Reports are now coming in from a bombing and counter-bombing in northern Sinai by extremist Islamists and the Egyptian armed forces that happened in late March. The explosions were recorded by journalists in the nearby Gaza Strip.
The war which Egypt is waging against armed Islamic organizations in Northern Sinai doesn’t rest even during the coronavirus pandemic. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power in Egypt in 2013 by means of a military coup, which he justified by accusing late President Mohamed Morsi of not providing security, and not fighting against terrorist organizations. Seven years into his role, Northern Sinai continues to be a war-torn area.
Information which was reported by the German press agency, Deutsche Presse-Agentur, reveals that on March 26 the armed resistance groups blew up five electricity towers in the village of Sheikh Zuweid. Two days later, the Egyptian Air Force launched an air strike on the Egyptian city of Raffah, killing 16 and injuring six other peoples, which Egypt claims were terrorist.
What is also very noteworthy about the story is that the Egyptian government has banned all local media from reporting on either the first or the second bombing. If not for journalists from the neighboring Gaza Strip who filmed the airstrike, we may not have known about it at all. This raises the question, how many other bombings by Islamic groups, and by the Egyptian State Forces, are hidden from the public?
Well, joining us today to talk about this is Angela Joya. She is an Adjunct Research Professor at the Institute of Political Economy at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Her research focuses on neoliberal globalization shaping social conflicts, and she’s studied the North African Arab uprisings very closely, including extensive fieldwork in Egypt.
Her most recent book is titled The Roots of Revolt, A Political Economy of Egypt from Nasser to Mubarak, and it’s printed by the Cambridge University Press, that was published this year. She joins us today from Ottawa.
Professor, good day. Thank you so much for being here.Angela Joya: It’s a pleasure to be with you.Kim Brown: So Why is the Egyptian Air Force conducting an airstrike inside of Egypt’s borders, inside of an Egyptian city? If they really think that there are terrorists in a certain building, why not arrest them instead of bomb them?Angela Joya: It’s a good question. The background to the bombing goes years back in Egypt. I’m probably a bit surprised that it has caught media’s attention just recently, but when you just check Egyptian news, this has been an issue. The conflict in North Sinai is basically a state of war for the last probably 10 years or longer, but more actively a state of war since Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power in 2013. The bombing campaign by the military also in North Sinai dates back to 2013, and it has been an ongoing event that has not necessarily stopped.
Briefly, I guess, for our audience, if they want to grasp in some ways what is the nature of the conflict there. For the Egyptian state, they see that as a place that’s out of control, as a place that they cannot govern. They are trying to bring it under the rule, that’s how they see it. And so, from their point of view, and because of the casualties that the security forces and the military conscripts in North Sinai has faced numerous individuals from the security forces have been killed by targeted attacks by the Islamist group Sinai Province or Wilayat Sinai. And so that’s how they perceive it. And to them there is a security vacuum that’s preventing the Egyptian state to establish itself firmly in North Sinai as part of Egyptian state. And that’s the struggle that they’re trying to overcome.
The other side of this establishing security is also bringing economic development. Those who have traveled to Egypt, they might be familiar with Sharm el-Sheikh, or Dahab in South Sinai. And so, the two provinces that are side by side, South Sinai’s much more developed in terms of its population. It’s much sparsely populated. North Sinai is, contains half a million population, but it’s very much underdeveloped. It’s in a unique place in, in Egypt, political and social memory and present.
The Sinai historically was taken over in 1967 by Israel after that war with Egypt of 1967, and so it wasn’t their occupation of Israel until 1979, when the peace deal was signed with Sadat. Okay. And since that time when Sinai was given back to Egypt, there has been ongoing relationship of mistrust on both sides by the population of North Sinai, but also by the Egyptian state and Egyptian… I guess you would say, public discourse and media, painting them as a unreliable, untrustworthy residents who might collaborate with Israel, who might bring Palestinians over. And so politically and historically where they’ve been situated, has shaped that particular perception of them. That leaves them in a bit of a disadvantage position.
More recently since 2013, the discourse of the military has painted the residents of Sinai, of North Sinai, as collaborators with the Islamist groups. But, I guess, for the Egyptian politics, they have been seen as affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood who were overthrown in 2013. And so, then by default they are also seen as terrorists and therefore the tax on them are legitimated, as a struggle for, or a war against terror in the public discourse in Egypt, mostly military and government run newspapers.
And therefore there is very little, sadly, very little sympathy towards the casualties and the destruction that’s caused in North Sinai over the last 10 years or so, by the government. And so that’s the complex nature of it and how it’s playing out in the discourse and politics of Egypt.Kim Brown: So professor, in your opinion, why did Egyptian authorities attempt to keep this story a secret? They didn’t try to conceal the bombing of the village in Raffah, and they didn’t try to conceal the bombing of the electric towers in the small town of, I believe it’s Sheikh Zuweid. So what was the point of trying to keep this story under wraps as opposed to the others?Angela Joya: Well, I tried to actually go and access Sinai… tried to go get closer. I was in Egypt in 2014 and this is a year after Sisi had taken power. You, what you see is at the entrance between… in Sinai itself, lots of military vehicles. And they just pointed to us, they said you don’t want to go this way, you want to go back to Cairo.
