On 24 November, around 30 Islamic State militants from the Sinai Province arrived in large, all-terrain vehicles outside the el-Rawda mosque in Bir el-Abed, Northern Sinai, during Friday prayers. They detonated two bombs inside and then sprayed the fleeing crowds with machine-gun fire. The attack left over 300 people dead and 130 wounded: the largest death toll recorded for such an event in Egypt’s modern history.
That the horrendous bloodshed occurred in a mosque filled with ordinary Muslims going about their day of worship should undercut the reactionary and divisive rhetoric which suggests that the barbaric actions of Islamic State find their root in the Koran, the nature of Islam or Muslims themselves. Rather, these monsters are the spawn of the numerous crimes of imperialism in the Middle East, from the disastrous invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the funding and arming of Islamist groups in Syria, to the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, just across the border from Sinai. They are nurtured in a region of Egypt whose various tribes have been antagonised by successive Egyptian regimes, and which is best placed to notice the blatant collaboration between the Egyptian and Israeli governments at the expense of the Palestinian population over the siege of Gaza.
Even so, there is a military presence of 25,000 Egyptian troops in Sinai, backed by small auxiliary forces from around the world, which has been waging a war against Islamist insurgents since 2011. When declaring three days of national mourning, President Sisi promised swift justice for the mosque attack in the shape of bombs dropped on known Sinai Province Islamist strongholds. But the question must be asked: how did dozens of heavily-armed militiamen carrying Islamic State flags arrive at the el-Rawda mosque in broad daylight in large vehicles unnoticed and unchecked in an occupied military zone in the first place?
The Sinai Peninsula is an arid region of mountainous desert that the Egyptian army has failed to master since it began its offensive against Islamists in 2011. IS and al-Qaeda controlled areas near to the border with Gaza have remained relatively unchallenged and various Islamist groups still control some of the border tunnels through which smuggling to and from Gaza takes place. The number of terror attacks against Christians, non-Islamist aligned tribespeople and the security forces themselves has continued to increase. There was also the Russian Metrojet plane crash in Sinai in October 2015, which killed 224 people and was claimed by Islamic State.
The flourishing of terrorism in the region, particularly in Northern Sinai, has drawn attention to the severe shortcomings of the army intervention and the national security forces. Last week’s attack is an especially shocking example. It is now being reported that a number of Sinai Province militants have been killed in the retaliatory bombings. But Egyptians are now asking themselves: if the armed forces knew where to find the militants, surely they could have done something before this atrocity took place? The whole affair is adding to the rising doubts about the ability of the Sisi regime to provide stability to the country. The fact that the army relies heavily on bombing rather than ground troops throws doubts on the morale of Egyptian troops.
But the problems in Sinai are not fundamentally military in character. After the return of Sinai to Egypt from Israeli occupation, the Bedouins, who with their 15-20 tribes make up around 70 percent of the population of the peninsula, thought that their conditions would improve. They thought that they would see the same industrialisation and development that the rest of Egypt experienced during the Nasser era. But the Mubarak regime, which was drifting sharply to the right, never had any such plans. Instead the Bedouins were treated with contempt and brutality. After the handover, the regime converted more than 200,000 acres of tribal land in the north into agricultural land, while it forced the previous owners to accept lower quality land in the interior of Sinai.
Stripped of their traditional ways of life, hundreds of thousands of Bedouins are forced to live in squalid conditions. Underdevelopment; and lack of basic infrastructure such as water, electricity, education and health care are the norm, along with extremely high illiteracy and unemployment rates, even for Egyptian standards. In some areas unemployment stands at around 90 percent. South Sinai’s level of food poverty is almost double that of Egypt, while North Sinai is the poorest governorate in Egypt.
Meanwhile the few investments on the peninsula were at the expense of the Bedouins rather than to their benefit. In the South the newly built tourist resorts, such as Sharm El-Sheikh was built on forcibly expropriated traditional Bedouin lands. While some Bedouin layers found jobs and a tiny layer even profited well, the majority of Bedouins around these resorts live in poor and primitive conditions and get by doing odd jobs here and there. The majority of factories and businesses consciously discriminate Bedouins and import workers from the Nile Valley whom they aggressively resettle on previously Bedouin land.
The desperate conditions have forced many Bedouins, especially in the poorer North, into the trade and smuggling of people, arms and drugs. It is amongst these layers that groups such as the Islamic State (IS) finds its main recruits: recruiting impoverished and desperate youth looking for a way out of chronically declining living standards. Their attacks on the army have lead to ever more brutal repression of the whole community and the conscious trampling on Bedouin traditions and ways of life. But this only feeds more resentment, to the degree that a key IS recruitment avenue is youth who have lost family members and who are looking for revenge.
At the beginning of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the people of Sinai also took part in the movement. Faced with the anger of the Bedouins and the rising pressure on the Nile Valley, police and security forces largely withdrew from Sinai, leaving a vacuum which was initially filled by the revolutionary masses. But when the Egyptian working-class failed to take the lead in the revolution, the movement in Sinai partially dissipated and partially radicalised in an Islamist direction. This drift escalated with the fall the Muslim Brotherhood from power, which saw in its wake a rise in terrorist attacks. The ebb of the revolution after Sisi came to power allowed these forces more room for maneuver.
