Continued Unrest in the Sinai Peninsula Strains International and Analytical Borders

Since early 2015, the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt has been rocked by violence and instability. The region, bordered by the Gaza strip and Israel on one side and the Suez canal on the other, was already heavily militarized, and has been written off by the international community as a hotbed for extremism. Recent clashes have not only stubbornly tested the strength of Sisi’s internal control or the unlikely Israel-Egypt alliance that has formed to curb militant activity, they have also revealed limits to the news media’s ability to convey the dynamics of world affairs.

Image courtesy of Mark A. Wilson, 2008. Public domain.

Image courtesy of Mark A. Wilson, 2008. Public domain.

Keeping track of international news can often seem like constant updates on eight or nine major stories as they unfold. Headlines can easily be categorized into the compartments of your brain labelled ‘ISIS’, ‘Israeli-Palestinian conflict’, ‘Syrian refugee crisis’, and so on. With the 24-hour news cycle aggregated by our constantly updating Twitter feeds and trending topics on Facebook, much of the world’s events filter through metanarratives to become comprehensible. But what if details emerge that are complicated, unclear, or contradictory?

Consider the following: on November 15, Egyptian security forces reported that they had found 15 Sudanese migrants who had been shot near the town of Rafah on the border of the Gaza Strip. It has since emerged that five of these individuals were killed and six injured, all shot by border control agents allegedly trying to cross into Israel from Egypt.

The initial BBC report of the story closed with the qualification, ‘It is unclear whether the killing of the migrants is related to the unrest.’ Does the fact that region is turbulent or that the route is a common one from Africa into Israel? In many ways the loss of life is cheapened due to the fact that the region is undergoing general ‘unrest’, rendering it less newsworthy. Even worse, because numbers of Syrian refugees fleeing to the European Union have reached a critical mass politically this year, though the conflict has been ongoing since 2011, the headline of five migrants killed hardly elicits shock.

One reason the media seemed unable to make clear sense of this story was its inability to neatly compartmentalize it. The choices were aplenty: the bleak socioeconomic situation of African youth, the border control in the Palestinian territories, the Egyptian political landscape, the plight of displaced people, Syrian or not, or finally, ISIS-related violence. Is this a ‘migration’ story, as those killed had come from Sudan, or a story about the militarization of the Rafah border crossing following decades of conflict, an embargo on the Gaza Strip, and heightened state control in Egypt? Or is it an opportunity to make a political point about the use of the terms ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’, though the latter term necessitates an uncomfortable look at the push factors that cause people to flee Sudan long after the civil wars ended and the world’s gaze moved on.

To be fair, the situation is difficult to contextualize in the space of a news report or tweet. The northern part of the Sinai region has been perennially unstable since the military coup d’état that removed Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Mohammed Morsi from power in mid-2013 with a state of emergency in effect since an Islamic State-linked group, formerly called Sinai Province, launched an insurgency in 2014. Throughout this year Egypt has been conducting airstrikes on targets in the north of the peninsula and endeavoring to counter militants on the ground with force despite ongoing roadside bombing carried out by ISIS-affiliates. Local authorities have renewed a curfew order first imposed after violent clashes began last year and have gone so far as to demolish hundreds of homes on the Gaza-Rafah border to extend a police zone in the region to quell the feared spread of people and weapons through underground tunnels.

Since the report of the border clash, the extremist group has attacked a hotel in the Peninsula killing at least seven, including a judge there monitoring the Egyptian parliamentary elections critical for sitting President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, despite the national increase in police presence to prevent disruption to voting. Even before that, a bombing at a police club that counted four officers as victims in the same city, provincial capital El Arish, was attributed to the same culprits.

In the last week of January, simultaneous explosions killed 27 Egyptian soldiers and policemen in the Peninsula. Some observers have connected this to nationwide clashes with security forces near the fifth anniversary of the 2011 revolution which overthrew the regime of Hisni Mubarak. However, as recently as February 1 and 13 reports of violence from the region continued: five more Egyptian troops were made casualties by two IED attacks in and around Rafah. The Egyptian army has been raiding militant strongholds in the north Sinai region, periodically announcing a new casualty figure as if to assure whoever’s listening that the situation is under control. These incidents have not been widely covered in the mainstream international media despite the intense focus on the Iraqi-Syrian ISIS base.

What did manage to stratify Sinai to the top of the news ledger was the debate over the Russian plane carrying 224 tourists from resort town Sharm el Sheikh that crashed, sparing none. The supposed ISIS-affiliates, now operating under the name ‘State of Sinai’, claimed responsibility not long after the crash, while Egypt has so far resisted attributing the attack. However they have stepped up security measures at Egyptian airports. Russian officials have concluded that a bomb was the cause, ruling out a technical failure and halting air links with Egypt. Though American and British intelligence had initially speculated that the Metrojet airliner was shot down and the investigations are still ongoing, the current guess is that an improvised explosive with an impact equivalent to ‘a kilo of TNT’ was planted under a seat in the middle of the plane.

Yet after an official day of mourning in Russia for the victims, news of the Egyptian and Russian investigations, the latter assisted by American investigators, became relegated to the fifth, then sixth page of the newspaper as the newest tragedies occupied the front page. In Russia, stories of the victims and their families became ‘human interest stories’, immigration policy in Israel remained a domestic debate in that country, Egypt went to the ballot box, and ISIS-watchers wrote think piece after think piece on what the Paris and Beirut attacks meant for ongoing counterinsurgency efforts. The global attention span is short and constantly distracted by another tragedy in the corner of its eye. As each new incident in the Sinai is dutifully reported below the fold, news outlets alternate between covering it through the state-centric lens of Egyptian political instability or in the context of a global war on ‘terrorism’.

Maybe though, there’s no such thing as a local story anymore. In a post-9/11, now post-Paris age of global terrorism, US President Barack Obama broke no new ground when he interpreted the attacks in the French capital as amounting to ‘an attack on all of humanity and the universal values that we share.’ It seems that, terrorism-related or not, an isolated event is never just that- a protest on a college campus is an affront to the principle of free speech, a downed boat in the Mediterranean is a symbol of Europe under siege. Every event worth reporting must be contextualized in these ways, however reductive. What falls through the cracks between these metanarratives? And what happens when a story fits into many (or none) of these preordained means of understanding?

The loss of the ‘local’ in the way we report and consume international news is well-exemplified in the recent events in Sinai. Much like the region, caught in between Asia and Africa, the Mediterranean and Red Seas, coverage of the spurts of violence occurring there has gotten lost amidst the frames of reference uncomfortably assigned to it. This issue lies not just in a lack of regional and historical context within coverage, which is nothing new. Importantly, events are hard-pressed to appear significant without their incorporation into a broader global narrative. Beyond just a connection to its international significance, media outlets connect the dots to other events and familiar threats as a function of story-telling. In a globalized, seemingly endlessly interconnected world, it seems impossible to imagine unrelated contemporary events happening someplace in the world. Though these musings on the compression of time and space may seem irrelevant to the realm of world politics, there can be little doubt that the domestic and international consumption of media matters. The way citizens, influencers, and leaders understand what’s going on in the world, particularly in terms of trends and threats, shapes worldviews and informs foreign policy-making.

Regardless of the situation on the ground in Sinai, the media coverage and international attention it attracts in many ways becomes the reality. Where a confluence of causes and narratives compete for primacy complexity will preclude a sound byte or hashtag, as in the Sinai example.