Why did the Egyptian military, which had long avoided serious involvement in the police-led 1990s domestic War on Terror and the later fight against armed militants in Sinai, embark on a major counterinsurgency in Sinai following the 2013 coup? Why did it take the Egyptian military almost a decade to pacify the peninsula at a very high cost for Sinai residents and the military itself, despite the small size of the insurgent force and the relatively confined terrain where it operated?
This paper will attempt to answer those questions, but first, it examines some catastrophic precedents where the army deployed its personnel in counterinsurgency operations, before delving into the recent Sinai war and what it tells us about the military’s mindset.
A Troubled Past: The Egyptian Army’s Neglect of Counterinsurgency
If the Egyptian army’s history of conventional warfare has been marred with incompetence, its record in counterinsurgency operations is no better, in fact disastrous. The military had a long tradition of training guerrillas and conducting commando raids against the British and later the Israelis, in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet, faced with an insurgency for the first time, during the intervention in Yemen where the Egyptian military fought alongside republican forces against Saudi-backed royalists (1963-1967), the Egyptian army exhibited crippling problems. Many of these challenges bear resemblance to the post-2013 Sinai campaign.
Former Defense Minister Field Marshal Muhammad Abdel Ghani al-Gamasi described the Yemen war in his memoir as a “police operation, which saw our armed forces pitted against irregular troops conducting guerrilla war in the mountains.” Another former minister of defense, General Muhammad Fawzi, for his part, blamed military “bureaucracy” for the Egyptian army’s difficulties in Yemen while recalling in his memoir the inability of the army to adapt its fighting strategy and tactics in Yemen to the counterinsurgency model:
"These Egyptian armed forces, together with new Yemeni brigades and tribesmen allied with the revolution, carried out traditional operations against a weak enemy dispersed everywhere. It appears and disappears, gathers and deploys day and night. As a result of the impossibility of knowing the reality of this enemy, its powers, and potentialities, the Egyptian combatting uniformed forces experienced plenty of difficulties. They were compelled to heavily exceed in using firepower as a show of force and to intimidate and terrorize this adversary.
Indeed, the sands, the mountains, and the deserts of Yemen swallowed all this excess of ammunition. If we calculated the killed among the hostile tribesmen, who represent the enemy, against the amounts of the consumption of ammunition, bombs, and missiles, we would find that it was the most expensive cost among all the wars in the whole world. As for why the Egyptian armed forces didn’t adopt the guerrilla warfare style, no one knows. It was just [to rely on] the shiny reputation and the novel bureaucracy."
We can easily replace “Yemen” with “Sinai” in the above text, and we will still be left with a relevant timely description of the recent performance of the Egyptian military operations against the Sinai insurgency.
Emerging from the Yemen experience, the Egyptian military establishment developed what one analyst described as “a profound distaste for, and amnesia about, irregular warfare.” Following the peace treaty with Israel, the military top brass resisted constabularization and refused the US vision and suggestions for the Egyptian military to change its focus away from conventional warfare, in favor of countering terrorism and smuggling of narcotics and arms.
The skills and caliber of the Egyptian Special Forces officer corps and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) were not so promising either. Modeled on the US Army Rangers, Egypt’s al-Ṣāʿiqa (Thunderbolt) troops were founded in 1957 for commando operations. In the following decades, they demonstrated a complete lack of interest in counterinsurgency doctrines and training. Long lionized in pop culture, “their performance in combat, however, has often failed to live up to their carefully managed reputation.” A former US Navy SEAL commander, who was among the teams sent to instruct the Egyptian Rangers in the 1980s, recalled they were only “moderately successful. No matter how hard we tried, it was almost impossible to teach the Egyptians about specialized operations ... We found their marksmanship unsatisfactory, their physical condition second rate, and their motivation non-existent.”
Prompted by the global wave of airline hijackings, the army nevertheless went ahead and created from the al-Ṣāʿiqa two counterterrorism units: Unit 777 and Unit 999. Unit 777, which is sometimes referred to as Task Force 777, conducted three noteworthy operations to liberate civilian air passengers held hostage by militants, in 1976, 1978, and 1985. The first was a success. The other two were disastrous, ended in mass casualties, and were recorded among the worst in the world's history of anti-hijacking operations. The unit acquired such a mediocre reputation that President Hosni Mubarak had to disband it temporarily following the 1985 debacle.
The scope of operation of Unit 999 was in theory wider and more military-oriented than Unit 777. Yet, it sat idly for nearly three decades. Its first real operations only occurred following 28 January 2011, when its armed masked personnel were deployed by SCAF to either protect state facilities or suspend Tahrir protests by brute force.
Another important component of the elite troops, outside the al-Ṣāʿiqa, is Wiḥdāt al-Miẓallāt, the Paratroopers, founded in 1951 for airborne operations. Throughout their history, the Paratroopers jumped into combat only once, in 1963, during the Egyptian intervention in Yemen. Otherwise, they get transported into operations by the ground forces. Their poor capabilities, unclear operational mandate, and the overall changes in modern warfare have long posed questions over their raison d'être. Still, they were usually the first forces deployed to quell urban unrest, like in the 1977 “Bread Uprising” and the 1986 Central Security Forces mutiny.