And so the place has been kept as a military security zone. And as such it’s seen as, as part of national security and not accessible to anybody who would like to know what is going on there.
And so the projects that are being carried out, they talk about development projects, they talk about infrastructure projects. All of these, while on the one hand, they are seen as development, but on the other hand, they’re also seen as security, and probably in some ways emblematic of the weakness or strength of the Egyptian state, depending on how you see it.
And so if the infrastructure is being brought down by the Wilayat Sinai Islamic group, that’s definitely seen as a failure. And as probably a decline in legitimacy of the Egyptian state in the military, and showing its weakness. And I think, a lot of this is playing out through that lens by the Egyptian military where they do not want access to journalists or to media around a lot of stories.
Some of these stories come out, if they play out the strength of the Egyptian military, like the distraction of the village where they say terrorists were housed. But if it’s a project of the Egyptian state or the military that’s being brought down, then that’s obviously seen as a failure of the Egyptian state to provide security for the projects they’re implementing.
And so, in that sense, you can see how they’re being selective about what they want to reveal to the media, what they don’t want to reveal to the media. I just want to bring up the case of a journalist [Alexander Rahni 00:09:14] , who wrote about the Muslim Brotherhood, but also wrote about the Sinai and the destruction of housing and Sinai, thousands of housing that were bombed by the military under the pretext of security threats.
He wrote about that and he did research. He worked outside of Egypt actually, and then in 2015 when he visited Egypt, he was arrested and he was given a tenure, a prison sentence in 2018, simply by covering that story of housing destruction in North Sinai.
And so you can see how susceptible, how vulnerable the military feels when it comes to stories that might reveal… that might either make them look less legitimate in the eyes of the Egyptian public, or change the discourse, or challenge the narrative that they have created, that North Sinai’s basically populated by Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Islamists or terrorists. And if anything goes or challenges that particular dominant narrative, then they tried to suppress it, or basically put them, put those journalists in jail.Kim Brown: Professor, you mentioned the Muslim Brotherhood, but I wanted to ask you about ISIS, because as far as we can tell, ISIS has all been but defeated in Syria, Iraq, in Libya. But I wanted to ask you about the groups in Northern Sinai. Are they affiliated with ISIS, and if so, what is their actual goal in engaging the Egyptian military, and are they trying to actually capture or create autonomy in the Sinai peninsula, in your opinion?
Angela Joya: The particular nature of Islamic groups in different countries in the region is very different. If you talk to experts in the region who study Islamist groups, they would claim also and support the argument that, very much the goal of these Islamist groups is a nationalist goal. They are not necessarily transnational.
ISIS was more of a transnational group where they established, either a territory in Syria or in Iraq trying to expand and bring the whole Islamic world together. In the case of Wilayat Sinai or the Sinai Province group in North Sinai, their goals have been shaped very much by the nature of the national struggle inside Egypt.
As I mentioned, there’s that historical background to the conflict in North Sinai. The population of North Sinai is constituted of the Bedouins or the nomads who engage in agriculture. But also a lot of Palestinians who have been displaced over the course of 1960s, 1970s and who have crossed the border and who established basically a home in North Sinai.
And so North Sinai, as such, becomes this very complex demographic that have basically political and social connections to both sides in Israel and Gaza, but also in Egypt. And so they’re not necessarily seen as distinctly only Egyptian per se.
And some of the, I guess, roots of this conflict and the rise of Islam, is in the success of Islam is, even the Egyptian military themselves admit, is linked to the marginalization of North Sinai, because of this political conflict that has basically been waged for so long in the region and how they’ve been left out of the development process even under Hosni Mubarak before, North Sinai has the highest rate of unemployment. Their infrastructure when it comes to schools, hospitals has crumbled or is non-existent. Their housing has been basically subjected to different phases of bombings in search of fighters, Islamists.
And so, overall the population has been basically receiving the brunt of the state’s war on terror. And that has provided the perfect ground for people to basically join some of these Islamist groups. And that’s become very much a national force in some ways, in North Sinai.
So we cannot really fall for the claim that they are a transnational group of ISIS affiliated. Of course, it gives them a sense of pride to Islamist groups to claim that they are linked and affiliated to this transnational ISIS group. That kind of brings them legitimacy. But the more we study, the more it seems more of a localized phenomena linked to the grievances of people in North Sinai and the responses of the military in North Sinai.
Kim Brown: It’s so disheartening that even in the midst of a global pandemic, the war machine doesn’t seem to take any days off.
Angela Joya: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Kim Brown: Well, Professor, we appreciate your time and your expertise today. We’ve been speaking with Angela Joya. Angela is an Adjunct Research Professor at the Institute of Political Economy at Carleton university in Ottawa, Canada.
Her most recent book is titled, The Roots of Revolt, A Political Economy of Egypt from Nasser to Mubarak, and you can find that at Cambridge University Press.
Professor Joya, we appreciate your time today. Thank you so much.
Angela Joya: Thank you so much, Kim. It’s good to be with you again.
Kim Brown: You as well. And thank you for watching The Real News Network.