Why is Tension Rising in Egypt’s North Sinai Governorate?

After the main events of the Arab Spring in Egypt ended, skirmishes in North Sinai continue to this day. Worryingly, altercations between militants and Egypt’s security forces have increased significantly in 2019. Will the governorate of North Sinai turn into a new hot spot in the Middle East and North Africa region?

North Sinai is a north-eastern region of Egypt. North Sinai is bordered by Israel in the east, South Sinai governorate in south, the Mediterranean sea in the north; and Ismailia, Suez and Port Said governorates in the west.

The governorate of North Sinai was incorporated back into the state of Egypt in 1979. This governorate is 11th most developed one from a list of 22, by the measure of HDI.

The main reasons why the military altercations between Egypt’s army and Northern Sinainese insurgents have increased are the establishment of Daesh (ISIS), poor economic state, and the exclusion of Bedouin tribes from some spheres of Egyptian economy.

Before the establishment of Daesh, the North Sinainese insurgents mostly operated under Ansar Bait al-Maqdis. After the events of the Arab Spring in Egypt, the instability in the region and long-time grievances created a space for the Ansar Bait al-Maqdis. After the group pledged allegiance to Daesh, it changes its strategies to the ones used by the latter group.

Egypt isn’t a rich nation, and North Sinai is a poor region in a state already marred by low economic development. This condition acts as long term stimulus to seek a better life – even if it is done through terrorist activities.

The economic problems in the region have been compounded by the exclusion of Bedouin tribes from some economic activities. Bedouin tribesmen have been excluded from working in the tourism sector of Egypt. An exclusion from governmental positions, such as service in the army, only extends the distance between the already disfranchised population and other Egyptians. In general, Bedouin tribes in the Arab world have always been viewed as “others”, compared to the settled population.

The north-eastern border of Egypt (and of North Sinai), starts with the Gaza strip. The border with the Gaza strip, since its establishment in 1979 has been one of the hotspots for weapons smuggling. The local population of North Sinai is known to be engaged in this illegal activity. The smuggling of weapons into the Gaza can also act as an opportunity to spread ideas about terrorism and insurgence.

Yet, how all these reasons for rising tensions came to be?

North Sinai is very isolated. Its centre is El Arish, and around 40% of its residents live in rural areas. This contributes to its insularity.

Because a large part of North Sinai’s residents live in El Arish, difference in opinions can hardly develop because of a lack of different living conditions.
Isolation is compounded by a rough desert connection to South Sinai. South Sinai has a long Red Sea coastline. The popular resort Sharm el Sheikh is located in this region. While South Sinai enjoys large income from tourism and natural resource extraction, North Sinai’s economy is less developed.
Because of the long and inhospitable connection from North to South Sinai, North Sinai and its residents are deprived from valuable opportunities in the latter region. This makes North Sinai an Egyptian region without any closer ties to its neighbouring governorates and the rest of Egypt.

The poor economic state partly developed because of the history of the region and the territory of North Sinai. North Sinai saw intermittent fighting in the 1950s-70s.

Moreover, occupations of Egypt didn’t contribute to a stronger structure of the modern nation and its identity.

After Egypt was occupied by Assyrians, and later the Persians, the power of Egyptian Empire declined. After the Roman Empire, Egypt was once again occupied by the Ottomans and the British. Only in the mid-20th century did Egypt have the chance to continue its sovereignty.

It’s easy to put blame on poor economic conditions as a reason for increasing military altercations in the region. Residents without a hope for a better future often see no choice to “better” their future than to turn to militaristic action against their own government. However, many poor regions of the world don’t choose this way.

Instead of solely blaming economic conditions, thinking about why some of North Sinai’s residents don’t feel a close connection to their own country would be useful. Because of a difference in lifestyles and a shallow connection with the rest of the country, it becomes far easier to turn against your own countrymen. The lack of inclusion of the local residents into positive state initiatives also contributes to people choosing terrorism

What could be the future of the North Sinai region?

From a political perspective, the incorporation of North Sinai back into the Egyptian state is still a recent event. The governorate is separated from the river Nile, which is the heartland of Egypt. These conditions, and a lack of political action to better the life of the local people, don’t contribute to a larger support for the Egyptian state in the North Sinai governorate.

The North Sinai’s insurgents, while far less powerful than the Egyptian army, have chosen a half rational strategy to maximize their impact.

Before the insurgents started operating under Daesh, they tended to only attack government institutions. Civilian deaths were only accidental casualties. This way, the public didn’t have a strong reason to view the Daesh in North Sinai negatively.

With the joining of Daesh, civilian attacks became more commonplace. Now, it is not unusual to see death counts up to few hundred. Only the rising intensity of attacks against the civilians of the region could bring North Sinai politically closer to Egypt.

Since Egyptian forces have started directly taking out the Northern Sinai insurgents, there is a very large possibility that the insurgents could retaliate violently. The same problems that caused these violent activities in the region haven’t been solved. Without a promise of a better life, many insurgents won’t be swayed to put down arms.

The intensifying attacks against various targets show that North Sinai is on the precipice of becoming a terrorism hotspot in MENA. Any more acts of denying rights to local Bedouins could make them view the insurgents more favourably. This would not only cause harm to the local population, but also would collapse Egypt’s already shaky reputation.