De-securitizing counterterrorism in the Sinai Peninsula

Egyptian policemen walk next to a border post, as seen from the Israeli side of the border with Egypt's Sinai peninsula, in Israel's Negev Desert February 10, 2016. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

On October 22, 2016, a senior Egyptian army officer was killed in broad daylight outside his home in a Cairo suburb.The former head of security forces in North Sinai was allegedly murdered for demolishing homes and killing a number of residents in Sinai. Since 2011, hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians, soldiers, and militants have been killed by waves of state and non-state violence that have transformed the Sinai Peninsula into a conflict zone.

The Sinai has been a focal point of political and security concerns for over four decades. Occupied by Israel after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and returned to Egypt following the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, the Sinai Peninsula stands at the center of tensions between two regional powers. Although the two countries agreed to the de-militarization of the Sinai and subsequent oversight by the Multinational Force and Observers, the peninsula became highly securitized through aggressive Egyptian policing against residents. Moreover, the Sinai’s remote and rough terrain offered an ideal location for lucrative human, drug, and weapons smuggling (much of which now comes from Libya), and for militant groups to train and launch terrorist attacks against both the Israeli and the Egyptian  governments. Egypt’s January 2011 uprisings created a political vacuum throughout the country that furthered destabilization in Sinai.

This policy briefing examines how the myriad political and socioeconomic challenges in the Sinai have contributed to conflict and instability. The briefing argues that Sinai’s security crisis is due in large part to a potent combination of hyper-securitization of governance, state neglect, and poverty. As such, the response to the deteriorating security situation should not be more militarized policing, but rather more development that meaningfully includes the local population, particularly the Bedouin tribes. That is, inclusive bottom-up development—not securitized counterterrorism—will provide sustainable solutions for preventing violence in Sinai.

To be clear, this policy briefing’s focus on the political, economic, and social problems in Sinai should not be interpreted as detracting from similar problems in other parts of Egypt. Because the Sinai currently serves as the physical base of more terrorist activity than other parts of Egypt, however, it warrants special attention and recommendations tailored to its unique circumstances. Indeed, transforming the Sinai into a safer and more economically prosperous governorate would not only benefit Egypt, but also a region from which transnational terrorist groups actively seek to attack targets in Europe and beyond. The consequences of what happens in Sinai are no longer limited to Egypt and bordering nations.

Fertile Ground for Terrorism

Though often overlooked in the international media, the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) in the Sinai Peninsula demonstrates the failure of securitized counterterrorism as a strategy. The political violence that has transformed Sinai into a conflict zone is rooted more in local grievances festering for decades than in ideological motivations. Had such grievances been meaningfully addressed by past Egyptian regimes, as well as their Western allies, the violence debilitating the peninsula arguably could have been prevented.

Although three times the land mass of the Nile Valley and Delta, Sinai’s 550,000 residents comprise less than one percent of Egypt’s population. Three-fourths of residents live in North Sinai, where most of the violence is taking place. Seventy percent of Sinai residents are Bedouin comprised of 15 to 20 tribes who live throughout Sinai. Cultural and linguistic factors connect Bedouin in North Sinai with Arab residents of present-day Gaza and Israel. These tribes live on both sides of the Egypt-Israel border, making political alliances and economic interests less restrained by nationality.

When Sinai was under Israeli control from 1967 to 1982, the Bedouin’s livelihood transitioned from semi-nomadic pastoral to low-wage work in charcoal manufacturing, shop-keeping, camel transport, hunting, fishing, and guiding pilgrims at Mount Sinai. Upon regaining possession of Sinai, Egypt converted over 200,000 acres of tribal desert land into agricultural land. Consequently, Bedouin who owned arable land were forced to accept lower quality land in the interior of Sinai and stripped of the core livelihoods that defined their Bedouin identity. Tribes owning land in South Sinai’s coastlines were also coerced to sell it or accept an exchange of lower quality land to make way for wealthy businessmen from elsewhere in Egypt to build luxury hotels. Although some of South Sinai’s tribes benefited from peripheral tourism activities, employers primarily recruited Egyptians from the Nile Valley as they openly discriminated against Sinai residents. Meanwhile, the centralized government in Cairo spent little on developing Sinai’s infrastructure, schools, and economy for the benefit of the local population. As a result, South Sinai’s level of food poverty is nearly double that of Egypt, and North Sinai is Egypt’s poorest governorate.

With no steady source of income and exclusion from legal employment in Sinai’s thriving tourism sector, many Bedouin turned to smuggling. Members of Sinai tribes whose land crossed the Israel-Egypt border leveraged their relations to smuggle goods, people, weapons, and drugs into Israel and Gaza. Israel’s blockade of Gaza, starting in 2007, made smuggling the primary means for goods to enter Gaza, thereby increasing profits. Additionally, unemployment in Rafah—a Palestinian city on the Egypt-Gaza border, decreased from 50 to 20 percent in 2008 due to a rise in work related to cross-border tunnels.The lucrative $500 million annual enterprise enriched multiple stakeholders in Israel, Gaza, and Egypt. Egyptian police, for example, were reportedly involved in the drug trade while other government officials took a cut of profits along the production and distribution chain. This may partially explain why the Mubarak regime ignored the smuggling routes established by Sinai Bedouin and Gazans.

