Mohannad Sabry is an Egyptian journalist and author who lived in Cairo until 2015, before he left in self-imposed exile after facing mounting threats. In 2011 he was named a finalist for the Livingston Award for International Reporting, and he was nominated for an Emmy Award as part of the PBS Frontline team that produced the show “Egypt in Crisis” in September 2013. Sabry is particularly knowledgeable about developments in the Sinai Peninsula, where the Egyptian government has been fighting a major insurgency for several years. He is the author of Sinai: Egypt’s Linchpin, Gaza’s Lifeline, and Israel’s Nightmare (2015), which was banned in Egypt soon after publication. It is to discuss the events in Sinai that Diwan interviewed him in late April.
Michael Young: The Egyptian government’s military campaign in the Sinai has been underreported. Yet it is a major event. Can you briefly explain what the reality of the situation is there, and what the prospects are for the regime to win?
Mohannad Sabry: The reality of the situation in Sinai is the principal reason for the media and information blackout imposed by the state authorities. The security campaign in Sinai, since its very early beginnings, has been mismanaged and marred by severe human rights violations against innocent civilians. These include the unlawful arrest and detention of hundreds of people, torture, and sometimes the killing of civilians, either by random fire or the indiscriminate use of military force. It also includes incidents of extrajudicial killings similar to what appeared in a recent leaked video that received much publicity.
The success accomplished by this campaign over the past four years has been very limited, and certainly nothing close to what the Egyptian military command and spokesmen have claimed. That is another reason why the state continues to ban press and media workers, as well as national and international observers, from having any access to the Sinai Peninsula. It does not want anyone to see the reality of this incompetent campaign and sometimes the army’s complete failure in gathering and utilizing intelligence and protecting its troops as well as civilians.
For the Egyptian military campaign in Sinai to succeed, the Egyptian regime has to first admit that almost all of its security policies employed over the past years have proven to be ineffective. Without this change in vision we cannot expect any progress whatsoever.
In parallel to overhauling the policies of the so-called war on terror in Sinai, the Egyptian authorities have to end ongoing human rights violations and serious damage inflicted on the civilian population. This has facilitated the spread of radical and terrorist recruitment propaganda and has turned many inhabitants of the Sinai against the state.
MY: Recently, the video that you mentioned earlier surfaced, showing Egyptian soldiers executing unarmed prisoners in the Sinai. Do you have information on what happened?
MS: In short, these unarmed prisoners were executed by members of the Egyptian military, accompanied by local informants, and framed as terrorists. The military tried to manipulate the incident to look like a success in the battle against terrorism. Unfortunately, this is nothing new. No one in Sinai was shocked because there are dozens of similar cases that have been reported or documented since 2014, months after the military campaign began. I personally reported on and documented the killing of two teenagers who had been detained in place of their father during a military raid on the village of Al-Muqata‘a south of Sheikh Zuwayyed. Moreover, this latest video appeared three months after a Ministry of Interior statement reported the killing of ten terrorists, six of whom turned out to be ordinary civilians who had been detained weeks before they appeared in a video claiming another bogus success in the Sinai campaign.
Such incidents, videos, and photos reveal the amount of criminal violations committed by Egyptian security and military personnel in Sinai, and the amount of impunity they enjoy in the region. Moreover, it shows vividly that the claims of success are impossible to verify and in many cases are nothing but fabricated stories covering for the actual and continued failure to defeat terrorism or protect civilian lives.
MY: Recently, hundreds of Copts fled Al-Arish, in response to the killing by Islamic State-linked militants of Copts. Such a mass exodus suggests the state does not even properly control a major center such as Al-Arish. Can you describe the situation there.
MS: Over the past months the Islamic State’s group in Sinai, referred to as Sinai Province, strategically shifted its focus to attacks inside Al-Arish. It succeeded in launching dozens of attacks since January, some only meters away from the regional military command, the intelligence headquarters, and the security directorate in the heart of the region’s supposedly most secure city. The string of targeted assassinations of Coptic Christians has highlighted the freedom and capabilities of the Islamic State, and the lack of challenges they face while gathering information, identifying their targets, mobilizing their members, and successfully implementing their attacks. Before the killing of Copts, the Islamic State employed such capabilities across Al-Arish and was able to identify and assassinate no less than a dozen undercover police personnel.
Such patterns, over a period of months, are clear signs that the military and police are as incapable of securing the capital of the North Sinai as they are of doing so villages and the suburbs of urban areas. But what is even more damaging to the already marred reputation of this underreported campaign, is how little attention the state and its authorities pay to the safety and wellbeing of civilians who continue to be victimized.
