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Egypt's IS problem: alienated tribes

By Michael Jansen Dec 6 2017, 0:16 IST

The November 24 massacre, by an Islamic State (IS) affiliate, of 311 civilians in a mosque in Egypt's North Sinai province, the worst terrorist incident ever in modern Egypt, demonstrated, once again, that the cult has not been defeated. Recruits based outside the toppled 'caliphate', proclaimed in 2014 in Syria and Iraq, remain deadly, while fugitive fighters make their way to other battlefields.

The Egyptian attackers numbered 25 to 30, wore beards and long hair, dressed in camouflage and flew the black banner of IS. They shot worshippers and detonated explosives at the Rawda mosque in Bir al-Abed, near the coastal resort of al-Arish. The cult's targets were Sufis, adherents of a moderate, mystical stream of Islam who are regarded as "polytheists" because they revere saints. IS belongs to the narrow, puritanical Saudi Wahhabi sect.

North Sinai province has been lawless for decades. The majority of its inhabitants of more than 4,34,000 is not Nilotic Egyptian but Bedouin Arab, some tribes resident there since the eighth century. Bedouin face discrimination, abuse and official neglect. Tribesmen dwelling along the border with Gaza are of Palestinian origin and have relatives in Gaza.

The province's economy has, traditionally, relied on smuggling, which became highly lucrative after 2005 when Israel pulled its settlers and soldiers out of Gaza. More than 1,500 tunnels were dug along the strip's southern border with North Sinai. Foodstuffs, clothing, livestock, spare parts for vehicles, building materials, petrol, fuel oil and even spiced Kashmiri tea were trafficked through the tunnels. North Sinai Bedouin are estimated to have earned $500 million a year.

Until then, all Gaza imports had been through crossings managed by Israel, which limited how much and what kinds of goods could enter the strip. The situation reverted to the pre-tunnel era after 2013 when Egypt systematically destroyed the tunnels, depriving Gaza of both essential and commercial goods and hundreds of North Sinai Bedouin of jobs and income.

Impoverishment was compounded by the rise in the prices of fuel, cooking gas and public transport. Alienated young men joined Ansar Beit al-Makdis (Supporters of Jerusalem) and took part in attacks on Egyptian police and troops. In 2014, the group proclaimed fealty to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. More than 1,100 attacks were mounted between 2014-16.

Cairo intensified Bedouin hostility by bulldozing homes and shops on the Egyptian side of the North Sinai-Gaza frontier, destroying homes of tunnel entrepreneurs, and conducting raids against tribesmen. During the past two years, IS fighters have fled Syria and Iraq and migrated to North Sinai with the aim of holding on to this territory, a strategic bridge between West Asia and North Africa.

During ongoing army operations, schools are closed, roads are blocked, there are arbitrary arrests and random shootings by army snipers. Residents of the province now live in terror of both IS and the army. Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has ordered the military to crush Ansar Beit al-Maqdis/IS within three months, although the armed forces have been fighting the grouping since existing extremist factions formed a coalition in 2011.

Grandiose plans

Meanwhile, Sisi focuses on grandiose projects which do not benefit the 40% Egyptians who live below the poverty line and whose sons are easy prey for IS and similar jihadi factions. Having constructed an $8.5 billion second shipping lane to increase traffic through the Suez Canal, Sisi is now preoccupied with the building of a new $45 billion administrative capital in the desert 60 kilometres from Suez.

Although all government offices are set to be relocated to the new city and between 5-7 million people are meant to settle in the 21 residential areas in the 700 square kilometre site, the city is likely to share the fate of largely uninhabited satellite towns around Cairo, a city of 18-20 million.

Sisi seems to see himself as a modern day 'Pharaoh' committed to grandiose modern mega-projects to proclaim Egypt's -and his - greatness. His ancient predecessors constructed massive tombs - the pyramids at Giza and the monuments in the Valley of the Kings near Thebes - that benefitted only the architects and builders. Instead of providing affordable food and shelter, jobs, healthcare and education for Egypt's 96 million, he has invested in a canal that has not brought in expected revenues and in an administrative capital far from Egypt's main population centre at Cairo.

He should be upgrading Cairo's neglected infrastructure: repair its sewers, water pipes and streets, build new schools, clinics and social housing. Sisi should travel to Egypt's south where farmers - forgotten since the death of president Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970 - live as they have for millennia. He should tackle the alienation of the North Sinai Bedouin to encourage them to shun IS and al-Qaeda.

Unfortunately, Sisi, like his predecessors, the assassinated Anwar Sadat and the ousted Hosni Mubarak - appears to have developed a neo-Pharaoh-complex and is following the examples of the leaders of Malaysia and Myanmar who have built shiny new white elephant capitals while their countries' citizens suffer privation in overpopulated, polluted, deteriorating cities.

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