Nonetheless, Bedouin bore the brunt of the state’s punitive security practices. By the early 2000s, groups such as “Tawhid wal-Jihad” had established themselves in North Sinai, where they recruited disaffected Bedouin and Palestinian youths motivated by local grievances. When these groups carried out a string of terrorist attacks from 2004 to 2006 in South Sinai, the regime subjected the Bedouin to an aggressive counterterrorism crackdown. Authorized by Egypt’s emergency law, security forces arbitrarily arrested hundreds of Sinai residents, often torturing them and leaving them to languish for years without charge in inhumane prisons. Police would even arrest women and children to secure the surrender of male tribal members—a grave and incendiary violation of tribal traditions. The security forces also destroyed hundreds of homes and farms in raids, often without warning, likely killing civilians, under the pretext that terrorists owned the property. Sinai residents have accused security personnel of stealing their money, jewelry, clothes, and furniture, before burning down their homes. These shortsighted and rights-violating approaches to counterterrorism ultimately caused many innocent civilians to radicalize, triggering a cycle of revenge-seeking violence.

To be sure, not all members of the diverse Bedouin tribes responded to their harsh circumstances and treatment in the same way. Some rejected militant groups, refusing to join or aid them, which often led to violent retribution. Some Bedouin profited from militants, getting paid to serve as guides and hide them from security forces in Sinai’s rough terrain. And some joined militant groups, often either to avenge the death or torture of their relatives by security forces, or out of an ideological commitment to overthrow what they believe is a repressive and illegitimate regime.

Changes in Egyptian government policies and practices to make them rights-protective—both in Sinai and other parts of Egypt—can minimize the ability of militant groups to recruit and strengthen their operations in the Sinai. Gainful employment and a cessation of abusive security practices against innocent civilians could eliminate the financial and dignity factors that allow militants to leverage the local populations’ vulnerabilities and grievances toward their violent goals.

More political freedom and less state violence against residents, combined with an increase in employment opportunities, could potentially transform local residents from victims of militant terrorism or government repression into equal citizens and partners with the state who have a common interest in making Sinai a prosperous and safe governorate. Achieving this, however, requires a paradigm shift from securitized counterterrorism toward a development-driven strategy that meaningfully addresses the residents’ basic needs: jobs, food, infrastructure, education, equal citizenship rights, and safety from state and non-state violence.

From Securitized Counterterrorism to Sustainable Development

The Egyptian government’s coercive, rather than collaborative, method of governance throughout Egypt has exacerbated security threats in Sinai. Violence has increased, government relations with local residents remain poor, and militants exploit social, economic, and political hardships to recruit disgruntled residents. The prevailing reactive approach aims merely to prevent the next attack, rather than resolve the underlying problems that fuel militancy and terrorism inter-generationally. Had the government treated the Bedouin more humanely and as citizens rather than criminals, the number joining militant groups arguably would be significantly smaller. Being partners with the government, as well as having alternative lawful sources of income, would give Sinai’s residents a vested interest in weakening the militants. Instead, securitized counterterrorism strategies treat Bedouin as part of Sinai’s security problem. It is, thus, long overdue to allocate government resources and foreign aid toward improving the lives and treatment of the Bedouin through long-term sustainable development.

Although the government has undertaken development initiatives in the Sinai, they have been poorly funded, of limited scope, and managed by disengaged Cairenes. Rarely have Bedouin tribal leaders and other Sinai leaders been included in the negotiations and project selection for developing the Sinai. Nor are Bedouin in elected offices representing the Sinai in setting development strategies. On the rare occasions when Egyptian officials have invited local residents to discuss their grievances, their recommendations have been disregarded.

For example, in 1995, the government announced the National Project for the Development of Sinai (NDPS). NDPS committed to invest $20.5 billion into Sinai between 1995 and 2017. A key component of the project was to increase Sinai’s population of a few hundred thousand primarily Bedouin inhabitants to three million through labor migration from the Nile Valley. The government’s message that it would “bring 3 million from the Delta to Sinai,” offended Sinai’s residents because it implied that Sinai was a land without a people.

Moreover, Egyptians from the Nile Valley—not Sinai’s residents—were the targeted beneficiaries of development incentives. The Nile Valley migrants who accepted the government’s subsidies started businesses or began farming did not hire Sinai residents, but instead brought friends and family from their hometowns to work.

In addition, promises for substantive development were broken. Commitments to improve infrastructure, deliver clean water, provide proper medical treatment, and improve education to Sinai residents proved to be little more than lofty rhetoric. Instead, so-called development translated into the Mubarak regime selling large tracts of land in South Sinai to his friends. This only further impoverished the Bedouin by pushing them out of their coastal tribal lands into the barren interior of Sinai.

Similarly, the al-Salam Canal project was supposed to provide water to Sinai farms that employed local residents. After the government reportedly spent $685 million, the project abruptly ended in 2006 and transformed into an impervious dam in 2010. Farmers were disappointed yet again by the government’s broken promises. Another failed development project was the Ismailiya-Rafah railway project. It was to lay tracks from al-Ferdan Bridge in Ismailiya to Bir al-Abed in North Sinai. Again, the government unexpectedly ended the project after a few months without explanation.

During former president Mohammed Morsi’s brief year in office from 2012 to 2013, he attempted to shift Sinai policy from an adversarial approach to one that engaged in dialogue with tribal leaders. Despite facing stiff resistance from security and military personnel who disagreed with a de-militarized approach and viewed Morsi as soft on terrorism, Morsi allocated $270 million toward development and infrastructure projects. However, Ahmed Sakr, a former assistant to the head of the Sinai Development Authority, resigned because “as far as I could see no serious work to promote development in Sinai was being done.” Sakr and other critics expressed concern over the government’s securitized approach to development, with its focus on “cleansing Sinai of terrorists” as opposed to dealing with the local populations’ legitimate economic and political grievances. That militants continued to target and kill soldiers made it all the more difficult for the Morsi regime to persuade the security and civil service apparatuses to depart from a militarized governance model in Sinai.

