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 knowledgeable about developments in the Sinai peninsula, where the Egyptian government has been fighting a major insurgency for several years. He spoke about the situation there in a Diwan interview last May. Sabry is the author of Sinai: Egypt’s Linchpin, Gaza’s Lifeline, and Israel’s Nightmare (2015), which was banned in Egypt soon after publication.
Michael Young: Who conducted the attack in Sinai on November 24 against a Sufi mosque, and why did it take place?
Mohannad Sabry: Despite the fact that no group has yet declared responsibility for the recent attack, it does bear the hallmarks of the Islamic State’s branch in Sinai. This attack followed on from a string of threats directed by the Islamic State against the Sufi community across northern Sinai, as well as against many local Bedouin clans known for their animosity toward the militants, including the Jararat clan of the Sawarka tribe, dozens of whose members were victims of the November 24 massacre.
The attack clearly aimed to boost the Islamic State’s propaganda effort and bring the group back to the front pages of newspapers across the world, through a deadly massacre, especially after the humiliating defeats it suffered in Syria and Iraq. Moreover, it aimed to send a clear message to the general population of Sinai that even Sunni Muslims of tribal background, praying inside a mosque, remained targets and would be pursued for as long as they did not submit to the Islamic State’s control. Needless to say, this has been the group’s message over the years, which it has spread across Sinai through dozens of attacks on military personnel as well as civilians.
MY: Why has the Egyptian army seemed so vulnerable in Sinai, after all it vastly outnumbers and outguns the insurgents?
MS: Simply because of the strategy of “brute force,” which President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi mentioned in his speech following the massacre. It is an approach that has failed to yield any successful and long-lasting solution since the Sinai campaign began more than four years ago. Once again, the Egyptian military continues to rely solely on a massive, largely untrained conventional army, one chained by bureaucracy. This only inflicts more harm and results in more destruction to the military itself and the surrounding community. What such a method fails to do, however, is allow for the implementation of a broad, community-incorporating counterterrorism strategy that would rely mainly on gathering intelligence information and employing highly trained tactical units.
MY: What does the absence of peninsula-wide collaboration with the regime against the insurgents tell us about tribal dynamics in the Sinai?
MS: It vividly shows us two main characteristics of the tribal community in the peninsula. The first is that the community cannot be forced to submit to any form of oppression. It won’t surrender its decades-old heritage and loyalties, no matter how much it suffers, whether that suffering is brought upon the community by a terrorist group or by a dictatorial military regime.
The highly impenetrable nature of the tribal community is the reason why, after more than four years of being stranded between the military’s tanks and the Islamic State’s beheadings, we have not yet seen any tribe, or even a clan or entire family, join either side in the conflict. The militants recruited by the Islamic State, like the Bedouin informants serving the military, remain individuals who do not represent the tribal community or even their smaller clans.
The second point is that it remains impossible to develop efficient security solutions unless these are backed by a unified tribal effort and a community-wide agreement. Unless such strategies provide the required protection to the community and guarantee at least minimal levels of social and economic justice, they will not succeed, regardless of the number of tanks rumbling through the desert.
Had successive Egyptian regimes considered such deeply ingrained characteristics of the tribal community since 2013, or even when Israel withdrew its settlers and military forces from the Sinai in 1982, the entire country would have been spared the loss of hundreds of lives, military and civilian, and the destruction of local economies worth billions of dollars.
MY: What do the insurgents in the Sinai hope to achieve?
MS: The goal of the Sinai militants, even before pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, was to control territory and sectors of the local population. To achieve, or come closer to, this goal they continue to drain the military and police forces in a sort of war of attrition.
MY: The regime’s response was immediate. How effective was it?
MS: I believe that every Egyptian, and everyone reading the horrifying news of mass killings for that matter, wish that the regime’s alleged responses be effective. However, unfortunately this is not the first time, and certainly it won’t be the last, that the military comes out in the aftermath of a deadly terrorist attack to claim that it is hunting the terrorists and bombing their bunkers across the Sinai.
Such statements by the Egyptian military impose three very troubling alternative theories: First, the military had reliable intelligence leading it to terrorist hideouts and failed to initiate any action until the deadliest massacre in Egypt’s modern history took place. Second, the military had no intelligence until after the massacre, which means that intelligence failures continue to be primary facilitators of the ongoing terrorist activity. And third, the military’s statement was in and of itself unreliable and aimed at containing the scandal by deceiving the public into believing untrue accomplishments.
Unfortunately, the military statements—especially in light of a media and information blackout on Sinai and continued terrorist attacks against civilians and the military—have created serious doubts about the entire military campaign in the peninsula.
MY: What is at the heart of the regime’s problem in Sinai? Can anything stop the insurgency, short of a long military campaign?
MS: The heart of the regime’s problem is its conviction that pure, heavy-handed military and security campaigns, or rather clampdowns, are effective solutions. Meanwhile, it has remained blind to the fact that such a strategy in Sinai, after a history of marginalization and a lack of development, justice, and proper policing in the peninsula, are doing nothing but further entrenching anger in the hearts and minds of the inhabitants, and providing the last push a vulnerable person requires to fall for the propaganda of terrorist recruiters.