Before the 2011 revolution, the army did not play an active role in the counterinsurgency in the Sinai Peninsula or against Islamist groups from Jihad and Gamaa Islamiya in the Nile Valley.
Sinai was long regarded as a military zone whose security matters were handled by the Military Intelligence (MI) and General Intelligence Service (GIS). While the police presence there emerged slowly following Israel’s withdrawal in 1982, the military had the upper hand, but the MI officers’ presence was hardly noticed and operated mainly via the Border Guard. Unlike the MI, the GIS presence was more noticeable, and the agency managed security issues and liaised with the elders of the different local tribes through its “Tribal Affairs” officers. The Interior Ministry’s State Security Police (SS) had offices in several Sinai towns but rarely interacted with the local tribes, focusing police operations on counternarcotics.
Major General Habib al-Adly became interior minister by late 1997, following the Luxor massacre, where Gamaa Islamiya militants killed 58 foreign tourists and four Egyptians. An angry Mubarak immediately humiliated and sacked Major General Hassan al-Alfi, his Interior Minister, on air. For a few hours, Mubarak flirted with the idea of appointing an army officer to reorganize and run the MOI. But the idea was quickly scrapped, after Zakariya Azmi – the chief of his presidential apparatus and a former Republican Guard (RG) officer – warned such a move would expand the military’s sphere of influence.
The 1997 massacre was an international scandal for the regime, and Mubarak was determined not to “let the police off the hook.” Adly, who was then heading SS, survived the police senior command purge and turned the situation in his favor. A retired police officer had once explained to me Adly’s defense cards as SS director. He would issue routine (weekly and sometimes daily) warnings of imminent terror attacks. But these warnings were vague, carefully worded, and contained almost no details. So, if an attack happened, he could say “I warned you!” And if nothing happened, he could claim it was because of his preemptive targeting of militants. Such a story was also mentioned in the state-run al-Ahram shortly after the revolution and in a 2014 book by Muhammad al-Baz, an editor with close ties to the security services.
After Adly assumed office, the police and SS encroached on the MI and GIS turf. “The country had been suffering from terrorist attacks and he [Adly] was the one who defeated the terrorists,” recalls a prominent member of the Tarabin tribe. “This is how he was able to share Sinai with the military, who believed they were the only rulers here.”
The final shift from the military to the Ministry of Interior was the Taba bombings, on 7 October 2004, which were the first recorded attacks in the peninsula by Islamist militants. The GIS took a few steps back, and SS was assigned to hunt the assailants. Just like the aftermath of the Luxor 1997 attack, Adly opportunistically exploited the situation to increase his sphere of influence.
After the Taba bombing, the SS unleashed what many observers described as a state terror campaign. Thousands of locals were detained and tortured. Two major resort bombings ensued, in 2005 in Sharm el-Sheikh and 2006 in Dahab. These were also followed by waves of arbitrary arrests and severe human rights violations. No major operations followed, but relations with the local population became strained, leading on a number of occasions to protests against the Ministry of Interior.
The army was not involved in detentions or torture of local suspects. Military courts, however, were used to prosecute and sentence hundreds of Sinai tribes’ members, on trumped-up terror charges, based on police investigations that were fabricated at best, or on forced confessions extracted under torture.
During the 18-day national uprising that toppled Mubarak, the stoked anger in Sinai, after decades of humiliation and discrimination by the Egyptian state, exploded into armed confrontations between the locals and the SS and MOI forces, lasting for roughly four days, before the retreat of the police and the deployment of the army in an attempt to pacify the region.
2011 – 2013: The Calm before the Storm
A commonly cited grievance in the dispute between President Mohamed Morsi and the military was the deteriorating security situation in Sinai, believed by the army to be the result of Morsi’s soft approach to dealing with terrorism in the peninsula. Some analysts saw this primary reason for their rift and the trigger of the 2013 coup.
In an attempt to rewrite the history of the revolt and the coup, and provide the state’s official narrative, the GIS produced in the 2022 Ramadan month TV soap opera, al-Ikhtyār 3, The Choice 3, whose script and cast were personally revised by Sisi. In it, leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood were depicted orchestrating attacks against the military with local and foreign jihadis. Morsi was also shown granting presidential pardons to terrorists, who left prisons to join the Sinai insurgency. Such accusations are not just confined to pro-military propagandists. Even a well-established historian like Zeinab Abul Magd states that the army “perceived the Brotherhood – a wealthy, widely spread-out international organization – as a threat to national security, [since] the Brotherhood publicly supported jihadist groups in and outside the country.”
While it is very difficult to have an accurate picture of what went on between Morsi and Sisi with regard to the insurgency in the peninsula, a number of facts cast at least doubts on the narrative of an army:
- Morsi pardoned hundreds of prisoners, most of them protesters sentenced by military courts. He released only 27 Islamists, while the SCAF released over 800 Islamists, including more than 50 from Sinai, and allowed the return of around 3,000 exiled jihadis in 2011 from Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, Somalia, and Iran, after taking their names off the security watch list at the airports.
- The 5 August 2012 Rafah massacre took place while Sisi was heading the MI, tasked with the safety of troops and coordination with the Israelis over border security. He failed to take preemptive measures, despite Israeli public warnings of an imminent attack dating 2 August. Moreover, it was revealed months later that the GIS had also passed the information from the Israelis to Morsi and SCAF, but military senior commanders refused to act on it, saying it was a police matter.
