On 24th October, Egypt was hit by two terrorist attacks in the Sinai Peninsula which caused the death of at least 33 Egyptian security personnel. Even though they can appear to be unpredictable, these attacks are not something completely new to Egypt. They are the latest of a dramatic anti-state conflict, which started in 2004 with the simultaneous three bombings in Taba, Nuweiba and Ras Shaitan.[1]

Since the last part of Mubarak era, the Sinai Peninsula has become one of the most dangerous place in Egypt. Historically known as a lawless area since it served as a smuggling route for weapons and supplies, it has become the perfect haven for militants and Islamist extremists, among which Ansar Bayt al-Maqdi is the most active.

However, it was with the 2011 revolution that a strategic vacuum was created in the region, giving radical Islam the opportunity to launch several attacks against the Egyptian military and commercial facilities. The lack of resources and limited investment in the area have discriminated the Bedouin population, whose armed groups would have taken part in the conflict, according to “The Economist”.[2]

The conflict had a pause with the first-elected President Mohamed Morsi, who was able to contain extremist elements in the Sinai governorate. Since the ouster of the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, attacks have gain a new momentum, targeting for the first time military and security headquarters. Moreover, the Al-Sisi government crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and the mass arrest campaign did not help to improve the situation. Quite the opposite. These actions have encouraged distrust among citizens, especially those living in the Sinai territory, increasing the risk of future conflicts.

What is remarkable is the similarity between the Mubarak’s and Al-Sisi’s approach to the Sinai opposition.

The former President was a dictator who used strong repression against Sinai residents. It was normal to arrest people massively and without any evidence of involvement in the attacks. Mubarak’s approach has exacerbated the suspicious atmosphere between the Egyptian central authority and the Sinai Bedouins tribes who see the State as an enemy. This political climate, which is continuing to exist under Al-Sisi administration, represents a serious issue given the potential support residents could give to extremists.

The actual government does not seem willing to change approach to the Sinai conflict from the one used by Mubarak. Similarly to the former dictator Al-Sisi’s reaction in front of terrorist attacks has been until now the so called “war on terror” which would be actually a “war against everyone living in the Sinai Peninsula” according to some critics.[3] Indeed, the government responded bombarding several villages in the region, not making a clear distinction between insurgents and residents.[4] This could lead to think that the government is using the fight against terrorism as an excuse to justify the clampdown on political opposition. In particular, Al-Sisi has accused the Muslim Brotherhood as well as “foreign powers” (probably referring to Hamas) of involvement in the militant violence. In response to those accusations, the banned organization has denied any possible participation in these attacks, expressing its condemnation for terrorism.

The governmental aptitude towards the Muslim Brotherhood and the Sinai problem has raised fears of a return to the dark authoritarianism. These fears are still more evident if we consider the latest measures adopted by the former field-marshal Al-Sisi. On 27th October, two days after the attack in the Sinai region, the Egyptian President approved a decree which expands the jurisdiction of military courts to try civilians accused of attacking state facilities or blocking roads.[5] This measure is really alarming since it also allows trying people who block a road simply to protest.

Sinai insurgency had another important consequence: the establishment of a buffer zone on the Hamas-ruled Gaza border. This will mean the closure of Rafah passage, the only way to Gaza not controlled by Israel. This decision could have strong repercussion on the dialogue with the Palestinian Authority, delaying the achievement of a peace agreement.

Despite the way Egyptian administration is tackling Sinai conflict is not transparent and is provoking many critics concerning the respect of human rights, the United States and the European Union have expressed their solidarity with Al-Sisi. “The United States continues to support the Egyptian government’s efforts to counter the threat of terrorism in Egypt as part of our commitments to the strategic partnership between our two countries”, the US State Department said. This declaration could make us think that there is a possibility that US could unlock their military aid ($1.3bn annually) towards Egypt, which was suspended after Morsi’s ouster[6].

In the end, the Bush idea of “the war on terror” could bring together the defender of human rights and the one who is responsible for their violations.

Claudia Conticello

Master’s degree in International Relations (LUISS “Guido Carli”)


[1] Sheikh Zuweid, Sinai Peninsula remains security headache for Sisi, “Al Monitor”, 12 June 2014 – http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/06/egypt-sinai-negligence-security-sisi.html.

[2] Anon., Egypt’s Sinai desert: A haven for malcontents, “The Economist”, 13 July 2013 (retrieved 17 July 2013).

[3] Louisa Loveluck, Desert Fury. Is the Egyptian military’s scorched-earth campaign in Sinai just creating a new generation of terrorists?, “Foreign Policy”, October 10, 2013.

[4] Patrick Kingsley, Attack on Egyptian military checkpoint kills dozens, “The Guardian”, 24 October 2014 – http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/24/attack-egyptian-military-checkpoint-kills-dozens.

[5] Anon., Egypt to step up military trials after Sinai attack, “Reuters”, 27 October 2014 – http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/10/27/us-egypt-security-courts-idUSKBN0IG18620141027?feedType=RSS&feedName=worldNews.

[6] Yusri Mohamed, Attacks in Egypt’s Sinai kill 33 security personnel, “Reuters”, 24 October 24 2014 – http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/10/24/us-egypt-sinai-idUSKCN0ID1BZ20141024.