The Regionalisation of Counterinsurgency in Egypt

Conflicts today are increasingly difficult to contain within a single set of borders, and are now more complex in nature due to the multiplicity of actors that each have their own vested interests in given conflicts. This makes the threat of spillover almost inevitable, as these actors come and go with their own agenda and interests. The current crisis in Egypt is no exception to this new phenomenon. As seen in a previous article published on this very platform (Beachside Resorts and Insurgency, Trouble in Paradise?), the brewing crisis in the Sinaï peninsula is leading to a strain in Egypt-Israel relations due to the increased threat Islamist militants pose to the security of the State of Israel, and Israel’s proactivity when taking measures to ensure said security. However the overall crisis in Egypt is affecting more than bilateral relations with Israel. The political line taken by the new army-backed Egyptian government is the complete opposite of Morsi and his cabinet. The new line is fiercely anti-Muslim Brotherhood, and the government is engaging in an anti-Islamist battle within the country. The attempts to keep the Brotherhood away from power and purging Egypt from these Islamist factions is leading to a climate of fear at home, but not only.

Image courtesy of Ark88, © 2011, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Ark88, © 2011, some rights reserved.

Few places in the region carry such vital importance for such a large group of people than the Rafah border crossing. Indeed, it is the only link the Gaza Strip and its inhabitants have to the outside world, at least the only one that is not controlled by Israel. The Rafah crossing is situated at the border with Egypt, and is crucial for the livelihood of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip as they rely on it for supplies and fuel. That said, this crossing has had its moments of contention. When Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007, the Egyptian authorities closed the crossing. On January 22, 2008, after Israel completely isolated Gaza by closing all other crossings, a group of Hamas militants set off explosive charges and breached the border wall at the Rafah crossing, resulting in hundreds of thousands of Palestinians crossing over into Egypt to buy supplies. Despite Israeli demands, Mubarak kept the breach open until February 3rd, 2008, when Hamas and Egypt reached an agreement and decided to close the border again.  After the demise of the Mubarak regime, the interim government promised to open the border, and during his time in office Morsi maintained the border mostly open, with some 1,200 people using the crossing on any given day according to the BBC.

However following the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi by the Egyptian military over the summer of 2013, that simile of ‘open-border’ policy would change. The situation in the Sinaï peninsula having drastically deteriorated after Morsi’s removal from power, with an increasing wave of Islamist militant attacks against Egyptian police and army posts in the area, the government took all measures to prevent the peninsula from spinning out of control. Consequently, the border crossing was shut for days, then reopened daily for four hours only, before being completely shut after the killing of policemen at the border. The Egyptian government is defending its policy by citing security concerns, as the Mubarak regime had in the past. Looking deeper at the situation, the issue can not be merely security-related in nature. Indeed, it can be argued that the current government’s policy against the Gaza Strip can be tied in with the overall anti-Islamist campaign it is struggling to enforced country-wide. This takes the form of various military counterinsurgency operations conducted by the military in the Sinaï peninsula since the summer of 2013 to find, arrest, and overall crush those involved in the ‘Sinaï insurgency’ against the government. However that is not all. Recently, Egyptian courts stunned the international community by sentencing 528 Muslim Brotherhood supporters to death, with some hundreds more still awaiting trial. This mass sentencing has sparked further domestic issues as families of those sentenced as well as supporters of ousted president Morsi take to the streets. This sentencing, coupled with the outlawing of the Brotherhood as a ‘terrorist organisation’, and the further trial of 20 journalists, is causing people at home and abroad to question the gains from the 2011 Uprising and whether Egypt is not returning to an authoritarian status quo.

Moving away from the concerns at home, the Egyptian government’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and its zero-tolerance policy on Islamist militants is also affecting the Palestinians in Gaza. Not only has Hamas lost a crucial ally when Morsi was removed from power, having already lost the support of Damascus due to the civil war as well as of Iran, the inhabitants of Gaza are becoming further and further isolated. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideological lining with Hamas as well as the overall sympathy to the Palestinian cause led to a renewed sense of pan-Arab support to the Palestinian cause, something that had not really been experienced since the 1980s. However Egypt’s government has severed all ties with Gaza by shutting the border. Furthermore, its counterinsurgency operations in the Sinaï are further slowly chocking the inhabitants of Gaza. Indeed, due to the restrictive policies surrounding border crossings, elaborate tunnel networks have been dug between Gaza and Egypt, and Palestinians use them to smuggle goods like food, medicine, and fuel back to the Gaza Strip. They aren’t all used for such purposes though as some reports claim that certain tunnels are also used by militants to smuggle weapons and ammunition back to Gaza. In the midst of their counterinsurgency operations, Egyptian forces have destroyed many of these tunnels, which has seriously impacted day-to-day life in Gaza, going as far as causing a fuel shortage crisis, as well as a building material shortage.

As such, the situation in Egypt is rapidly looking more and more like a regional issue. Not only is it affecting bilateral relations with Israel, but the measures the government is taking to stabilise the situation are affecting the livelihood of the Palestinians who rely on the crossing with Egypt for their subsistence. In light of the pressure the closing of the border has brought upon them, the government agreed to a three-day opening of the crossing to temporarily relieve the pressure in Gaza. At the eve of the elections, the change in leadership and government in Egypt will have to face head-on the situation to the East, and the consequences of whatever policy line is taken will impact more than just the Egyptians at home.

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