- Following the senior command reshuffle on 12 August 2012, the military launched Operation Eagle II, to combat the Sinai insurgents. This was more a show of force than a surgical counterinsurgency campaign. While the military claimed major victories, with the killing and arrest of dozens of suspects, this was denied by investigative journalists working on the ground as well as by residents.
- The media outlets repeatedly quoted security sources, before and after the coup, claiming the military had stopped Operation Eagle II on orders from Morsi who favored negotiations with the jihadis. Such reports were misleading. “Morsi did not stop any operations,” according to an activist from the Tarabin tribe. The military spokesperson also strongly denied reports the operations had ever stopped. Overall, the level of operations on the ground was of low intensity for it to matter.
- On 5 October 2012, Morsi visited Sinai and promised that “every sentence in absentia formerly issued against Sinai residents will be revised.” This remained unfulfilled and sentences issued by the military and exceptional courts remained in effect.
- Morsi’s Prime Minister Hisham Kandil passed a law in November 2012, to regulate land ownership in the peninsula, a move distorted by sensationalist pro-military media campaign as a Morsi plan to create an alternative homeland for the Palestinians in Sinai. The same media also saw a decree by Sisi the following month as something that saved Egypt from this plot. Such allegations are baseless. The only difference between the two documents was the stipulation of the 5km border-radius restriction. Therefore, it is more accurate to treat Sisi’s decree as an addendum to the cabinet law, rather than a negation or a veto. Moreover, Morsi did not object to Sisi’s decree nor did the MB ever denounce it.
- Two weeks before the coup, Morsi’s cabinet allocated LE4.4 billion (then $616 million) for development projects in Sinai. More than half was awarded by direct order to the National Service Projects Organization (NSPO) of the Ministry of Defense.
- Morsi was keen to assert he was working on destroying tunnels between Sinai and Gaza. Even the hostile Egyptian media reports still affirmed that the operations to demolish the tunnels never stopped.
- In a closed meeting with his officers, at the Nasser Higher Military Academy at the beginning of 2013, Sisi firmly insisted that it was not the army’s job to conduct counterterrorism operations. Rather it was the civilian police that should be assigned with this task. Sisi’s explicit statement does not only provide clear proof that the allegations regarding Morsi holding back the army are false but also explains why the military’s performance throughout Operation Eagle II was of low intensity and mediocre at best. The military commanders lacked the will to engage in a counterinsurgency.
- On 16 May 2013, seven security personnel were kidnapped by militant Islamists. Both Morsi and the military were under pressure to secure their release, especially after the kidnappers posted a video of the soldiers blindfolded and humiliated. Sisi deployed troops and the military vowed a severe response if the hostages were not released. Morsi publicly called for the release of the hostages, without bloodshed, refusing negotiations with militants. The kidnappers’ demands were not met, and the captives were released. This challenges the narrative of a military restrained by Morsi. His actions and statements demonstrated his commitment to security.
- I examined several media reports and analytical pieces on Sinai, which claim Morsi was holding the military back or colluding with jihadis. The source of this allegation in most of them – including the widely-cited AP report by Hamza Hendawi – was Sameh Seif al-Yazal, a retired major general who previously served in the RG, MI, and GIS, and whose credibility should be strongly questioned, since he was central to the disinformation wars and pro-military propaganda, especially after 2011, till he died of cancer in 2016.
Post-July 2013: The Army Launches a Large-scale Operation in Sinai
Despite the reluctance of the military to take part in, let alone lead, the fight against militants in the peninsula under SCAF and Muhammad Morsi, the situation completely changed after the 2013 coup.
The state crackdown on the Muslim Brothers and pro-Morsi protesters in the Nile Valley, and the ensuing massacres, were perceived by the Islamist militants from different shades in the peninsula, including those that had not targeted the local police and military previously, as an imminent declaration of war. In the words of a survivor of the 2004 crackdown, “We knew torture was on its way again. It was just a matter of time.”
Attacks and counterattacks, by the army, police, and militants, took a sharp upturn, over July and August 2013, before the army began wide-scale operations, on 7 September 2013. Several factors could explain this shift.
First, there was increasing international pressure on the Egyptian state to act more forcefully, as Israel watched nervously how the Gaza resistance groups had built up their arsenal thanks to the Rafah tunnels. Also, Israel increasingly came under direct attacks from the peninsula.
Second, the MOI forces, which had already been battered since 2011, were drained in pacifying the mainland.
Third, the military, which was not keen on being bogged down, initially thought the September 2013 operation was “a one and done.” Wasfi, in his capacity as the Commander of the Second Field Army, promised to “hand over Sinai cleansed [of terrorists] within a week.” Two weeks later, on 23 September, the state-run al-Ahram published on its front page, based on anonymous security sources, what appeared to be an official military statement rather than a “news report” assuring the public,
"Egypt will officially announce within a few days, which may not exceed a week, that it is free of all manifestations and forms of terrorism, whether in Sinai or anywhere else, to start a new battle with the so-called “fifth column,” which includes politicians, journalists and members of civil society organizations, especially those related to human rights".