When the military forcibly removed democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi in July 2013, militant groups intensified their offensive. The militants pointed to Morsi’s ouster as vindication of their claims that armed resistance is the only viable response to a repressive state.Attacks against civilians and government targets increased at an alarming rate. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (ABM) claimed credit for bombings in North and South Sinai, an assassination attempt on the Egyptian interior minister in 2013, and attacks on security buildings in the Cairo, Dakahliya, Ismailiya, and Sharqiya governorates. ABM also targeted the natural gas pipeline that crosses the Sinai Peninsula, providing gas to Egypt’s industrial zones, Jordan, and Israel. In November 2014, ABM declared allegiance to ISIS and changed its name to Wilayat Sinai, the Sinai Province of ISIS. Most recently, ISIS has begun to target Egypt’s minority Christian population. Murders and threats forced dozens of Christian families to flee El-Arish in February 2017, and bombings at churches in Cairo in December 2016 and in Alexandria and the Nile Delta city of Tanta in April killed dozens, prompting President el-Sissi to declare a 3-month state of emergency to aid the military’s “long and painful” war against terrorists.

Consequently, Sinai’s residents are trapped between an unpopular government’s indiscriminate counterterrorism approach and the militants’ violence. For example, militants killed eight Bedouin within two days in December 2013 for allegedly collaborating with the army. In August 2014, ABM decapitated four men in North Sinai for allegedly being informants for Israel.In the spring of 2015, a member of the Tarabin tribe refused to distribute a Wilayat Sinai flyer. That same day, militants went to his house and killed him. Other Bedouin have been targets of violence for speaking out against the militants. Meanwhile, in January 2017, the Egyptian government’s claim that it killed ten militants was disproven by reports that six of those killed were youths who had been reported missing by their families in 2016 (and were reportedly in police custody for weeks before their deaths). Human rights organizations believe abusive police killed the youths and moved their bodies to cover up their deaths.

As journalists reported on the militants’ success in killing more soldiers, the Egyptian military imposed a media blackout.Since October 2013, communication networks, phone lines, and the internet have been cut off 6 to 12 hours per day.

Designating North Sinai a military zone, the military prohibits Egyptian and Western journalists from entering.Consequently, accurate and up-to-date information about events in Sinai from non-government sources is hard to find. Critics argue the government is trying to hide that its military campaign is failing to secure Sinai.

In addition, the military has closed main roads and checkpoints now pervade the road between el–Arish, the capital of the North Sinai governorate, and Rafah, making the 35-minute ride a three to four hour trek.The military clampdown is creating drinking water and food shortages, and causing inflation to skyrocket.

After more than two years of conflict, the Egyptian government initiated “Operation Martyr’s Right.” The operation began with a 16-day military and police offensive to “destroy the main hideouts and gathering points used by the terror and criminal elements in Rafah, Sheikh Zuwayyed, Arish, and North Sinai.”By the end of the operation on September 22, 2015, the army announced that over 500 militants had been killed and 320 arrested.Whether these individuals were in fact militants or innocent civilians remains unknown, due to the military-imposed media blackout.

Operation Martyr’s Right came on the heels of another major military operation in the border town of Rafah that angered residents. Seeking to eliminate tunnel smuggling, the military razed all homes within 1000 meters of the border and flooded the tunnels with sea water.Residents were given only 48 hours’ notice to pack their belongings and leave their homes. Between 1,200 and 2,000 homes have been destroyed, hundreds of hectares of farmland razed, and 3,200 families forcibly evicted over the past two years. Residents did not receive sufficient compensation for their homes and none at all for their farmland. Nor did they have any effective means to challenge their evictions, the demolitions, or the amount of compensation awarded. Critics pointed out that had the government used sophisticated tunnel-detecting technology, such punitive measures would have been unnecessary. Instead, the military pursued a policy in violation of basic due process and human rights and exacerbated the economic and political factors that contribute to Sinai’s instability.

Notably, the Sissi regime has also considered development projects. It announced plans to build tunnels linking Sinai to Port Said and Ismailiya, as a means of tying the peninsula to the nation’s economic grid. Moreover, discussions of creating free trade zones in El-Arish, Rafah, and Nuweiba are promising steps toward job creation. To ensure such projects are not counterproductive, the government should make certain that Bedouin and other Sinai residents directly benefit from them.

Because a portion of Egypt’s development funds comes from the United States and Europe, they play a role in how Egypt’s development strategy is shaped and implemented. For example, the European Union donated 64 million euros for the South Sinai Regional Development Program from 2006 to 2011. Similarly, the United States Agency for Development contributed $50 million toward development projects in Sinai from 2012 to 2013. But Western states’ interest in development projects in Sinai appear to be constrained by their narrow focus on preventing attacks against Israel rather than promoting sustainable development that addresses the root causes of political violence. That being said, Western states are limited in their ability to influence the Egyptian government’s repressive and counter-productive policies because such attempts are decried as improper interference with state sovereignty. Moreover, Egyptian security restrictions prevent Western consultants from accessing Bedouin communities, further impeding effective development and implementation plans that serve Sinai’s residents. New and ongoing development projects are unlikely to be effective so long as Bedouin and other Sinai residents are not involved to ensure that they meet local needs and benefit local residents.

Preventing the Next Generation of Terrorists

As the violence in Sinai persists, Egypt and the international community can no longer afford to continue with business as usual. Rather than focus on stopping the next attack, counterterrorism strategies and policies should aim to stop the evolution of terrorist groups in future generations. As such, two components of the current securitized counterterrorism approach warrant scrutiny and reform.

First, preventing violent extremism should not be a short-term endeavor that focuses on preventing terrorism on Western soil, containing terrorism within remote areas, or eliminating a particular terrorist group. Even if these goals are met, the underlying political, social, and economic conditions that give rise to politically motivated violence will remain. As a result, the elimination of a particular terrorist group merely sets the stage for a new terrorist group to exploit populist dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Second, human development should not be applied through a security lens wherein planning and implementation is driven primarily by the state’s security forces. Instead, human development should be the purview of officials that will prioritize building civil institutions, infrastructure, and democratic processes from the bottom up over strengthening military and security agencies with a track record of human rights violations and political repression.

