The Sinai conflict has been underway since 2011 and has become progressively more intense and violent, fuelled by localised grievances as well as wider regional developments. The key actors involved are militant jihadist groups, local Bedouin tribes and the Egyptian government/military; others such as Israel, Gaza and the Multinational Forces and Observers have varying influence on the conflict.
Conflict caused by Egyptian neglect of Bedouin needs: The major underlying cause of the conflict is Bedouin anger at the Egyptian state’s long-standing economic, social and political policies which discriminate against and marginalise the Bedouin. Key examples are lack of political representation of the Bedouin, denial of land rights, and exclusion from the Sinai’s tourist industry. Denied legitimate economic opportunities, the Bedouin have increasingly turned to illicit activities, notably smuggling of goods to Gaza.
Marginalisation created a conducive environment for insurgency and militancy: The proximate causes of the conflict were the 2011 Arab Spring and the opportunity it provided for Bedouin tribes to rise up against the Mubarak regime. The growth of militant Islam in Sinai – partly local and partly through the influx of foreign elements – is a further factor. Local Bedouin tribes have joined militant groups in a ‘marriage of convenience’ driven by common anger towards Cairo.
The conflict has become more intense and violent: The conflict has largely been focused on north Sinai. Militants have targeted the police and security forces. Attacks have increased in frequency in recent years and have become more sophisticated and ambitious. In 2015 militants tried to seize the northern city of Sheikh Zuweid. There is a risk that militancy could spread to other parts of Egypt, though to date evidence of this is limited.
Egypt’s response has been overwhelmingly security dominated: Egypt has responded with counter-insurgency operations and security crackdowns which affect militants and locals, fuelling resentment among the latter. Egypt’s steps to stop the smuggling through the tunnel system linking Sinai and Gaza has had a particularly detrimental impact on the local Bedouin population, and further alienated them from the state.
Bedouin tribes and militant groups are united by a common enemy: Hostility to Egypt rather than belief in the jihadist ideology is the main factor drawing the Bedouin to the militants. There is some evidence of local radicalisation, but equally of local alienation from the militants. This alienation has increased since the leading militant group in the conflict pledged allegiance to Islamic State. Nonetheless, the ongoing security dominated response by Egypt means Bedouin anger and hostility towards Cairo persist.
The literature on the Sinai conflict is generally gender blind: The vast majority of articles reviewed make no reference to the role of women in the Sinai conflict or its impact on them. However, one reports that WIlayat Sinai is making increasing use of females to carry out militant attacks, as well as for operational duties and recruitment.
Peace can only come through Egypt addressing Bedouin concerns: The literature highlights the need for a change of approach by Egypt – specifically measures to address Bedouin economic and political grievances – as key to ending the conflict. To date, however, there is no indication that Cairo is willing to change its policies.