Sisi made “grateful use” of armed attacks against the police and the military, especially in Sinai, to spread fear psychosis among the public and create an atmosphere of a permanent state of emergency. Also, contrary to what the militants might have hoped, their attacks on the police and military in Sinai contributed to cementing the institutional cohesion of the army. “Even conscript soldiers can be expected to rally behind their officers and defend the existing order if they find themselves under attack by armed rebels,” remarks Fred H. Lawson, a political scientist who studies Middle Eastern autocracies.
The Military’s Counterinsurgency in Sinai: Human Rights Violations, Political and Operational Blunders
The army’s counterinsurgency campaign in Sinai was not a professional success story. What was supposed to be a week-long operation turned into the longest and biggest military operation since the October 1973 War, with heavy casualties sustained by the army, police, and the local civilian population. The inability of the state to swiftly crush the insurgency was “puzzling” for analysts.
North Sinai’s population, which the counterinsurgency force has sought to control, was less than half a million. Estimates of those involved in the insurgency never exceeded 1,500 militants at the height of operations. Most of the insurgent activities occurred in three out of six districts of the province: Arish, Sheikh Zuweid, and Rafah – all flat coastal terrains and relatively easy to monitor, with a population of roughly 300,000. Despite the repeated accusations by regime propagandists against a long list of foreign governments, there is no evidence that the insurgency received any outside support.
The endurance of the insurgency for roughly a decade is primarily due to disastrous political and operational practices of the military.
Political Blunders and Human Rights Abuses
Studies conducted on a broad array of modern insurgencies have concluded that popular support for the insurgents is likely to spread, whenever the military forces (and/or militarized police) are involved in wide-scale human rights abuses and civilian casualties. The US military field manual on counterinsurgency warfare warns that:
A government that exceeds accepted local norms and abuses its people or is tyrannical generates resistance to its rule. People who have been maltreated or have had close friends or relatives killed by the government, particularly by its security forces, may strike back at their attackers. Security force abuses and the social upheaval caused by collateral damage from combat can be major escalating factors for insurgencies.
In Sinai, the brutality of the Egyptian military and police turned young Bedouins into a pool of insurgent recruits, and generated some communal support for the militants, to avenge the injustices the locals were facing at the hands of the central government soldiers.
Almost a month into the first army surge, Wasfi declared the end of major military operations, on 2 October 2013, adding that his troops "could have eradicated terrorism in Sinai in six hours, but on a condition that storming Sinai would not care of anything or anyone be good or bad, meaning everything that encounters us in Sinai is obliterated." He went on to assert the surgical nature of the counterinsurgency operations, to ensure relations remained strong with the local community and avoid harming any “innocent civilians.” Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Publicly, neither has the military ever released estimates of civilian casualties nor has it ever acknowledged a single case of mistaken arrest or wrongful killing. Although a considerable section of the locals had initially welcomed the military deployment in 2012, hoping the troops would treat them better than the MOI, they were quickly disillusioned, especially after the 2013 coup.
The successive army-led operations saw mass arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearance of locals. From July 2013 to December 2018, more than 12,000 residents were detained, according to an estimate by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. Detainees were usually held in: i) Rangers Battalion 101 Base in al-Arish, dubbed by the locals as “Sinai’s Guantanamo” for the horrors they faced inside; ii) al-Zohour Camp, a converted sports center in Sheikh Zuweid; and iii) al-Azouli Prison, located inside al-Galaa Camp, which hosts the Command of the Second Field Army in Ismailiya.
Detainees, including children, were systematically tortured, isolated from the outside world, and forcibly disappeared for elongated periods (weeks, months, or years) before they were released without charges or referred to exceptional courts. Relatives of wanted suspects were detained and held hostage until their wanted relatives gave themselves up.
Since 2013, there has been a flood of leaked videos and photos, personally taken by army personnel as trophies, showing Sinai detainees (including children) humiliated, tortured, executed, and mutilated. In the peninsula, and elsewhere, there has been ample evidence that the military and police are involved in field executions on a scale unseen even in the 1990s. Suspects were taken in alive, only to show up dead later in posted statements by the MOI and Ministry of Defense (MOD), with weapons planted near their corpses.
Part of the increasing drive towards extrajudicial executions, suggests analyst Maged Mandour, stems from attempting to avoid the international backlash against the expansion in the use of capital punishment, as a “primary tool for repression” through exceptional courts. Executing suspects in the field or letting them die in prisons by intentional medical negligence, is less reputationally costly for the Egyptian state, he argues.
While there are 12 permanent security checkpoints in North Sinai, more have been temporarily erected during surges in counterinsurgency operations to reach an estimate between 150 and 200 checkpoints manned by the army or the police. These checkpoints turned into sites of daily humiliation for the locals. More dangerously, these checkpoints have been randomly shooting and shelling civilians. Deaths or injuries were later attributed to an “unknown source.”
It is difficult to estimate the number of local civilians or insurgents killed in the operations. For instance, when aggregated, the number of “terrorists” killed in Sinai based on official military statements, from August 2011 (Operation Eagle 1) to September 2015 (Operation Martyr’s Right 2), is well over 3,000, which is double or triple any estimates by independent observers given the size of the insurgent force. The state has sought to control the flow of information on the war: The army isolated the peninsula, shut down telecommunication systematically, banned the entry of reporters, and arrested local journalists to face military tribunals when they exposed the inaccuracies of the army propaganda. The new draconian counterterrorism law, issued in 2015, went as far as explicitly forbidding anyone from disputing the MOD statements.