Accordingly, this policy briefing makes three recommendations to the Egyptian government. First, the government and its Western donors should commit to a long-term, rights-based development plan that prioritizes human development, recognizing that it is a prerequisite for sustainable security. Second, Egyptian laws and policies should mandate that Sinai residents be included in making and implementing development strategy. Third, the government should enact affirmative action and quotas for Sinai residents’ participation in local and national governance. Such measures are necessary to produce the self-governance needed to empower the population to contribute to improving Sinai’s future.

While some recommendations may appear impractical, the Egyptian government is at a crossroads. Those stubbornly committed to a failed, hyper-militarized approach not only endanger the lives of Egyptian soldiers and civilians in Sinai, but also place the entire nation’s security at risk if the conflict spreads. And unlike the last decade of the Mubarak regime, the economy is at its lowest point in decades as Egyptians struggle to meet their most basic needs while experiencing unprecedented political repression. Arguably, such discontent could trigger a new round of mass uprisings that target the military as Egypt’s governors. Thus, a transformative shift in Egypt’s Sinai strategy may well be an essential component of the regime’s ability to retain popular support.

1 – Prioritize Rights-Based Development

Sinai faces serious and complex security threats that cannot be solved overnight. Although human and physical development alone is no panacea for the violence, its value has been misguidedly discounted in Egypt’s Sinai policy.

Militant groups need recruits willing to violently oppose the state. Such recruits are hard to come by when the local population has its basic needs met and is gainfully employed, educated, and treated with dignity by its government. Furthermore, dragnet arrests, torture, and trials with minimal due process create a culture of fear and violence, where the means of resisting oppression is through more violence. The angrier and more disaffected the population, the bigger the pool of potential recruits, who need little prodding to join the militants.

Indeed, militants are the biggest winners of an aggressive counterterrorism policy that humiliates and violates citizens’ rights. The predominant “security first” approach, therefore, should be replaced with developing long-term, sustainable policies for decreasing both politically motivated violence and state violence that violates human rights.

As a threshold matter, the military should not be crafting or managing development projects. The military is not trained in development. Nor are its personnel equipped with the skills attendant to reconciliation, mediation, and negotiation—prerequisites for working with a rightfully distrusting population. Egypt’s generals have also tainted their reputation, as the new security force practices the same harsh tactics of Mubarak’s Ministry of Interior and the police. The paradigm shift, therefore, requires granting private development experts and qualified officials in the ministries of local development, education, health, and housing a leading role in converting Sinai from a conflict zone into a safe and prosperous governorate.

Equally important, Western nations that fund Middle East governments and international organizations’ preventing violent extremism efforts must candidly address the role of authoritarianism and its externalities in producing terrorism. This may require placing conditions on aid that direct funds to long-term terrorism prevention by addressing economic and political triggers. An important first step is for the Egyptian government and international community to stop treating North Sinai as a military zone.

Moreover, citizens should be encouraged, rather than punished, for petitioning their government about their grievances. The government should not interpret dissent as disloyalty to the nation or sympathy with militant groups. On the contrary, the government should seek out Sinai residents as partners willing to work through the political system to effect change. Finally, without meaningful legal, economic, and political reforms in law and in practice, Sinai residents will remain skeptical of development initiatives as public relations ploys riddled with broken promises.

2 –Include Residents in Development Strategy

The crucial missing component in past development efforts was the absence of meaningful inclusion of local leaders in the crafting and implementation of development programs and the de-securitization of governance in Sinai. As a result, past development projects in Sinai have minimally benefited Bedouin and other Sinai residents. The government objectifies Sinai residents as recipients of aid who lack agency to shape the objectives and sustainability of development programs.

Without contractual and policy mandates requiring the involvement of Bedouin and other Sinai residents in negotiating and implementing development programs, well-intended international aid will continue to be restrained by Egypt’s securitized and centralized governance.

A threshold requirement for providing foreign development aid directed at Sinai, therefore, should be the imposition of quotas mandating that all businesses who benefit from development or government aid must hire Sinai residents. Although employing migrants from the Nile Valley alleviates Egypt’s overall high unemployment, Sinai warrants special treatment due to the ongoing security crisis. The development funds invested into the Sinai will reap benefits for the entire country, because a safer Sinai makes for a safer Egypt. As Bedouin and other local residents experience the benefits of development, they will be more inclined to protect their communities from militants’ infiltration and less willing to join them. In addition, their participation in shaping and implementing development strategies will give them a sense of ownership over the projects and the benefits reaped.

3 – Quotas for Bedouin in Political Office

Locally based political representation is a prerequisite for making Sinai’s development programs effective. Because Sinai’s Bedouin did not have the right to vote or run for political office prior to 2007, parliamentarians representing the Sinai governorates were perceived as outsiders. For presidentially appointed governors, Mubarak selected political loyalists from mainland Egypt, most of whom were former military officers. These officials implemented policies created by a centralized government based in Cairo that treat Bedouin and other Sinai residents as second-class citizens, due in part to stereotypes that they are disloyal criminals.

If the Egyptian government and its Western allies are serious about transitioning Sinai into a less violent and more stable governorate, they must include the Bedouin in governance. Such efforts can be accomplished in four ways: 1) quotas in parliament, 2) quotas in local councils, 3) political appointment of Sinai residents, and 4) amending the public education curriculum to depict Bedouin culture as part of the Egyptian national identity. Only Sinai residents should be permitted to run for parliamentary seats representing North and South Sinai, with Bedouins having a separate quota.

