Egypt’s tourism industry has suffered badly during three years of turmoil. With rising extremism, it was only a matter of time before tourists became victims, and on February 16, three tourists and their driver were killed in an attack on a bus in the northern Sinai region.
Two days later, the Islamist group Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, which claimed responsibility, warned tourists to leave Egypt “before it’s too late”.
The strategy was clear: target an industry that is vital to the faltering national economy and thereby destabilise the authorities. Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis said it was waging “economic war” against the government. The same logic applies to attacks against Egypt’s gas pipelines – there have been four so far this year.
Tourism revenue plummeted 41 per cent last year to $5.9 billion. This new attack has added to the industry’s woes, with tour operators and hotels reporting cancellations and fewer bookings.
Despite this, there are major misconceptions regarding insecurity in the Sinai. The first is that the problem began after the removal of former president Mohammed Morsi last year. While the situation has escalated since then, this was in fact a major problem during Hosni Mubarak’s decades-long rule.
For example, bombings at tourist sites in Taba in 2004, Sharm el-Sheikh in 2005 and Dahab in 2006 killed more than 140 civilians. Similarly, gas-pipeline attacks occurred long before the current authorities took power.
Sinai was presented as a major challenge at the outset of Mr Morsi’s presidency. Numerous incidents during his year in office resulted in the death of soldiers, militants and civilians. Mr Morsi fired his intelligence chief and other top security officials, as well as the governor of North Sinai, after 16 soldiers were killed in August 2012. The attack resulted in a crackdown dubbed Operation Sinai.
The use of the air force “marked a sharp escalation in Egypt’s fight against the militants, who have become increasingly active in the mountainous terrain,” the Associated Press reported at the time. The US expressed its support for “the Egyptian government’s ongoing efforts to protect its people and others in the region from terrorism and growing lawlessness in the Sinai.”
This has been largely forgotten. It suits the authorities because they can blame supporters of Mr Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood for the militancy (despite the Brotherhood’s condemnation of the recent tourist attack and other violence since he was removed).
It also suits those opposed to Mr Morsi’s removal because they can blame his successors for the worsening security situation, and for creating a problem that supposedly did not previously exist. The truth is that all of Egypt’s leaders, from Mr Mubarak onwards, have contributed to Sinai’s deterioration by viewing it primarily as a security issue, and thus responding with force. As an Egyptian intelligence officer told The Economist in 2011: “We’re not in the business of legitimising smugglers, terrorists, drug barons and outlaws.”
The motives of militants in the region have been dangerously over-simplified and misunderstood. The authorities are portraying violence there as part of their war against Islamist terror that was unleashed by Mr Morsi’s supporters. Conveniently, this label fosters support from a frightened public.
However, Sinai residents’ grievances are long-running, and many have little to do with Mr Morsi or Islam, though both factors play a part, particularly in recent months. The grievances include demands for greater autonomy, the selling and resettlement of their land under Mr Mubarak, and economic, political and social marginalisation.
A statement released after the latest tourist attack by Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis referred to the government “killing innocent people, imprisoning women, demolishing their houses, looting their properties” and “displacing their owners.”
Half of Sinai’s native Bedouin population, which has an identity distinct from the rest of Egypt, “live in poverty, with few employment opportunities,” wrote Fawaz Gerges, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. “For their survival, they depend on an underground economy.”
However, all Egyptian governments have, to a greater or lesser extent, worked with Israel in the maintenance and tightening of the blockade on the Palestinian territory of Gaza since it began in 2007. This has considerably restricted Bedouin revenues.
Even Mr Morsi, who often expressed sympathy with the plight of Gazans, was guilty of this.
His flooding of smuggling tunnels into the territory was condemned by the governing Hamas movement (another fact conveniently forgotten by both sides in Egypt). The current authorities are eagerly clamping down as well.
There is also the issue of identity. “A substantial minority” of Sinai’s 400,000 residents “is of Palestinian extraction, even if often Egyptian-born,” according to a report by the International Crisis Group.
“The Palestinian element is extremely conscious of its identity and ties to the populations of Gaza and the West Bank.” The Bedouin, who largely comprise the rest of the Sinai population, belong to tribes that “often have extensive branches” in Israel and Palestine.
As such, there is considerable resentment regarding Egypt’s participation in the Gaza blockade, and of Cairo’s ties with Israel in general. Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis’s statement following its tourist attack described Israel as the “Zionist enemy,” and condemned the Egyptian government’s desire “to please their Jewish masters and protect their alleged borders.” Earlier this month, the group carried out a rocket attack on the Israeli city of Eilat.
As long as the violence and lawlessness in Sinai are seen purely as a result of radical religious militancy, rather than of long-standing grievances against the state, the situation will continue to fester, to the detriment of the entire country. Meanwhile, political factions across the spectrum point fingers while ignoring their collective responsibility.
Sharif Nashashibi is a journalist and analyst on Arab affairs