Writing to a network of followers and potential followers around the world, the Mauritanian-born cleric Sheikh Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti, one of the world’s most prominent jihadi ideologues, described a religious obligation for Muslims to take up arms against the Egyptian army. “The goal of the security campaign that the tyrannical army in Egypt is directing in the Sinai is to protect Israel and its borders after jihadi groups in the Sinai became a real threat to it,” the letter, dated October 17, said. “Jihad in the Sinai is a great opportunity for you to gather and unite under a pure flag, unsullied by ignorant slogans.”
Hundreds of miles from Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egypt’s tumultuous revolution, the long-neglected Sinai Peninsula has become the frontline for the military’s fight against extremism. Having operated in a quasi-lawless state there for decades, jihadi groups are now finding an opportunity to ride on the coattails of discontent following the July 3 military-backed coup that ousted President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the interim government’s subsequent neutering of the organization.
Many militant groups see the Islamists’ fall from grace as justification for their claims that the creation of an Islamic state can only be achieved through violence, and not through the moderate political campaign waged by the Muslim Brotherhood following the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. In response, the military has launched an unapologetic crackdown in the Sinai in an effort to crush any group or individual that might challenge its authority or uphold the legitimacy of the now-defunct Morsi regime.
While the military declared an end to a three-month state of emergency earlier this month, a strictly enforced curfew remains in effect in Sinai from 6 P.M. to 4 A.M., with military checkpoints commonplace across the peninsula. And while Egyptian tanks were barred from certain areas of the Sinai following the 1978 Camp David Accords, Israel authorized Egypt to deploy two additional infantry battalions to the region after Morsi’s ouster to counter terrorist threats. It did not end there. In September, the military stepped up its campaign to rid northern Sinai of militants, with Army Spokesman Ahmed Ali saying it would be “taking action against terrorists, instead of merely reacting to terrorist attacks.” That same month, dozens of homes were bulldozed and trees removed along the roads from the northern town of Al-Arish to Rafah, the border city with Gaza, according to witnesses and media reports, as the military prepared to create a 1,640-foot-wide, six-mile-long buffer zone around the Rafah border crossing. Schools in northern Sinai began the 2013-14 academic year five weeks later than scheduled amid fears that children would be at risk.
The military’s “heavy-handedness is more out of lack of experience than anything,” said Mokhtar Awad, an Egypt researcher at the Center for American Progress. “If the [militants’] goal is to make the military look weak then they can do that. I always compared [militancy] to a virus—that if it does spread to [the Nile] Delta and Upper Egypt, they won’t be able to control it.” (more…)