Egypt’s Sinai, war on terror, and the ‘deal of the century’

Anti-terrorism operations have failed to bring security to Sinai but could usher in the ‘deal of the century’.

Al Rawda mosque
Military personnel secure al-Rawda mosque during the first Friday prayer after the deadly attack in Sinai's Bir al-Abed, Egypt on December 1, 2017 [Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany]

Five years ago, then Egyptian Defence Minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi led a military coup against the first democratically elected president in the modern history of Egypt. Deposed President Mohamed Morsi, who had put Sisi in charge of the Egyptian military, is now languishing in jail after being handed a life sentence.

The coup unleashed a string of terrorist attacks originating in the Sinai Peninsula but also hitting targets across Egypt. Since July 3, 2013, fighting and eliminating terrorism has been Sisi’s main agenda for Egypt. It was the justification he and his regime used for every failure suffered and for every repressive measure taken.

But despite the ever-growing military budget and the loss of thousands of civilian and military lives, which started with the massacre of Morsi supporters in August 2013, Sisi’s promise to bring security to the country remains unfulfilled.

Meanwhile, the Sinai Peninsula’s security crisis has evolved into a social, economic and political catastrophe.

Operation Sinai 2018

In November 2017, during Friday prayers a massive explosion hit el-Rawda mosque, 45km west of North Sinai governorate capital El Arish. As people rushed to help the wounded, armed men opened fire killing scores. More than 300 civilians lost their lives in the carnage, which sparked nationwide anger and outrage.

In the aftermath of the horrific attack, Sisi gave a three-month deadline to the armed forces to secure Sinai. But just a few weeks later, El Arish airport was shelled during an unannounced visit of the defence and interior ministers to the city.

The deteriorating security situation precipitated the launch of “Operation Sinai 2018” on February 9. Tamer al-Rifai, the military spokesperson, described it as the most comprehensive operation to date which will “continue until it fulfils its goals”.

But the immediate impact of the operation, however, brought more suffering for the civilian population of North Sinai.

The Egyptian military put the entire governorate on lockdown, shut down the main roads and highways connecting cities and villages, closed all gas stations and schools, and limited movement in and out of the region, allowing only those holding special security permits to go through.

The Egyptian military paralysed North Sinai, transformed it into a region-wide detention camp, and left its 400,000 residents with little to no services or relief. 

For the first three months of the operation, North Sinai suffered a food crisis caused entirely by the ban on the entry of trucks. Markets emptied up and the prices of the little remaining supplies skyrocketed; the local authorities turned a blind eye to the crisis and whoever took advantage of it.

In April, Human Rights Watch published a report warning of a looming humanitarian crisis and called for relief organisations to be allowed to intervene.

While the food crisis was gradually resolved after the military lifted the ban on heavy transport, the suffering of the people of Sinai did not end.

The remaining parts of the border city of Rafah were demolished as the military forced its people to evacuate. In El Arish, the army began demolishing the homes of “suspected terrorists”. As a Human Rights Watch report released in May noted: “The Egyptian army has vastly expanded widespread destruction of homes, commercial buildings, and farms in the North Sinai governorate since February 9, 2018.”

Unsurprisingly, the Egyptian military spokesperson rushed to deny the reports, claiming that there was neither a food crisis nor widescale home demolitions.


But what Sisi’s regime cannot deny is a parallel statement by the North Sinai Agriculture Directorate confirming that 90 percent of the farms of Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid and El Arish, the region’s three main cities, have been entirely razed. According to Atef Abeed, the region’s top agriculture officer, 80 percent of the olive production was depleted “after the razing of 25,000 acres [10,100 hectares] of olive farms”.

The loss of farmland has affected every sector of the Sinai population, and many have been left with no source of income or food as a result. And this is just a small part of the destruction of the entire local economy built over decades by the local population despite the marginalisation and neglect they suffered under consecutive regimes.

“Home demolitions in El Arish have become a normal sight,” said one El Arish resident who spoke to me on condition of anonymity. Another wrote on his Facebook page that “trucks carrying the belongings of people being evacuated from Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid haven’t stopped for a single day over the past four years as they head for the unknown.” 

Sinai and the ‘deal of the century’

After five years of “fighting terrorism on behalf of Egypt and the world,” as Sisi repeatedly says in his speeches, the only solid accomplishment of the Egyptian military is an unprecedented scale of human rights violations and destruction that even the Israeli army didn’t commit over the 14 years of its full or partial occupation of the Sinai Peninsula between 1967 and 1982.

As for the terrorists, they continue to shatter the impossible-to-verify claims of success and triumph by the Egyptian military. Since operation Sinai 2018 was launched in February, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-affiliate known as the “Sinai Province” group has succeeded in dodging countless security checkpoints and roadblocks.

It successfully hit the region’s military command, 101 Battalion, with two suicide bombers and launched another attack on the Qusayima military barracks, killing between eight and 20 military personnel.

It targeted the Central Security Commander Nasser al-Hosseiny, killing his top aide and leaving him in critical condition. It has also targeted military convoys south of El Arish and Sheikh Zuwayyed with IEDs a number of times, according to local sources. 

Despite the media and information blackout on Sinai, a string of recent reports have revealed that with Sisi’s blessing the Israeli air force has been conducting air strikes in the peninsula while the United Arab Emirates have been running counterterrorism operations there.

But nothing has been more concerning than reports of the looming execution of mega-projects in North Sinai that will serve the Gaza Strip within the broader US-sponsored “deal of the century”. The forced evacuation of Rafah city, which the military insists was done to enforce a “buffer zone”, is seen as part of this plan.

For years, rumours of a land swap deal between Egypt and Israel to expand the Gaza Strip into Sinai have circulated in Egypt. But they were generally dismissed by the Bedouin tribes of Sinai who comprise the majority of its population and who had complete trust in the Egyptian military.

Today, these same people are starting to believe that the past years of military operations, forced evacuation of tens of thousands of Sinai residents, and the destruction of thousands of acres of farmland and homes, were nothing more than successive steps taken towards realising this plan.

Five years ago, Egypt’s President Sisi and his military commanders claimed to be the ones who would rid the Sinai and Egypt of terrorism. Instead, they surrendered Sinai’s Red Sea Islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia, allowed foreign militaries to operate on Egyptian soil, and brought destruction and displacement to Sinai.

We can only wonder how much worse the situation could get under Sisi’s regime. Now that the border city of Rafah is officially gone, people who remain in Sheikh Zuweid and El Arish have to brace for a bleak future.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.