MY: Who forms the backbone of the Sinai insurgency?
MS: The Islamic State is comprised of Egyptians both from Sinai and the Nile Valley governorates. The commanders and strategists of the group are native to Sinai’s Bedouin tribes. This was also the case previously, before they pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, when the former insurgent group in the area, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, collaborated with Palestinian jihadis to wage cross-border attacks against Israel in 2011 and 2012.
But aside from the origins of its members, it is the group’s ability to sustain itself over a period of years in the face of the Egyptian military that makes it exceptional. In addition, its far-reaching propaganda has attracted former Egyptian special forces officers to the group, leading to some of its biggest attacks in 2013 and 2014. The same outreach continues to draw recruits from governorates hundreds of kilometers away from the Sinai.
MY: Why has the Egyptian military, despite its massive advantage in numbers and firepower, been unable to defeat the insurgency? Indeed, all the signs are that the Islamic State is expanding its influence.
MS: If anything was proven over the past three decades of wars against terrorist groups in different parts of the world, it is that conventional military forces cannot defeat terrorist organizations, regardless of the numbers of troops and tanks deployed. Unfortunately the Egyptian government continues to believe and insist that this approach will work in the Sinai, though it’s clearly not working.
The one common factor in almost all of the major terrorist attacks since 2012, either in Sinai or the rest of Egypt, is the severe lack of effective intelligence work and the failure to exploit information when available to the Egyptian military and security apparatus. The Islamic State’s attempt to impose its control over Sheikh Zuwayyed on July 1, 2015, remains a prime example of how more than a hundred terrorists, armed with light weapons and improvised explosive devices, kept the military at bay, eventually forcing the state to use its air force to bomb inside a town of some 60,000 people.
Aside from the fact that the terrorists’ preparation for that attack continued undetected for weeks, the incident raised another question. What might have happened had there been effective and well-trained counterterrorism troops in charge of securing Sheikh Zuwayyed, collecting and using intelligence, and leading continued covert operations to counter the nonstop activity of the terrorists, rather than relying on conventional military forces restrained by a bureaucratic chain of command, lacking training, and left in fixed positions and encampments representing easy targets for the terrorists?
MY: What is the situation in Rafah, another major center in the Sinai?
MS: Most of the city was demolished two years ago, after the Sisi regime claimed that it was essential to eliminate terrorists coming through the tunnels from Gaza. There are three districts left from the historic city of Rafah as we know it. The residents are wondering what will happen to them. Just like Sheikh Zuwayyed, Rafah has been for weeks on end without electricity or running water. Its infrastructure has been almost entirely destroyed. This creates many doubts about the military strategy in Sinai. Wiping much of Rafah off the map, displacing its population, and making them suffer have yielded almost nothing and certainly have not advanced the fight against terrorism.
As for the smuggling tunnels running under the border with the Gaza Strip, they continue to operate. Certainly not in the same number or at the same level of activity as in the past. However, the border remains unsecured despite millions of dollars squandered on an ambitious project to flood the tunnels with sea water.
MY: What is the nature of Egyptian-Israeli collaboration against the Sinai insurgency?
MS: The level of cooperation reached unprecedented levels in 2014, and this continues. The Israeli authorities seem to enjoy the secrecy surrounding such collaboration as much as Egypt has enjoyed imposing a news blackout in the Sinai.
MY: Is Sinai turning into Egypt’s 21st-century version of the 1962–1967 Yemen war, or is it more similar to the conflict against the Jama‘a al-Islamiyya in the early 1990s?
MS: Neither. The wave of terrorism in Egypt that began with the rise of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in 2012, and continues today, is unprecedented in the history of the country. The Jama‘a al-Islamiyya and the Islamic Jihad’s most sophisticated attacks in the 1990s did not rise to the level of the majority of the attacks executed by Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis and the Islamic State.
It is also very different than Yemen. In Sinai there is no tribal conflict and the Egyptian military isn’t suffering the divisions seen within the Yemeni military. That being said, is Sinai heading toward a tribal war due to the military’s use of local informants? On many occasions they commit crimes against innocent members of tribal communities akin to the ones seen in the recent video. If such issues aren’t resolved there will be a tribal conflict, or at least extended inter-tribal killings that will continue for years.
The most concerning aspect regarding the future of Sinai is the amount of anger that has accumulated against the authorities due to the lethal crackdown since 2013. If this is left unresolved it will push many people in Sinai to seek revenge, either independently or under the umbrella of terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State.