Quotas are not foreign to Egypt’s electoral system. Prior to the 2011 uprisings, 64 seats in the lower house of parliament were reserved for women due to structural gender biases that impeded women from being elected to office. In 2015, election laws were amended to mandate the following quota for each closed party list in districts with 15 seats: 3 seats for Christians, 2 seats for farmers or workers, 2 seats for youth aged 25 to 35, 1 seat for disabled persons, and 1 seat for Egyptians living abroad. In districts with 45 seats, the quota numbers are triple for each category. Although the president has discretion to appoint Bedouin for 5 percent of parliamentary seats, he is not required to exercise this authority in the Sinai.

Notably, the 2015 parliamentary elections were a promising step toward political inclusiveness in Sinai. For example, in the run-off elections for seats in el-Arish, candidates from North Sinai Bedouin tribes competed with candidates from Upper Egyptian families living in Sinai. South Sinai was also among the governorates with the highest voter turnout at 41 percent compared to 28 percent nationwide, due in large part to clan and tribal mobilization in favor of particular candidates.

Local councils are another avenue for local participation in governance. Article 180 of Egypt’s 2014 constitution establishes elected local councils, 25 percent of which must be allocated to youth between the ages of 21 and 35, 25 percent for women, and at least 50 percent for workers and farmers.Although the constitution grants the local councils the authority to implement national development plans in their respective jurisdiction, Egypt’s highly centralized government based in Cairo impedes local councils’ ability to carry out that mandate. Thus, policymakers should amend applicable laws to grant local councils meaningful authority, as well as ensuring Bedouin are adequately represented in Sinai’s local councils.

Moreover, the president should appoint Sinai’s governors from among the local population, based on leadership experience and credibility among the constituency. The el-Sissi regime has continue the tradition of appointing retired army and police generals as governors. In furtherance of de-securitizing development and governance in Sinai, military and security personnel should not serve as governors. Similar to other governorates with civilian governors, military officials can work with a democratically elected civilian governors to transition Sinai out of its failing status into a stable, developed region.


The case of Sinai demonstrates that securitized counterterrorism is counterproductive. Suffering from chronic discrimination, neglect, and abuse by the state, local Bedouin tribes are rightfully disgruntled. For decades, they have been subjected to scorched earth counterterrorism campaigns, resulting in the arbitrary arrest and torture of thousands of innocent people. Their lands have been confiscated and they are prohibited from owning coastal territory reserved for wealthy businessmen who build luxury hotels along South Sinai’s Red Sea shores. Exacerbating the Bedouin’s economic marginalization is the tourism sector’s refusal to hire them, due in large part to the dominant discourse in Egypt, which engages in reductionist portrayals of the Bedouin as primitive, uneducated, and criminal. Over time, these domestic conditions, coupled with regional developments, have facilitated the establishment and growth of militant groups in the Sinai.

Thus, the Egyptian government and its Western allies should shift their resources from the current military-driven model that criminalizes and oppresses Sinai’s residents, to a development-driven model that incorporates them and empowers them to become partners in both weakening terrorists and improving the quality of life in Sinai. Current security-driven counterterrorism agendas that focus merely on short-term prevention of violent extremism without meaningfully addressing the underlying political, social, and economic conditions are failing. Using military force to eliminate a particular group merely creates space for a new group whose legitimacy comes from local grievances arising from state oppression, thereby perpetuating the inter-generational cycle of state and non-state violence. So long as “preventive counterterrorism” is limited to stopping the next attack rather than the next generation of terrorist groups, neither Middle Eastern nor Western nations will be safe.


