Sinai's Stubborn Insurgency

Why Egypt Can't Win

An Egyptian military helicopter flies over debris from a Russian airliner that crashed in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, November 1, 2015. Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters

“Don’t send reinforcements to Sinai,” Kamal Allam, the military commander of Wilayat Sinai, or Sinai Province (SP), taunted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. “Send your whole army. It will die here in desert.” Allam’s video message came in April 2015 after a complex attack on seven military and security targets. Two months later, SP was able to launch an even more complicated operation. In July that year, it simultaneously attacked 15 military and security targets and briefly occupied the town of Sheikh Zuweid. During the fighting, around 300 militants were able to cut off certain posts from incoming Egyptian reinforcements. As ever, the number of dead army soldiers and officers is contested. The Egyptian military claimed 17; unofficial sources claimed over 100.

The July episode might have been the most spectacular, but it was far from the last. Throughout the rest of 2014 and early 2015, SP conducted well over 200 attacks And as recently as September 2015, four American and two Fijian peacekeepers were wounded in blasts near the North Camp of the Multinational Force & Observers, the group formed to monitor the Egyptian-Israeli peace deal.

The attacks in Sinai came despite Cairo’s extremely brutal counterinsurgency campaign, which was ramped up in North Sinai starting in September 2013. And the Sinai fighters’ ability to nonetheless expand their battle’s geographic scope is just one puzzle about the insurgency.

Relatives of an army officers who died in a Sinai attack cry at his funeral near Cairo, Egypt, July 2, 2015.
Relatives of an army officers who died in a Sinai attack cry at his funeral near Cairo, Egypt, July 2, 2015. Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters
Sinai’s northeastern coast, where the insurgency is centered, is not exactly rugged terrain. Most of the high mountains are in the south of the peninsula. Its population is relatively small. The North Sinai Governorate has a population of only 434,781 (40 persons per square mile). Further, the loyalty of this population seems to be divided. At least some members of almost every northeastern tribe and clan have joined the insurgency or support it, but not all or even a majority. These divisions do not follow clear rural-urban, settler-Bedouin, tribal, or administrative fault lines. Finally, there is no state sponsorship for the insurgents, and the regime forces outnumber the militants by at

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