regime’s will, not necessarily its capacity to fight. It is not a strategy aimed at securing a quick military victory.
So far, SP is still in the first phase of this strategy; still attempting to secure stronghold (such as the attempt to control Sheikh Zuweid) and not just survive. If SP continues to gain support and acquire more resources, Egypt can enter into a second phase of fighting, which can be characterised by progressive expansion from strongholds.
Major political impact
The rise of SP can have a major political impact, even if the organisation is less concerned with the political crisis in Cairo, and much more concerned with attacking security and military posts. Historically, military and security blunders in Sinai have caused major shifts in the balance of power within the ruling elite.
This includes the rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser in the Suez Crisis over other rivals, the death of Abd al-Hakim Amer after the June 1967 debacle, and finally the removal of Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi and his deputy General Sami Anan in August 2012 after 16 soldiers were massacred in a Rafah border post.
The further deterioration in the security situation has caused rifts within the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Egypt’s most powerful political entity at the moment. Whether these rifts will expand or shrink remains to be seen.
But as currently seen is Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere in other regions, military-based dictatorial regimes can be future civil war projects – even if, at some point, they succeed in wiping out opposition, as the Assad regime did in Hama in 1982.
What happened in Cairo in August 2013 and in North Sinai between 2013 and 2015 is likely to engender waves of non-state violence that are likely endure. The situation and the policies that engender it are far from “stable” or “under-control.”
Omar Ashour is Senior Lecturer in Security Studies at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies in University of Exeter and an Associate Fellow at Chatham House.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.