  • Footnotes
    1. Nour Youssef, “Egyptian Officer Killed Outside Home; Militant Group is Suspected,” New York Times, October 22, 2016,
    2. Noting claims that the Revolutionary Brigade who claimed responsibility for the attack is the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. See Taha Sakr, “Militant Group Lewaa El-Thawra Releases Video Showing Assassination of Major Adel Ragaai,” Daily News Egypt, November 15, 2016,
    3. Omar Ashour, “Sinai’s Stubborn Insurgency,” Foreign Affairs, November 8, 2015,
    4. “Libya: A Growing Hub for Criminal Economies and Terrorist Financing in the Trans-Sahara,” The Global Initiative against Organized Transnational Crime, May 11, 2015,
    5. Zack Gold, “Securing the Sinai: Present and Future,” International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, March 2014, 3,
    6. The last six years of turmoil have been disastrous for Egypt’s economy. In 2012, tourism revenues fell by some 2.5 billion Egyptian pounds as the number of visitors decreased by 32 percent. See Tom Wilson, “Egypt, Hamas and Islamic State’s Sinai Province,” Centre for the New Middle East Policy Paper no. 12 (2016),; Bethan Staton, “How Drop in Tourism is Altering Life for Sinai Bedouins,” Al-Monitor, February 6, 2017,
    7. Hana Afifi, “Egypt’s Population to Reach 91 Million in June, Up from 90 in December,”Ahram Online, April 4, 2016,–million-in-June,-up-fr.aspx; Nicolas Pelham, “Sinai: The Buffer Erodes,” Chatham House, September 2012, 1
    8. Yehudit Ronen, “The Effects of the ‘Arab Spring’ on Israel’s Geostrategic and Security Environment: The Escalating Jihadist Terror in the Sinai Peninsula, Israel Affairs 20, no. 3 (June 2014): 303; Oliver Walton, “Conflict Exclusion and Livelihoods in the Sinai Region of Egypt,” Governance and Social Development Resource Centre Helpdesk Research Report, September 20, 2012, 2,; Mohannad Sabry, Sinai: Egypt’s Linchpin, Gaza’s Lifeline, Israel’s Nightmare (Cairo: AUC Press, 2015), 8.
    9. Pelham, “Sinai: The Buffer Erodes,” 1-2.
    10. Hilary Gilbert, “Nature = Life: Environmental Identity as Resistance in South Sinai,” Nomadic Peoples 17, no. 2 (2013): 43,; Ibid., 11.
    11. Gilbert, “Nature = Life,” 47.
    12. Ibid., 8-9; “Egypt to Establish $92M Industrial Zone in South Sinai,” Al Bawaba, May 30, 2016,
    13. Jeremy M. Sharp, “Egypt: Background and U.S. Relations,” Congressional Research Service, March 24, 2017,; Kamal Fayad, “Sinai Ignored in Egypt Development Plans,” Al-Monitor, May 1, 2014,
    14. Note that the 2010 U.N. Human Development Report for Egypt reports a higher adult literacy rate in North and South Sinai—75.8 percent and 88.4 percent respectively—compared to the Egyptian average—70.4 percent. However, these numbers do not include the Bedouin because they are largely excluded from official statistics. See Gilbert, “Nature = Life,” 48; Walton, “Conflict Exclusion and Livelihoods,” 4.
    15. Hilary Gilbert, “‘This Is Not Our Life, it’s Just a Copy of Other People’s’: Bedu and the Price of ‘Development’ in South Sinai,” Nomadic Peoples 15, no. 2 (2011): 11; International Crisis Group, “Egypt’s Sinai Question,” Middle East/North Africa Report no. 61 (January 2007), 8,
    16. Gold, “Securing the Sinai,” 2.
    17. Ibid., 2; Sabry, Egypt’s Linchpin, 12.
    18. Ibid., 97.
    19. Mark Perry, “Looking for Hashish in Cairo? Talk to the Police,” Foreign Policy, August 23, 2013,; “Economic Life Slows to a Crawl Amid Crackdown in North Sinai;” IRIN, “Economic Life Slows to a Crawl Amid Crackdown in North Sinai,” December 12, 2013,; International Crisis Group, “Egypt’s Sinai,” 16; Gilbert, “This is Not Our Life,” 18; Sabry, Egypt’s Linchpin, 12.
    20. Gold, “Securing the Sinai,” 11.
    21. Ronen, “Effects of the ‘Arab Spring,’” 308; Abdullah Al-Arian, “Between Terror and Tyranny: Political Islam in the Shadow of the Arab Uprisings,” MERIP, December 30, 2015,
    22. Amnesty International, “Egypt: Systematic Abuses in the Name of Security,” April 11, 2007,
    23. Gold, “Securing the Sinai,” 8; Ashraf Khalil, “The Saga of Sinai: A Neglected Hotspot Egypt’s Morsi Must Not Let Explode,” Time, June 21, 2013,; Ibid.
    24. Sabry, Egypt’s Linchpin, 24.
    25. “Deconstructing Islamist Terrorism in Egypt,” German Council on Foreign Relations policy workshop report, October 2015,; Gold, “Securing the Sinai,” 4; “Sinai Peninsula Rocket Kills 9-Year Old Child,” Middle East Eye, July 29, 2014,
    26. Ismail Alexandrani, “The War in Sinai: A Battle Against Terrorism or Cultivating Terrorism for the Future?,” Arab Reform Initiative 19, March 2014, 8,; “Sisi Creates Unified Military Command to Combat Terrorism in Egypt’s Sinai,” Al-Ahram, January 31, 2015,
    27. Ronen, “Effects of the ‘Arab Spring,’” 308-9.
    28. “Egypt’s Rising Security Threat,” Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, 2015,; Ahmad Mohamed Hassan and Yara Bayoumy, “Bedouins Drawn into Egypt’s Islamist Fight,” Reuters, July 15, 2015,; Dona Stewart, “The Sinai Bedouin: Political and Economic Discontent Turns Increasingly Violent,” Middle East Policy Council, August 12, 2011,; Mara R. Revkin, “Triadic Legal Pluralism in North Sinai: A Case Study of State, Shari’a, and ‘Urf Courts in Conflict and Cooperation,” UCLA Journal of Islamic and Near Eastern Law 13, no. 1 (2014): 21-59,; Max Strasser, “Sinai: A War Zone in Waiting,” New Statesman, August 15, 2012,; Mara Revkin, “Islamic Justice in the Sinai”, Foreign Policy, January 11, 2013,; Ehud Yaari, “Sinai: A New Front,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Notes no. 9 (January 2012), 8,