Home Demolitions and Forced Relocations
Home demolitions and forced relocations have long been part of counterinsurgency warfare around the world. Sinai was no exception. But while Mubarak did not dare to even clear a 150-meter-wide strip along the border with Gaza in 2007 as he had hoped, the post-2013 regime was uncompromising in its war.
From 3 July 2013 till the end of October 2014, the army demolished at least 530 buildings, largely in Rafah. Following two attacks by the insurgents, on 24 October 2014, which left at least 33 soldiers dead, and dozens wounded, the government immediately issued a decree, ordering the creation of an isolated zone along the border with Gaza, totaling 79 square kilometers. On the ground, this meant the end of Rafah and an overall acceleration of demolitions in the province. Over the next four years, the army demolished more than 6,850 buildings in Rafah. Residents were forcefully evicted, with insufficient time to pack or no prior warning whatsoever, and hardly any later support. By mid-2018, Rafah was gone, and its entire population of 70,000 was evicted.
Following a missile attack on al-Arish Airport on 19 December 2017 by the insurgents intended to target the ministers of interior and defense during a field visit, the army began, in January 2018, bulldozing the populated neighborhoods around the premise, to create a five-kilometer buffer zone. It also intensified the home demolitions in multiple towns. In less than six months, at least 3,600 homes and commercial buildings were destroyed.
Wanted fugitives, and suspects accused of involvement in attacks were also singled out, with the military demolishing their families’ homes as punishment. Some residents, displaced by military operations, were allowed to go back to villages, only to find their empty homes in rubble, either destroyed by fighting or demolished by the soldiers who claimed it was a necessary measure to prevent the insurgents from using them. The same claim was also used to justify the razing of farmlands. Between July and October 2013, the military destroyed at least 1.5 square kilometers of cultivated land. This figure grew to around 6.85 square kilometers by August 2015, as the military used flamethrowers and bulldozers, depriving residents of their source of food and livelihood.
As the operations continued, more agricultural fields were uprooted. There are no available estimates of the size of cultivated land destroyed since August 2015. Yet, by mid-2018, the head of the Agricultural Directorate in the province made a rare public statement, admitting that “all farmlands in Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed cities were razed,” and only 10% of farmlands in al-Arish remained.
The army proposed several “development projects” without much consultation with the local community, resulting in more home demolitions, either for investment projects or to cut out the restive districts and deny them access to the sea. The authorities also introduced legal amendments in 2020 and 2021 to ensure that the Sinai Development Agency, which oversees such projects and economic plans for the peninsula, fell under the control of the MOD, not the prime minister.
The military also struggled to quell the insurgency due to its inability to embrace the necessary structural changes, despite the increasing drive towards constabularization since their street deployment to police the cities in 2011. For security and military analysts, a central reason for the endurance of the Islamist insurgency is the army’s “mediocre” performance.
Modern counterinsurgency warfare generally relies on highly trained, small, mobile, and independent units, with strong junior leaders, conducting special operations under joint field command. Although Sisi has expanded and devoted more resources than his predecessors to the elite units, and deployed the Rangers (including Unit 999) and Paratroopers in the Sinai operations, this has not been accompanied by impactful structural reforms. Surprisingly, there is no joint command up till now for the different special units, nor are they assigned a permanent seat on SCAF. Sisi promotes Special Forces commanders usually to “traditionally outsized / influential positions,” while he continues to depend on
"a dated model of mass conscripted shock troops augmented by niche special mission units that are almost completely reliant on the support of the regular military for the majority of their functions. The lack of enabling combat and service support units – units that provide a range of essential capabilities, including intelligence acquisition, demining expertise, military communications, fire support, logistics, and aviation assets – within their force structures has left them almost completely reliant on conventional forces (that are often subject to availability, lack the necessary expertise, or are slow to mobilize)".
The army resorted to tank and artillery fire, in addition to aerial attacks by helicopters and fighter jets, involving the use of banned cluster bombs, which caused major civilian deaths and injuries. Deployed ground troops were mostly conscripts, who were ill-disciplined, inadequately trained, and incapable of identifying legitimate military targets, which led to avoidable civilian casualties becoming a common occurrence.
This wide-scale indiscriminate violence against the Sinai population has left many with the impression that even if “we support the army … we feel this is a war on us, not on the terrorists,” in the words of one local teacher. This inevitably has meant military intelligence gathering efforts needed for the counterinsurgency were weak if not meaningless. In some parts of Sinai, residents came to see the insurgents as the “lesser evil.”
Under Mubarak, few Bedouins had been recruited to serve under MI supervision. They were dubbed Manādīb al-ǧayš (army representatives, hereafter Manadib), but were given minor roles, mostly related to the search for tunnels or tracking fugitives. However, the inability to crush the insurgency as swiftly as the senior brass had initially declared could have been an impetus for developing the role of tribal locals, gradually from 2015, as the insurgency was rising at full steam.
