The Sinai Peninsula in northeast Egypt, which borders Israel, has long been a haven for militants and was a flashpoint for terrorism even before the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, but it has become an increasingly lawless region since last July. The army has launched a series of campaigns to regain control of Sinai, even deploying troops close to the Israeli border—an action prohibited under the Camp David Accords, but in this case undertaken with the approval of Israel, underlining the seriousness of the security threat. As part of its counter-terrorism campaign, the army has reportedly destroyed more than 1,500 tunnels running beneath the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, which borders North Sinai, in an attempt to stop the flow of arms.
It seemed that these initiatives were finally paying off when, on April 24, the commander of Egypt’s 2nd Field Army, which is responsible for Sinai, said his forces had gained complete control over the peninsula. But on the same day, interim President Adly Mansour said the security of the region was an ongoing concern, and one day later a soldier was injured when unidentified gunmen opened fire on a security post in North Sinai. The attacks in Sinai have continued since the commander’s announcement. While these attacks are on a far smaller scale than previous ones, they underline the ongoing difficulties plaguing Egypt that cannot be solved by force alone.
Some people say that the army is deliberately leaving militants some room to move until after the elections. The widespread expectation is that former head of the armed forces and former defense minister, Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, will become the new president and that the army will then move to eliminate the threat in the Sinai and provide an early boost to Sisi’s presidential credibility.
If accurate—and many feel the already extremely popular Sisi would not need to use such a tactic—this is a risky plan. Egypt’s security problem is no longer contained to the Sinai Peninsula. According to reports in the Egyptian press, since last July militant attacks in Sinai, and cities including Cairo have killed around 500 people, mostly policemen and soldiers. Bomb attacks have also targeted Cairo University and tourists, as well as high-profile individuals in the capital. Consequently, the presidential election will almost certainly be held in a tense atmosphere amid a high risk of violence.
It is not only groups like Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis, the Sinai-based militants designated a terrorist organization by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the US, that pose a security challenge for the new president. There is also a risk from disgruntled individuals who feel unable to make their voices heard except through violence. Low-level attacks such as shootings are likely to continue, because weapons are far more easily obtainable now they are coming into Egypt from Libya as well as via the tunnels running from Gaza into Sinai.
Unless the security services can gain control over militant activity, a Sisi victory in the presidential election will be met with an increase in violent attacks. This could lead to disillusionment among Sisi’s support base, which has already been dented to some extent by ongoing violence, mass arrests and aggressive sentencing.
For Egypt’s new president, then, security will be a major priority. But security is not just about terrorism: it is also about the economy, health care, infrastructure, and so on. Egypt’s revolution aimed to secure a broader concept of human security. The new president will have to balance these issues with the problem of terrorist violence, and at the same time juggle the many different political trends. This requires a sensitive mediation between security and rights, which is necessary to secure demands of the revolution for bread, freedom and social justice. Securing Sinai, while crucial, is not enough to secure stability after the presidential election.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine or Asharq Al-Awsat.