Egypt and Hamas Struggle with the Growing Salafist Threat in the Sinai
|Publication Date||6 September 2013|
|Cite as||Jamestown Foundation, Egypt and Hamas Struggle with the Growing Salafist Threat in the Sinai, 6 September 2013, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/5231ac1c4.html [accessed 26 July 2017]|
|Disclaimer||This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.|
The July 3 coup d'état in Egypt was an occasion few mainstream Islamists had cause to celebrate. As the remonstrations of Muslim Brotherhood supporters were drowned out by the rattle of tank treads and the rhythmic palaver of General Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi, Islamic parties in and around Egypt have been left in a state of disarray. Yet while established political organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas are still reeling from the coup, the early termination of Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi's lease on the presidential palace in Heliopolis may have provided the fodder necessary to relight the engine of regional Salafist groups. These organizations-far more conservative in their religious prescriptions and militant in their leanings-may attract support from disaffected activists who, in the speeches of Hazem al-Beblawi, Adly Mansour and al-Sisi, hear only an elegy for political Islam.
The behavior of the Salafists will depend, at least in part, on how their political parties fare in post-Mursi Egypt. Salafist organizations such as the Dawa al-Salafiya movement's al-Nour Party initially tried to capitalize on the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood, which it viewed as overstepping its political mandate by excluding al-Nour from decision-making power. In supporting the coup, al-Nour was able to block the appointment of Muhammad al-Baradei of the National Salvation Front to the post of interim prime minister, lending credence to the notion that al-Nour had pledged its support wisely. Truly, other Salafist Groups like al-Gama'a al-Islamiya and the Watan Party who sided with the Brotherhood have fared far worse. On September 1, Gama'a al-Islamiya leader Ahmad Nur al-Din Mansour was arrested by security forces for allegedly plotting an attack on the military (Ahram Online [Cairo], September 1).
Since the coup, al-Nour has acted as a unifying force in Egypt, providing both vocal support to the military and calling for talks between military leaders and protesters (Egypt Independent [Cairo], August 28; al-Bawaba [Amman], August 29). However, al-Nour is far from securing its position in Egyptian politics. Notably, the committee to review amendments to Egypt's constitution prior to its finalization via a national referendum will have only two Islamists among its 50 members, with one representative from al-Nour (Egypt Independent [Cairo], September 1). This opens the possibility that a ban or restriction against religious parties may be passed-a move that would all but erase the huge political gains al-Nour and other Salafist organizations have made in Egypt since the 2011 revolution.
Yet even if al-Nour manages to carve out a place for itself in the new government, the coup and the persecution of other Salafist organizations by the military may drive Islamists away from politics and towards militancy. Just days after the coup, a representative of al-Salafiya al-Jihadiya in the Sinai announced the formation of a new organization called "Ansar al-Shari'a in Egypt" with the object of violently resisting the military and the successors to the Mursi government.  Al-Nour itself may risk breaking apart into splinter factions, as at least one prominent leader resigned from the party in protest at al-Nour's support of the coup. In such an environment, Salafist militants operating in the Sinai may very well find themselves bolstered by a new slew of recruits comprised of disenchanted former Muslim Brotherhood members and political Salafists.
For much of his presidency Mursi favored mediation over military confrontation with tribal groups in the Sinai, despite the massing of Salafist militants on the peninsula. In late 2012, Mursi flatly rejected General al-Sisi's request to conduct operations against Salafists in the Sinai (Daily Star [Beirut], September 2). While al-Sisi is unlikely to fully engage militants before the situation in Cairo improves and political Islamists are neutralized, the conflict in the Sinai is already beginning to heat up.
According to Egyptian Army spokesman Colonel Ahmad Muhammad Ali, violence in the Sinai has increased markedly since the fall of Mursi (al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 12). Dozens of Egyptian police have been killed, along with at least 70 militants. The Salafist groups Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (Supporters of Jerusalem) and Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen (Consultative Council of the Mujahideen) have each claimed to have launched rockets into Eilat, Israel's southernmost city. 
Predictably, the security vacuum is already being filled to a limited degree by Israel. Conflicting reports have arisen in which both Egyptian and Israeli forces have been credited with a strike which killed four militants in early August (Times of Israel, August 9).  The Israeli Shin Bet security service is also said to be creating a new task force to counter threats emanating from the Sinai (Haaretz, August 20). The threat of militant activity in the Sinai has even led to some hopeful speculation in Israel about amending Camp David Accords to enable Israel to conduct limited operations against militants in the Sinai (Jerusalem Post, August 11).
While both Israel and Egypt have a shared interest in cooperating to address the threat in the Sinai, the rise of the Salafists may also provide opportunity for cooperation from Hamas. Severely wounded by the loss of their ally in Mursi, Hamas has further been accused of meddling in Egyptian affairs through their support of the Muslim Brotherhood, while others have charged Hamas with the deteriorating security situation in the Sinai-both charges Hamas vehemently denies (UPI, August 11; al- Quds Center, July 19). To punish Hamas, the Egyptian military has closed approximately 80 percent of the tunnels used to smuggle goods and arms into the Gaza Strip. According to Ala al-Rafati, the Hamas economy minister, these closures have cost Gaza approximately $230 million since June, or approximately 10 percent of GDP (Ahram Online, July 23).
Yet both Egypt and Hamas must remain concerned by the increasing Salafist influence in Gaza. Jund Ansar Allah, the Jaljalat, the Jaysh al-Umma and the Mujahideen Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem are just a few of the Gaza-based Salafist groups that conduct operations in the Sinai. Many of these organizations, which undermine Hamas in Gaza, have already called for jihad against Egypt's "New Pharaoh," General al-Sisi (al-Monitor, July 26). Hamas is also greatly concerned the Salafists will provide Israel with a justification to launch an attack against Gaza now that Egypt is no longer providing Hamas military protection. Shortly after the coup, the Qassam Brigades deployed dozens of fighters to the border with Egypt to prevent the firing of rockets toward Israel and the movement of militants across the border (Vetogate.com [Cairo], July 3).
While questions remain about the ability of Hamas and Egypt to repair relations, the coup in Egypt almost certainly served to exacerbate the Salafist threat in the Sinai, at least in the near term. How and when it is addressed remains to be seen and is largely dependent on the outcome of ongoing political negotiations. However, the new Egypt may likely be more willing and better equipped to confront the issue than the old. Once matters are more settled in Cairo, expectations of increased activity in the Sinai would not be remiss.
Ryan Arant is an independent analyst specializing in Middle East national security issues.
1. See: "The Starting Statement: Ansar al-Shari'a in the Land of Kinaanah," July 5, 2013, http://ansar1.info/showthread.php?t=46317.
2. See: Jama'at Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, "Statement Claiming Responsibility: Launching 2 Grad Rockets on the Occupied City of Umm al-Rashrash (Eilat), July 7, 2013, http://ansar1.info/showthread.php?t=46329, and Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen fi Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis, "Bombing Umm al-Rashrash (Eilat) with a Grad Rocket, August 13, 2013, https://shamikh1.info/vb/showthread.php?t=209316.
3. See: https://www.facebook.com/Egy.Army.Spox/posts/353262638138058.