The Egyptian authorities began to establish a buffer zone on October 29 in the far northeast of the Sinai Peninsula along the border with Gaza, separating the Palestinian Rafah in the east and the Egyptian Rafah in the west. The buffer zone itself will stretch from the border crossing one kilometer inside Egypt. But although officials say the new measure is in response to a number of deadly attacks carried out by Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) since Summer 2013, the decision to blame the deteriorating security landscape in Egypt on the situation along the 14 kilometer (9 mile) border with Gaza is ultimately a political one.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rationale for establishing a buffer zone is that it will put an end to the influx of armed fighters and weapons from Gaza to Sinai—though the extent of that flow is unclear. This decision is rather a reflection of the Sisi government’s animosity toward Gaza-based Hamas, which is considered the nearest strategic and ideological ally to the Muslim Brotherhood—the regime’s political enemy. Such a choice, then, is unlikely to quell the violence in Sinai or elsewhere, as Sisi claimed in his October 25 televised speech.
The Egyptian authorities had on several occasions previously announced intentions to implement a buffer zone, but it only came into fruition following the violent attack against a military checkpoint in Karm al-Qawadis on Friday, October 24. The attack, which was perpetrated by ABM—now an ISIS affiliate and renamed Wilayat Sinai—left at least 28 soldiers and officers dead, in addition to another 26 wounded. Although U.S.-Israeli and U.S.-Egyptian dialogue had long emphasized the need to roll back the border tunnels into Gaza and stop weapons smuggling into the strip, it was the emergence in 2011 and 2012 of Salafi-jihadi groups, such as ABM and the Mujahideen Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem (Majlis Shura Al-Mujahideen fi Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdas), whose attacks added urgency to the issue. Under the presidency of Mohamed Morsi, the army began a limited campaign called Operation Sinai against armed jihadi groups after the attack on a border guards’ camp left sixteen soldiers dead on August 5, 2012. But Operation Sinai was not able to end these attacks.
After the ouster of Morsi on July 3, 2013, and following the subsequent mass killings that targeted Islamists, ABM considered the army’s measures a war on Muslims. In response, they began to target low-ranked soldiers, whose faith ABM questioned. Now, the Sisi government claims that isolating the border area and destroying the Gaza tunnels will reduce armed attacks on security forces and Egyptian civilians. But many attacks, such as one this past July in the Farafra Oasis located in the vast Western Desert, do not stem from arms flowing from Gaza into Egypt—rather it is the repression and the deep social and economic grievances fueling the violence. The proposed buffer zone not only misidentifies the real reasons behind the violence, it is likely to worsen these grievances.
The deadly events on October 31 offer ample evidence. Three days after the army began to expel Sinai residents from the border strip in Rafah and troops were heavily deployed in the region, an armored vehicle belonging to the army was targeted by an IED in al-Arish (a city 40 kilometers/25 miles west of Rafah), despite the curfew and road closures. Two soldiers died and the rest of the crew was injured. And less than a month after the Karm al-Qawadis attack, on November 12, a rebel navy officer called Ahmed Amer, who had pledged allegiance to ISIS, carried out a marine operation against Egyptian naval forces off the coast of Damietta.
Concerns about the tunnels, however, predate Sisi and the current situation in Sinai. The Mubarak government was under pressure to destroy cross-border tunnels, according to a U.S.-Israeli Memorandum of Understanding signed on January 16, 2009, and both governments had committed to working together along with regional allies to prevent smuggling weapons into Gaza. Although it is unclear whether weapons actually came to Egypt from Gaza, the Sisi government has blamed militants from Gaza for carrying out violent attacks in the Sinai. He has managed to shift the dialogue about the tunnels from their security threat to Israel to their national and local threat—in turn bolstering his argument for the buffer zone.
The rationale of the buffer zone fails to address the real issue of arms flow and stands to enhance the appeal of jihadi groups operating in Sinai. Local communities in the peninsula have already lost faith in the army and the rule of law. Locals compare the random and collective punishments carried out by the Sisi government to prior abuses during the Mubarak era. Elder locals, especially veterans, frequently draw comparisons between the Egyptian army’s treatment of Sinai and past Israeli occupying forces stationed in the peninsula from 1967 to 1982.
In order to justify the heavy-handed approach to Sinai insurgents, Egyptian army leaders have therefore enacted new laws to provide legal cover for their actions. Sisi declared a state of emergency for a period of three months, starting from October 25, 2014, in the northeastern region of Sinai—which includes Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid, al-Arish, and dozens of other villages—and authorities claim it is in the national interest. The government has also passed a law authorizing the military to protect “state facilities” across Egypt, including bridges and roads.
But the recent measures to implement a buffer zone will instead widen the gap between the government and Sinai residents. So far, the government has failed to adequately implement and organize evacuation operations, leaving the displaced vulnerable as they seek transport and alternate housing. This haphazard approach will continue to fuel social and tribal conflicts and inflame local tensions. Incidentally, most of those affected by the forced displacement are not members of Bedouin tribes but instead descendants of Mamluk survivors of the Citadel Massacre of 1811.1 These families can now join their Bedouin neighbors in developing a narrative of collective injustice at the hands of the Egyptian military.
The Egyptian government is nonetheless proceeding with its plan and is unlikely to reverse course. The decision has already received the blessing of the United States and Israel, along with Sisi’s two main Gulf allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Egyptian authorities’ approach reflects a deep faith in the utility of security solutions to fight terrorism—adding to the long list of systematic violations committed by Egyptian authorities since July 3.
Ismail Alexandrani is a journalist and sociopolitical researcher specialized in Egypt's extremities including Sinai, Nubia and Siwa. He is an incoming Visiting Arab Journalist at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
1. Based on interviews the author conducted with tribal leaders.?