How terrorism in the Sinai has eclipsed Egypt's presidential election -- and laid bare tensions with the U.S.
CAIRO — For the residents of North Sinai, Egypt's upcoming presidential election is the least of their worries. A stifling curfew starts at 4 p.m. in every town east of the capital, el-Arish; police and Army personnel manning roadblocks shoot randomly at any sign of movement after sunset; and cell- phone and Internet networks are switched off for almost 12 hours every day.
These steps are the result of a heavy-handed military campaign meant to crush the terrorist insurgency that simmered for more than two years and exploded in the region following the July 2013 ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. But unsurprisingly, it has made a proper campaign for the presidential vote, which is scheduled to take place on May 26 and 27, nearly impossible. Over the past weeks, holding a conference, hanging a banner, or handing out fliers in support of either of Egypt's two presidential candidates has been considered a life-threatening activity in Sinai's hostile northeastern corner, which borders the Gaza Strip and Israel.
The Islamist insurgency views the election process as a violation of Islamic law and goes so far as to condemn whoever participates in the process as an enemy of Islam. In April, armed militants fired their machine guns at a march in support of former defense minister and presidential candidate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the North Sinai town of Sheikh Zuweid -- an attack that put an end to any public activities in the area.
The only major event in support of Sisi took place in Beir el-Abd, a town located some 60 miles west of el-Arish. But as one travels east from that town, signs of the upcoming election gradually fade -- until they disappear entirely in the border town of Rafah. In el-Arish itself, the largest city in the Sinai Peninsula, posters of both Sisi and his sole challenger, Hamdeen Sabahi, are plastered on walls of public facilities. But while Egyptian election posters usually identify the names of the local supporters of a presidential candidate, that information is notably absent from the ones in Sinai, as residents don't want to provide evidence that they are taking part in the campaign.
Fears of public participation were raised even higher by the monthlong detention of Hassan Hantoush, a prominent activist and top Sabahi campaign officer in Sheikh Zuweid. Hantoush, who was never officially charged, was finally released on May 19, but Sabahi's media officials have not commented on the incident and Hantoush's sensitive security situation has kept him from speaking to the media.
Hantoush's arrest angered Sabahi's supporters, who questioned whether the two presidential candidates could compete fairly in North Sinai.
"It is an unfair competition if Sabahi's campaign is constantly violated, while every state institution -- including the media and the security apparatus -- are all endorsing al-Sisi," said Aseer El Senawy, a native of Sheikh Zuweid and a die-hard supporter of Sabahi. Nevertheless, Senawy believes that despite all the risks, residents of the area would still come out to vote: "The turnout would still be very high, despite the militant threat in Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah."
The terrorist threat in North Sinai has not only disrupted the presidential election here, but it has transformed the region into the most pressing security threat facing Egypt. In the five months following Morsi's ouster, more than 200 attacks struck the Sinai Peninsula. To make things worse, the insurgents there began to expand their campaign to the Egyptian mainland: Operatives for Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, the deadliest group operating in the region, were responsible for an assassination attempt on the interior minister in Cairo, and they managed to kill two other high-ranking officers. In December, they also targeted the police headquarters in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura with a car bomb, killing 15 people and wounding over 100 more.
Egyptian officials have highlighted security in the Sinai as an issue that could help them repair their relationship with the United States, which has been badly damaged by the violent crackdown on Islamists and other opposition groups over the past year. Here, after all, was a legitimate terrorist threat that placed both Egyptian and Israeli lives at risk and where American military know-how was badly needed. "The Egyptian Army is undertaking major operations in the Sinai so that it is not transformed into a base for terrorism," Sisi told Reuters last week. "If Egypt is unstable then the region is unstable. I don't think this is in the interest of security and peace in the entire world."
In the past several months, Egyptian security forces could even point to their success in quelling the most deadly attacks -- attacks in Sinai itself are down, and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has not succeeded in launching an attack outside Sinai since January. And on May 24, Egyptian officials announced that a senior commander for Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, Shadi el-Menei, had been gunned down in what seemed to be a tribal dispute.