The military expanded the recruitment of Manadib, usually literate, from the age group of 25 to 35 years. They received some training in firearms and defusing mines, at the hands of Battalion 103 personnel. Each of the Manadib has been given a monthly salary, which – following the Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018 – was ranging between LE15,000 to 30,000 (at the time, around $840 to $1,680). Some of them did not receive regular pay, as they were seemingly content with the perceived prestige of driving around in 4x4s openly carrying arms. Also, unlike pre-2011, the Manadib increasingly operated undercover, hiding their affiliation with the military. Families of those killed in action received an allowance to cover the funeral cost and a pension.
The Manadib served under MI officers who were part of Battalion 103 and were part of Ǧihāz al-Khidma al-Sirriyya, the Secret Service Agency, which managed relations with the tribes in Sinai and other border areas. The Manadib helped relatively improve intelligence-gathering efforts. Yet the nature of the infamous battalion operations, which included war crimes such as extrajudicial killings and torture, meant the job attracted a specific type of locals. Manadib used their newly unchecked authority to play a role in the drug trade, and to settle personal scores framing their adversaries as “takfiris.” They also took part in field executions of detainees.
If the professional discipline of the Manadib is in question, it is virtually non-existent among the ranks of another increasingly prominent local entity, the Union of Sinai Tribes. With the support of the military, the militia was formed in 2015, comprised of a handful of fighters, mostly from the Tarabin tribe, but became a fully operational force by 2017. It was created and led by Ibrahim al-Orjani, a Tarabin former smuggler, who spent two years in prison and was reportedly tortured after he kidnapped a number of policemen in 2008 in retaliation for the killing of his brother. In unexplained circumstances following his release, he became an influential investor partnering with the military in several businesses, developed close ties with Sisi, and was given license to – or more accurately a monopoly over – the export of construction material to the besieged Gaza strip, where he later was managing the Egyptian reconstruction projects. By 2022, his business empire had extended well beyond the peninsula, for instance, becoming the local official dealer of the German automaker BMW, and a sponsor of the popular al-Ahly Sports Club.
The rise of the tribal militia was the product of several converging political factors, not just pressure from the army. The tribes, even when their sons joined the insurgency, started to feel increasingly alienated as they faced the wrath of the insurgents on occasions, whether due to accusations of collaboration with the state or to enforce even more conservative social norms. The ongoing war also negatively affected the “tunnel economy” causing concern among smugglers and sections of the local population, whose living depended on the (official and unofficial) trade with Gaza. On the one hand, the military escalated its anti-smuggling activities. On the other, insurgents targeted those smugglers on occasion disrupting their living.
Unlike the Manadib, the Union of Sinai Tribes members hardly received any military training. They were generally young and illiterate. Some were involved in “criminal activities,” and already on security watchlists. The recruits have also included children. After joining the militia, some fighters received monthly salaries from the army, generally lower than those of the Manadib. Others were just content with having a special military pass that allowed them through checkpoints and desert routes without being searched or harassed. Militia fighters killed in action do not receive government pension. Their deployment as an auxiliary force alongside the military in operations saw grotesque abuses, such as executing detainees.
Another militia, formed in 2022 under the MI supervision, was Abnāʾ Muǧāhidī Saynāʾ (Sons of Sinai’s Mujahedeen). It included elements from Tarabin, Sawarka, and Rumaylat tribes, who did not want to fight alongside Orjani, due to family or tribal rivalries. They operated only for one year, then dissolved by the beginning of this year, as the state announced “victory” in the war on terror. The Union of Sinai Tribes militiamen, however, remain armed till today.
The Military: Too Centralized to Adequately Adapt
Why didn’t Sisi overhaul the organizational and doctrinal structure of the military, instead of depending on conventional war tactics and an undisciplined local militia? There were two primary factors, one ideological and the other administrative.
Ideologically, in the absence of an established counterinsurgency tradition, the army resorted to the only doctrine it knows, brute force. Yet, this was not happening in a vacuum. The counterrevolutionary onslaught following the coup has been led by the most extreme factions of the repressive apparatus, including Sisi personally, which advocated “eradicationist” policies, and a militarist approach to any problem. Sinai was just another campaign to eradicate a problem. Civilian casualties were not a concern. Sisi and the senior brass hardly tried to win over the local population but sought to coerce it into submission through military might. And they made no secret of it. For instance, during a speech aired live in November 2017, Sisi addressed state officials, amid strong applause, “mandating [Army Chief of Staff] Lieutenant General Muhammad Farid Hegazi before you and the entire people of Egypt to restore security and stability in Sinai. ... you and the police will restore security, using all brute force, all brute force!”
Remarks and public statements of the repressive apparatus leaders regularly carried the same message, overwhelmingly projecting domination, and depicting the counterinsurgency operations as a “vendetta” for the killed army and police personnel. Two years into the coup, most of the media had already fallen under the control (and ownership) of the repressive apparatus. Daily newspapers’ frontpage headlines became identical, sensationally inciting – together with TV hosts – for a bloodbath, summary executions à la Zaki Badr, feeding the desert wolves with bodies of killed terrorists, or sealing off Sinai with an “Egyptian Berlin wall.” The daily state-owned Akhbar al-Youm, by then managed by Sisi’s loyal propagandist Yasser Rizq, went as far as referring to the insurgents as “infidels,” and made unsubstantiated claims of Yemeni Houthi cells including Palestinians and Iranians operating in Sinai.