    29. Alexandrani, “The War in Sinai,” 20; Mokhtar Awad and Mostafa Hashem, “Egypt’s Escalating Islamist Insurgency,” Carnegie Middle East Center, October 2015,
    30. Zachary Laub, “Why Egypt’s Sinai Is a Security Mess,” Defense One, December 16, 2013,
    31. Omar Ashour, “Sinai’s Stubborn Insurgency,” Foreign Affairs, November 8, 2015,
    32. Gold, “Securing the Sinai, 19.
    33. William Booth, “Ancient Monastery Closed to Visitors Amid Sinai Unrest, but Bedouin Neighbors Protect It,” Washington Post, October 4, 2013,; Josh Goodman, “Shades of Sinai’s Instability,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 15, 2012,; Staton, “How Drop in Tourism,” Al-Monitor, February 6, 2017,
    34. “Egypt’s Parliament Rubber Stamps Saudi Arabia’s ‘Sinai Development Plan,’” The New Arab, June 5, 2016,
    35. Sabry, Egypt’s Linchpin, 126, 193.
    36. Stewart, “The Sinai Bedouin.”
    37. Sabry, Egypt’s Linchpin, 126, 193.
    38. Revkin, “Triadic Legal Pluralism,” 46.
    39. Ibid., 47; Gilbert, “Nature = Life,” 46.
    40. Stewart, “The Sinai Bedouin.”
    41. Ramzy Baroud, “Fighting for Survival in the Sinai: Egypt’s Convenient War,” The Palestine Chronicle, October 29, 2014,; Adham Youssef, “Wounds and Medicines of Sinai,” Daily News Egypt, May 12, 2015,
    42. Gamal Essam El-Din, “What Happened to the Money?” Al-Ahram Weekly, September 2012,
    43. Walton, “Conflict Exclusion and Livelihoods,” 4; Revkin, “Triadic Legal Pluralism,” 47; Hassan and Bayoumy, “Bedouins Drawn.”
    44. Hillel Frisch, “The Egyptian Army and Egypt’s ‘Spring,’” Journal of Strategic Studies 36, no. 2 (2013): 185.
    45. “Sinai Ignored in Egypt Development Plans,” Al-Monitor, May 1, 2014,
    46. Ibid.
    47. Heidi Breen, “Egypt: Freedom and Justice to the Bedouins in Sinai? A Study of the Freedom and Justice Party s Policy Towards the Bedouin Minority in Sinai” (master’s thesis, University of Oslo, 2013), 78,
    48. “2012-13 Budget Allocates EGP 1 Billion for Sinai development,” State Information Service, August 12, 2012,; Elad Benari, “Egyptian Officials Say Released Terrorists Behind Sinai Attack,” Arutz Sheva, August 26, 2012,
    49. Dina Ezzat, “Sinai: The Challenges Ahead,” Al-Ahram Weekly, June 2012,–The-challenges-ahead.aspx.
    50. Walton, “Conflict Exclusion and Livelihoods,” 7; Waheed Abdel-Meguid, “Egypt’s Sinai: Development Versus Security,” Ahram Online, August 30, 2012,; Ibid.
    51. Mara Revkin, “Egypt’s Power Vacuum is Radicalizing the Sinai Peninsula,” Washington Post, August 29, 2013,
    52. Gold, “Securing the Sinai,” 8; Al-Qaeda’s Expansion in Egypt: Implications for U.S. Homeland Security; Hearing Before House Subcomm. on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, 113th Cong. (2014) (statement of Thomas Joscelyn, Senior Fellow, Foundation for Defense of Democracies); Paul J. Smith, The Terrorism Ahead: Confronting Transnational Violence in the Twenty-First Century (New York: M.E. Sharp, 2008), 78; Amr Yossef and Joseph R. Cerami, The Arab Spring and the Geopolitics of the Middle East: Emerging Security Threats and Revolutionary Change (New York: Palgrave, 2015), 51.
    53. Breen, “Egypt: Freedom and Justice,” 26.
    54. “‘State of Sinai’ Claim Hundreds of Killings in Sinai Attacks,” Daily News Egypt, January 31, 2015,; David D. Kirkpatrick, “Militant Group in Egypt Vows Loyalty to ISIS,” New York Times, November 10, 2014,; Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger, ISIS: The State of Terror (New York: Harper Collins, 2015), 184-5.
    55. Omar Medhat and Laura King, “Egyptian Christians Flee Islamic State Violence on Sinai Peninsula,” Los Angeles Times, February 26, 2017,; “Egypt Declares State of Emergency After Deadly Church Attacks,” BBC, April 10, 2017,
    56. Sabry, Egypt’s Linchpin, 176; Ashour, “Sinai’s Stubborn Insurgency.”
    57. Gold, “Securing the Sinai,” 4.
    58. Khalil al-Anani, “ISIS Enters Egypt,” Foreign Affairs, December 4, 2014,
    59. Mokhtar Awad and Mostafa Abdou, “A New Sinai Battle? Bedouin Tribes and Egypt’s ISIS Affiliate,” MENASource (blog), May 14, 2015,
    60. Ahmed Mamdouh, “Wilayat Sinai Executes a Bedouin in Sheikh Zuweid,” Albawaba, April 27, 2015,
    61. Hamza Hendawi, “Amnesty Urges Egypt to Investigate Sinai Killings by Police,” Star Tribune, January 23, 2017,; Amnesty International, “Investigate Potential Extrajudicial Execution of North Sinai Men,” January 23, 2017,
    62. Ibid.
    63. Alexandrani, “The War in Sinai.”
    64. Ibid.; Adham Youssef, “North Sinai’s Telecommunications Remain Poor: Residents,” Daily News Egypt, July 21, 2015,; Associated Press, “Fighting in Sinai Kills 2 Egyptian Soldiers,” Al-Arabiya, December 20, 2013,
    65. Agence France-Presse, “Egypt Imposes Anti-Terror Law that Punishes ‘False’ Reporting of Attacks,” Guardian, August 17, 2015,; Zack Gold, “North Sinai Population Continues to Sacrifice for Egypt,” Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, May 18, 2015,
    66. North Sinai Resident, “Terrorism and the City,” Mada Masr, July 15, 2015,
    67. Toqa Ezzidin, “Geographically Hard to Secure: North Sinai Caught in Crossfire between Army, Militants,” Daily News Egypt, July 8, 2015,; Youssef, “North Sinai’s Telecommunications.”
    68. Egypt State Information Service, “Egypt: Army – Main Stage of Operation Martyr’s Right Ends, Second Phase to Begin,” All Africa, September 23, 2015,; “Egypt’s Army Begins Second Stage Of ‘Martyr’s Right’ In North Sinai,” Ahram Online, October 8, 2015,
    69. Ahmed Aboulenein and Ali Abdelaty, “Egypt Says Killed 55 Militants in Sinai, Two Soldiers Killed,” Reuters, September 15, 2015,
