Morsi’s soft approach to security in the Sinai alienated the Egyptian military and provided another reason for them to support the opposition.
While Morsi made many mistakes that provoked a disillusioned and increasingly impoverished population to challenge his legitimacy, the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Sinai may have been the main impetus for his ouster. His refusal to employ heavy-handed tactics to stop the increasing flow of arms and militants into Sinai—and his seeming disinterest in avenging the deaths of Egyptian soldiers—led the Egyptian military to join the ranks of his detractors. With the tacit support of their wary Israeli and American military counterparts, the Egyptian armed forces took matters into their own hands to protect what they deemed was Egypt’s top national security priority.
Preserving security in the Sinai Peninsula, particularly the eastern border with Israel, is an integral component of Egypt’s treaty obligations. As a result, Egyptian security forces during the Mubarak era employed a zero tolerance approach against anyone they suspected of terrorism, including indigenous Bedouin historically abused by the state and lacking recourse to the judiciary. Although the state’s heavy-handed tactics are intended for alleged militants who seek to support violent attacks against Israel from Gaza, Egypt’s Bedouin often faced the brunt of these tactics. The state’s neglect of the region through inadequate allocation of state resources towards the most basic services has forced some Bedouin tribes to resort to serving as escorts in the smuggling industry as a means of economic survival. As a consequence, Bedouin were presumed to be criminals and traffickers, resulting in collective punishment through arbitrary arrest and detention, followed by military trials pursuant to the three-decade-long emergency law.
Shortly after the 2011 revolution, an influx of anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles from Libya into Sinai began worsening the situation; this continued throughout Morsi’s presidency. Some arms found their way into Gaza via underground tunnels, while others stayed in Sinai under the control of extremist groups who viewed the Morsi regime’s Islamic interpretations as too lax. Along with arms came militants from abroad with various political objectives ranging from staging attacks on Israel to attacking Egyptian armed forces as part of their efforts to establish an Islamic emirate in Sinai.
Morsi’s response brought to the forefront his shift in foreign policy and national security—a shift that left the United States and its key regional ally, Israel, apprehensive about their geopolitical interests in the region. As the Morsi regime’s relations with Hamas strengthened, smuggling of goods and weapons from Sinai to Gaza intensified, thereby alarming Israel. Moreover, reports of self-proclaimed jihadis from abroad regrouping in Sinai—with access to military grade arms smuggled in from Libya and Sudan—suggested the early stages of a longer-term problem for the United States’ global counterterrorism strategy.
Meanwhile, Morsi’s softer approach to dealing with the kidnappings and killings of Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai through mediation with tribal chiefs, rather than the standard military response, made him appear naïve and unfit to rule in the eyes of his military. In stark contrast to the hardline stance of Mubarak, Morsi tasked his regime with holding meetings with tribal elders to hear their complaints and their ideas on how to end the bloodshed in the Sinai and the Rafah crossing. Government representatives employed the unconventional tactic of encouraging an intellectual and jurisprudential revision of the interpretations of religious doctrine by extremists, who issued fatwas to authorize killing innocent people. In November 2012, Morsi rejected outright General el-Sisi’s request to crack down on alleged terrorists in Sinai, reportedly stating, “I don’t want Muslims to shed the blood of fellow Muslims.”
The military interpreted Morsi’s softer approach as evidence of his conflicted loyalties: between his sympathies with extremist Islamist groups—notwithstanding his rejection of their use of violence—and his obligations as President to preserve security in Sinai. Suspicions arose as to whether Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood backers had ulterior plans for Sinai, perhaps in line with an external ideology that seeks a pan-Islamic alliance across the Middle East—rather than pursuing Egypt’s national security interests as laid out under the Camp David peace treaty. Thus, Morsi’s policies in Sinai provided the military an opportunity to grant the opposition explicit support in their efforts to oust him from the presidency.
Although Morsi eventually employed more aggressive tactics in Sinai—after it became evident that mediations failed to co-opt extremist Islamist groups—it was too little too late. Military leaders were in back door discussions with Morsi’s political opposition—even as he was authorizing the flooding of smuggling tunnels between Sinai and Gaza, bolstering cross-border interceptions of arms and migrants, and arresting anyone suspected of participating in illegal trafficking. Although the time and manner may not have yet been determined, the military had decided that Morsi was unfit to rule.
The past two years have offered many lessons for Egyptians, who are slowly coming out of the fog of decades of dictatorship. From prioritizing the economy to learning how to build consensus in a burgeoning political space, future leaders have much to take stock of as they reflect on Morsi’s fate. But perhaps the most important lesson for future civilian presidents is to prioritize Sinai within Egypt’s national security agenda. That is, if Egypt’s military ever cedes power back to a civilian government.
Sahar Aziz is an associate professor at Texas A&M University School of Law, where she teaches national security and Middle East law. She is also a member of the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association and a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.