Restructuring the military also faced an administrative challenge, even when some steps were taken to address the changing nature of warfare. In relation to other institutions of the repressive apparatus, the Sinai war has, since 2018, significantly witnessed for the first time joint human intelligence gathering operations, involving the MI, GIS, and Homeland Security (HS). The three agencies worked together on questioning civilians, following the army’s advance, taking their details, and coordinating amnesties for fighters and their families. HS officers have also been operating with MI, inside al-Azouli prison, on interrogating detainees.
But changes in the armed forces’ structure remained largely hollow. By the end of January 2015, Sisi created the Unified Command of the Area East of the Canal, with the declared aim of “coordinating” the counterterror operations by the Second and Third Field Armies. In theory, it seemed like a good idea, but its actual impact was a different story. “From what I could see it was only a way for the Second and Third Army to liaise rather than to operate together,” comments Egypt Defence Review. “Each maintained their distinct area of operations and tasks. They just coordinated what they were doing a bit better basically, rather than mixing forces, supplies, efforts, etc., or creating purpose-built formations comprised of elements from each.”
The failure to administratively reform the army stemmed largely from the same reason Lieutenant General Muhammad Fawzi complained about during the Egyptian intervention in Yemen and their inability to adapt to irregular warfare: the military bureaucracy. The weight of decades of traditions that enforced a rigid, over-centralized, and compartmentalized institution could not be tackled easily, assuming there was the will to try to do so. Traditional power centers within the ground forces were simply unwilling to cede ground to a command that encompasses both of them. This is hardly unique to Egypt; even in Western militaries, large units with considerable history, traditions, and political influence will use their status to delay modernization, reorganization, merger, or dissolution.
Such over-centralization meant the Unified Command “did not fundamentally alter strategic decision-making power away from Cairo or offer a more flexible command,” remarks analyst Allison McManus. “Doing so would likely generate opposition from traditional commands keen to maintain their power.” Neither Sisi nor any general at the moment, has enough political clout to radically alter these institutional power structures.
These political and operational blunders jeopardized the safety of army personnel, leading to major loss of lives. In the first year following the coup, at least 105 military and police were killed and 247 were injured, according to a tally by the local press, based on official statements. By the end of 2016, the number of dead military and police personnel was estimated to be more than 1,000. In April 2022, for the first time, Sisi stated that the total number of casualties within the army and the police, in counterinsurgency operations since 2013, amounted to 3,277 deaths, while 12,280 sustained injuries which prevented them from returning to service. Sisi added that the military had been spending a billion Egyptian Pounds a month for seven years (presumably from 2013 to 2020), in the fight against terror, which resulted from how “we opened the door in 2011 and 2012 for a state of instability.”
An anonymously published breakdown of the tally of military and police officers killed in action, from March 2011 to July 2017 – depending on open-source information – provides some interesting insights into their ranks. At least around 18% of the army casualties were officers, most of whom were lieutenants and captains. Yet, the insurgents also managed to kill at least 10 majors, 15 lieutenant colonels, eight colonels, and seven brigadier generals. Some of the casualties included officers with senior operational roles. For example, the insurgents killed three commanders of Rangers Battalion 103: Lieutenant Colonels Ramy Hassanein in 2016, Ahmad Mansi in 2017, and Assem Essameddin in 2022.
“Not unusual for junior officers, but unusual for majors and above to be dying in such numbers,” comments Egypt Defence Review. “A problem we tend to have with our officer corps is senior to middle ranks effectively carrying out the tasks of junior ranks.” Several factors have been pushing the senior officers, willingly or not, towards the firing line, rather than sitting in HQ coordinating the war effort and working on policy: over-centralization, lack of trust in inexperienced junior officers, weak NCO corps, and poorly trained conscripts who are usually deployed in the last few months of their service to minimize desertions”. “So in the case of [Lieutenant Colonel] Mansi, for instance, you had a battalion commander, carrying out the tasks of a platoon commander,” adds Egypt Defence Review. “That is a colonel carrying out the tasks of a lieutenant.”
Nevertheless, by 2019 the military seemed to have largely pacified the peninsula, though insurgent attacks still occur sporadically, and inflict on occasions high-profile losses. The decline in violence, despite the poor performance of the Egyptian military, could be attributed to several factors.
First, with Sisi’s blessing, Israel conducted a covert air war – since August 2013 and escalated in 2015 – bombing militant targets, with drones, jets, and helicopters. By the end of 2017, it had carried out more than a hundred strikes inside Sinai, which US officials directly credit with changing the course of the war, in favor of Egypt.
Second, the peninsula was cut off from the world, choking out the insurgency’s external sources of aid. The GIS and MI played a role in limiting the flow of arms from Libya in the west, and in the east, the rapprochement with Hamas (see below) ensured Gazan Salafi Jihadis could not aid allies in Sinai and vice versa. The supply lines of the insurgents suffered heavily, especially after 2018. Insurgents had to surrender on occasions due to lack of food, for example.
Third, the Union of Sinai Tribes expanded later to include the rest of the tribes, who felt their survival required joining the winning side. The local leaders played a role in swaying the youth away from the insurgency, depriving militants of a safe haven, and providing valuable intelligence for the military, which took a step back and pushed the tribal militia to spearhead the fight.