But rather than bringing Washington and Cairo closer together, the Sinai issue has merely highlighted how stark the differences between the two erstwhile allies have become.
For Egyptian security officials, the improvements in Sinai are simply one aspect of the progress they have made in combating the Muslim Brotherhood. Inside the Defense Ministry, a daily report tracks the violent incidents throughout the country: 85 attacks in February, 80 in March -- and only 15 through most of May. "We did our job," a senior military official told Foreign Policy when asked the reason for the decline in violence. "We know how to fight this terror group. We're doing a great job."
For this security official, the threat posed by jihadi groups and the Muslim Brotherhood were one in the same. "Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, Ansar al-Sharia, all these names -- they all come from the same source, the Muslim Brotherhood," the official said. The Islamist organization, he said, remains "the mother of terrorist groups."
But according to a senior official in the Egyptian military, the United States has left the military to fight Egypt's war on terror on its own. Washington partially suspended military aid to Cairo in October, while a delivery of 10 Apache helicopters meant to help the counterterrorism campaign in Sinai remains blocked by Sen. Patrick Leahy, who described Egypt's government as "a dictatorship run amok."
"We understand each other on a people-to-people level," the senior Egyptian military official said. "We understand each other on a military-to-military level. But on a politician-to-politician level? It goes to hell."
U.S. officials concerned with security in the Sinai Peninsula, however, were more circumspect about the Egyptian military's recent gains. Where their counterparts in Cairo see the beginning of a trend that could eliminate the terrorist threat in Sinai, these analysts warn that the recent gains have been achieved only through a massive and sometimes indiscriminate use of force, which in the end could come back to bite Egypt.
"The Sinai remains a haven for extremists, and heavy-handed CT [counterterrorism] operations could spur additional retaliatory attacks against security forces," said a U.S. intelligence official. "The Egyptian security forces continue to conduct operations. However, attacks have continued and most likely will continue despite these CT actions."
The residents of North Sinai interviewed by Foreign Policy agreed that the military campaign succeeded in crushing the deadliest aspects of the insurgency. However, they also agreed that a heavy price was paid by the community for this military success -- and that there is much to be done by the government to sustain this relative stability.
"The smuggling tunnels [between Sinai and the Gaza Strip] are almost paralyzed. The majority were destroyed by the military, and the remaining are barely operating due to the security's grip on the borderline," said Mona Barhom, a resident of Rafah and one of a few prominent female activists in Sinai.
But destroying the tunnels, Barhom adds, is only part of the battle. "The weak infrastructure is also destroyed and has to be rebuilt, along with other economic reforms that will provide opportunities for those people who worked in smuggling."
But Barhom has little hope that the presidential election will represent a turning point for North Sinai. Polling stations in Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah have been reduced from 24 stations to five, which she believes will significantly diminish turnout. Meanwhile, after being neglected for decades, Sinai residents have become cynical about promises from Egyptian politicians. "We have heard of Sinai development plans for decades," said Barhom, "but never actually saw them happening."
About 25 miles away from Rafah, Mustafa Singer of Sheikh Zuweid, a widely respected writer and leftist activist, agreed that security had improved, but he questioned whether the security forces could maintain their iron-fisted grip on the region and what it had cost the residents of North Sinai.
"If you decrease the polling stations, transport the supervising judges in armored vehicles, continue to stifle the towns by heightened security measures that reflect very negatively on the economy and social life, then the militants are pretty much in control," he said. "They apparently succeeded in paralyzing the governorate."
As for both candidates and their proposed future programs of leading the country, Singer said that Sinai and its communities continue to be ignored. The 250,000 registered voters in North Sinai aren't a major concern for either candidate, he said, who turned it into a merely symbolic item in their plans and rhetoric. The ban on land ownership in Sinai's border regions, for example, was the most important issue for residents, Singer said -- but it had been completely ignored by Egyptian officials.
"They tackled Sinai as a region," he explained, "but always failed to tackle its people and their issues."
Photo by MAHMOUD KHALED/AFP/Getty Images