The handling of the Sinai issue by the regime has only served to strengthen the reactionary Islamists. A report by an NGO: the Egyptian Observatory for Rights and Freedoms (EORF) claimed that the Egyptian army killed 1,347, detained 11,906, and forcibly deported 26,992 between September 2013 and June 2015. Human Rights Watch also reported the destruction of at least 3,255 buildings. Thousands of people have been evicted and their houses destroyed without any warning, explanation or compensation. Instead of targeting the militants, the regime mostly targeted the Bedouin community as a whole with indiscriminate torturing, imprisonments, bombings and assassinations.
This only adds to the feelings of resentment amongst Sinai’s population. Thousands of Bedouins, most of whom are not necessarily pro-IS, are now carrying arms to defend themselves against what is looking more and more like an Egyptian occupying force. In the absence of a strong working-class-led defence force, IS could fill out a vacuum as the only organised and equipped force which can offer a real defence.
The organisation has, through the funds and resources received through the western and Saudi led intervention in Syria and Iraq, become a formidable force. IS’s battle-hardened fighters have made use of a combination of heavy and light mortar artillery, surface-to-surface missiles, heavy machine guns and sniper-rifles to carry out advanced military maneuvers normally associated with Special Forces. At the same time, the revivalist Islamist doctrine of IS connects to a layer of the Bedouins who have been dispossessed or ruined in the last period and who are desperately looking for stability. They want a return to the ‘good old days’ when their land, property and general social position were secured by ‘traditions’ and ‘belief’.
IS will not be uprooted from Sinai by military means only, but that that is not necessarily what the regime has aimed at. In fact the Sisi regime relies on low-level islamist activity to rally Egyptians behind it. In this way the Islamists and the regime lean on each other to cut through the class divide and undermine the revolution. With the movement at an ebb, the masses are being forced to choose between the Sisi dictatorship or IS barbarism. Of course, this tactic is a dangerous one, which has often backfired. The Sisi regime promised stability to the Egyptians. He posed as a strongman, but his inability to deal with Sinai is now exposing his weakness, encouraging rising opposition against him throughout Egypt.
The army has tried to lean on other tribes, mainly from the relatively wealthier southern areas, to fight against the northern IS-leaning tribes. Some tribal elements have tourism as a source of revenue, which they do not want to upset. But many Bedouins, in particular among the poorer layers, cannot forgive those who are partnering with Egypt’s brutal regime, which under different forms has dispossessed them and oppressed them for decades. The el-Tarabin’s execution of eight IS militants in May to avenge the killing of a civilian woman in Rafah is viewed locally as a possible motivation for last week’s bombing, though given the city’s lack of proximity to Bir el-Abed, this seems unlikely.
The regime is provoking a tribal civil war in Sinai, to keep the troubles away from the Nile Valley, but to think that this will stabilise or contain the situation is naive to say the least. The army has no control over the situation. Their presence serves as a recruitment incentive for the Islamists close to Gaza, while their ineffectiveness undermines their authority locally and infuriates Egyptians outside Sinai.
Culpability of the regime
The events of last Friday exposed the Egyptian regime itself more than anything else. All Egyptians are acutely aware of the danger posed by the Sinai Province IS-affiliate in northern Sinai, which has been active for the past four years. Yet the government seems at a total loss as to how to combat this danger. The last twelve months in Egypt have been blighted by terror attack after terror attack. Most recently before these latest horrific events, in October, 54 military personnel including 34 conscripts were killed by Islamists in el-Wahat el-Bahriya, just 135 kilometres south-west of Cairo. Egyptian people sense that the threat of terror is increasing but the regime is just standing still.
The fact is that this Egyptian regime is fundamentally incapable of removing the scourge of terrorism from Egypt. Moreover, its other actions, such as the selling of islands belonging to Sinai which cost so much Egyptian blood to win back, further undermine its authority in the Peninsula. Not to mention its collusion with Israel – the imperialist power that caused the spread of IS and al-Qaeda from Palestine – both over the islands deal and the patrol of Gaza’s border with Sinai.
The situation in Sinai is directly connected to the incompetence of the Egyptian capitalist class, which has not been able to solve any of the problems of Egyptian society. The post-Nasser regime had no incentive to develop Egypt. The backbone of industry and infrastructure in the country today goes back to the Nasser era: almost 50 years ago. This parasitic ruling class is far more interested in filling its own (and its friends’) pockets than actually taking the trouble of developing Egyptian society.
By the time Sinai was reintegrated into Egypt this process was already well on its way. The Bedouins were treated with racist contempt, dispossessed, their traditional lives destroyed and then forcibly resettled in primitive conditions without any jobs. This is the basis upon which IS nourishes itself. The Sisi regime is incapable of addressing the underlying contradictions because it is itself part of this parasitic ruling elite.
The only hope for ending the atrocities in northern Sinai is for a revolutionary unity of the people of Sinai with the poor and the workers of the rest of Egypt against the Sisi regime and against reactionary Islamist creations of imperialism, who are equally the enemies of the people. Only by overthrowing the parasitic capitalist class can the working-class take power into its own hands and put an end to Egypt’s backwardness, barbarism and all the ensuing chaos the capitalist system generates every day.