By 2019, the military relatively relaxed its effective siege of the province, which had led earlier to food and fuel crises adding to the hardships of the locals and the internally displaced. Sisi himself stated by the beginning of 2023 that Egypt won the war on terror and officially celebrated the "victory” in Arish the following April.
But does that mean the state won the Sinai war, asks Egypt Defence Review, “or that we are due another insurgency in another ten-twenty years?” Analyst Maged Mandour echoes the same sentiment. “From what we see and hear, the number of [terror] operations have gone down now. Does that mean the [terrorism] issue is over? I strongly doubt it. In the long term, one has to consider the consequences of the extreme state violence, tyranny, and torture we have lived under. There will be a price to pay for all this violence.”
Military in Mainland Operations
Beyond Sinai, the military played a supportive role for the MOI, with few exceptions where it took the lead such as in the border areas, most importantly the western borders that stretch over 1,115 km with Libya. Since 2011, the latter has been regarded by the Egyptian military as a threat to stability, a safe haven for “terrorists,” and a source of arms for militant groups in the Nile Valley, Sinai, and Gaza. Operations by the Border Guard Corps have been stepped up following the coup, and regularly publicized in the local media and the official platforms of the military.
By 2015, the French military intelligence secretly agreed to help the Egyptians with counterterrorism efforts along the Libyan border, in what was dubbed “Operation Sirli.” French operators were deployed in February 2016 at a military base close to Marsa Matruh. They flew a monitoring aircraft, and used advanced electronic surveillance capabilities, to supposedly provide the Egyptian air force with coordinates for terror targets infiltrating the borders. Soon the French were complaining, in leaked internal memos, that they were being used by the Egyptians to extrajudicially kill traffickers, who were mostly poor and trying to make a living by smuggling cigarettes, fuel, food, and consumer products. Operation Sirli, however, did not stop.
The incompetence of the Egyptian military, its disregard for civilian lives, and other operational failures were repeatedly exposed in the Western Desert, although militant attacks were fewer than in North Sinai or Greater Cairo. In September 2015 an international scandal could not be covered up, when Apache helicopters bombed and machine-gunned a caravan of tourists near the Bahariya oasis, killing eight Mexicans and four Egyptians. Also, while in North Sinai, the military and police have exhibited over the years a considerable improvement in their ability to coordinate, there were serious questions regarding the operational unison in the Western Desert, with the military failing to provide adequate air support and reconnaissance.
In the Nile Valley, except for a few months following the coup, the army operations were not as intense as those of the MOI. On national days, high profile events such as elections and referendums, or whenever there are online calls for protests, the military usually deploys Quwwāt Ḥimāyat al-Muwāṭinīn, the Citizens Protection Forces, to patrol the streets with the police or to guard vital facilities. These are regular army formations, with “Citizens Protection Forces” stickers on their equipment, not permanent units.
Another formation has been the Rapid Deployment Force (RDF), created by Sisi in March 2014, shortly before leaving the MOD. It is under the command of the Cairo military district (Central Zone) and was initially publicized as an airborne force capable of quick deployment anywhere, in or out of the country. As Sisi’s pet project, it was highly publicized in the media in the first year of its formation, as the backbone for a future anti-Iran Arab NATO.
In reality, the RDF has been a conventional division and “not all that rapid.” The Arab military alliance never materialized, and there is no record of any operations conducted by the RDF outside the Egyptian borders. The RDF commands Unit 888 and took part in the Sinai 2018 operations, although they were not necessarily the difference makers. Since then, little has been heard of the force, and its future is unclear. “There are also issues with it being a permanent force rather than an overarching structure through which different units rotate,” remarks Egypt Defence Review. “Since high readiness itself creates fatigue and limits the scope of a unit's activities because they always need to be on call.”
Egypt’s military involvement in counterinsurgency has been marred by chronic political and operational challenges, which are likely to continue under the current leadership. Despite the expansion and attention devoted to the Special Forces after 2011, the army’s mindset is still trapped in conventional warfare doctrines, which have resulted in heavy civilian casualties and unnecessary loss of lives of soldiers and officers.
The conventional heavy-handed approach, especially in Sinai, has also resulted in war crimes and human rights violations. This has alienated the local population and simmered animosities that will remain as long as these injustices are not addressed properly.
While media blackout regarding Sinai news continues in Egyptian outlets, thanks to the GIS control over the industry, videos of protests organized by Arish locals have surfaced online. The citizens have been trying to push against the military-led home demolition campaigns in their towns. The grievances felt have been translated into public denunciations of Sisi and went as far as comparing the Egyptian army to Israeli occupation troops. Elsewhere in North Sinai, sporadic protests erupt every now and then, involving tribesmen who demand the return to their demolished towns of Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed. More dangerously, these grievances may well provide the objective conditions for the resurgence of armed militancy in the future.
Outside Sinai and the western border area with Libya, the police still take the lead in counterinsurgency operations in the Nile Valley urban centers. This is unlikely to change soon, but Sisi has already installed the necessary legal and logistical framework for involving the military in such policing activities. In case of renewed popular unrest or widescale urban insurgency, the military is poised to deploy boots on the streets once again for more policing work and domestic repression.
The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.