    70. David D. Kirkpatrick, “Egypt Destroying Far More Homes than Buffer-Zone Plan Called For, Report Says,” New York Times, September 22, 2015,
    71. Ismail Alexandrani, “The Politics of the Egypt-Gaza Buffer Zone,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November 25, 2014,; al-Anani, “ISIS Enters Egypt.”
    72. Maram Mazen, “Human Rights Watch Says Civilians Harmed as Egypt Military Creates Northern Sinai Buffer Zone,” Associated Press, September 22, 2015,; Josh Lyons & Nadim Houry, “‘Look for Another Homeland’: Forced Evictions in Egypt’s Rafah, Human Rights Watch, September 2015,; Sabry, Egypt’s Linchpin, 236.
    73. Sonia Farid, “Razing Rafah: The Toll of the Buffer Zone,” Al-Arabiya, January 27, 2015,
    74. Lyons and Houry, “‘Look for Another Homeland’”; Kirkpatrick, “Egypt Destroying Far More.”
    75. Al-Masry Al-Youm, “Govt. Allocates LE 1.95 BN for Sinai Development,” Egypt Independent, September 3, 2012,
    76. “South Sinai Regional Development Programme,” Delegation of the European Union to Egypt, September 12, 2016,
    77. Al-Masry Al-Youm, “Government Earmarks LE1 bn for Sinai Development,” Egypt Independent, August 16, 2012,
    78. Resources, aid, and capacity-building funding is directed at conflict zones that threaten Western interests. See Edward Newman, “Failed States and International Order: Constructing a Post-Westphalian World,” Contemporary Security Policy 30, no. 3 (2009): 438.
    79. C. Meital, “Egyptian Officials, Media: Britain Is Waging Media, Political Campaign Against Al-Sisi Regime,” Middle East Research Institute, September 7, 2016,; “Egypt Criticizes Hillary Clinton’s ‘Interference,’” The Telegraph, December 21, 2011,; Stephen Lendman, “Anti-American Sentiment in Egypt,” Center for Research on Globalization, August 10, 2013,
    80. U.S. Embassy in Egypt, “Challenges of Sinai Assistance,” The Telegraph, February 15, 2011,
    81. See Pinar Bilgin and Adam D. Morton, “From ‘Rogue’ to ‘Failed’ States? The Fallacy of Short-Termism,” Political Studies Association 24, no. 3 (September 2004): 169.
    82. Defining securitization as “the process by which issues are accorded security status or seen as a threat through political labelling, rather than as a result of their real or objective significance.” See Newman, “Failed States,” 434.
    83. “Making Governance Work for the Poor,” Department for International Development, 2006,; Charles T. Call, “The Fallacy of the ‘Failed State,’” Third World Quarterly 29, no. 8 (2008): 1496-98; Declan Walsh, “Italian Student’s Brutal Killing May be Issue in Egypt-U.S. Meetings,” New York Times, February 7, 2016,
    84. Adel Abdel Ghafar, “Educated but Unemployed: The Challenge Facing Egypt’s Youth,” Brookings Doha Center, Policy Briefing, July 2016,; Editorial Board, “Egypt’s Failing Economy is Sisi’s Fault,” Bloomberg, August 16, 2016,
    85. Gold, “Securing the Sinai,” 6.
    86. United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy Review, G.A. Res. A/70/L.55, U.N. Doc. A/RES/70/291 (July 19, 2016),
    87. Youssef, “Wounds and Medicines of Sinai.”
    88. Michele Dunne, “A U.S. Strategy Toward Egypt Under Sisi,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 5, 2014,
    89. Ashour, “Sinai’s Stubborn Insurgency”; Stefan Mair, “A New Approach: The Need to Focus on Failing States,” Harvard International Law Review 29, no. 4 (Winter 2008): 52-53; Zaryab Iqbal and Harvey Starr, “Bad Neighbors: Failed States and Their Consequences,” Conflict Management and Peace Science 25, no. 4 (2008): 315-331.
    90. Walton, “Conflict Exclusion and Livelihoods,” 7; Gilbert, “This is Not Our Life,” 7-32.
    91. Hicham Bou Nassif, “Wedded to Mubarak: The Second Careers and Financial Rewards of Egypt’s Military Elite, 1981-2011,” Middle East Journal 67, no. 4 (Autumn 2013): 509-30; Holger Albrecht, “Does Coup-Proofing Work? Political-Military Relations in Authoritarian Regimes Amid the Arab Uprisings,” Mediterranean Politics 20, no.1 (2015): 36, 45-46.
    92. Nathan J. Brown, Constitutions in a Nonconstitutional World: Arab Basic Laws and the Prospects for Accountable Government (New York: SUNY UP, 2001), 119; Hilary Gilbert and Mohammed al Jebaali, “‘Not Philanthropists but Revolutionaries.’ Promoting Bedouin Participation in the ‘New Egypt’: A Case Study From South Sinai,” unpublished working paper, October 2012, 3,
    93. Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani, “Egypt: Disputes Rise over Quotas for Women MPs,” IPS, July 27, 2009,
    94. “Constitution of the Arab Republic of Egypt,” art. 180, 2014; International Foundation for Electoral Systems, “Elections in Egypt 2015 House of Representatives Elections: Frequently Asked Questions,” October 14, 2015, 3,; Ahmed Morsy, “The Egyptian Parliamentary Elections 101,” Middle East Institute, January 26, 2015,; Sahar F. Aziz, “Revolution Without Reform? A Critique of Egypt’s Elections Laws,” George Washington International Law Review 45, no. 1 (2012): 1-83,
    95. “Constitution of the Arab Republic of Egypt,” art. 102.
    96. Salma Abdallah, “Election Run-off Proceeds in North Sinai Amid Fierce Competition,” Daily News Egypt, December 1, 2015,
    97. Ayah Aman, “Sisi Supporters Secure Second-Round Elections Victory,” Al-Monitor, December 1, 2015,; “Egypt’s Elections Committee Announces Final Parliamentary Results,” Ahram Online, December 18, 2015,; Amira El-Fekki, “Election Results for Second Phase Announced,” Daily News Egypt, December 4, 2015,
    98. “Constitution of the Arab Republic of Egypt,” art. 18.
    99. Ibid., art. 18.