The Sinai Peninsula can be a strategic treasure, but can also be a time bomb. It all depends on the way it is handled.
The Turkish Anatolia News Agency interviewed a Salafi leader called Hazem al-Masry, whom it described as having close ties to militant Islamist groups in Sinai. What disturbed me most in his statements was not his threat to target the Egyptian army nor was it his insistence on considering clashes with security forces as “legitimate self-defense” but rather his allusion to a reproduction of the Waziristan experience.
As far as I know, the Egyptian army is trying its best not to kill any of the members of militant groups in Sinai and is instead focusing on besieging them until they surrender. However, dealing with the situation in Sinai exclusively through the army would be a repetition of the mistakes of the former regime. Like what happened previously with the police, residents of Sinai can gradually develop an animosity towards the army and this is bound to trigger years of bloody confrontations.
The topography of the peninsula, the security vacuum and the unprecedented availability of weapons are all factors that help in making this scenario materialize. Furthermore, the new militant groups known for their jihadist activities have been flocking to Sinai and figures known for funding those groups are received in Cairo whereas they wouldn’t have dared to come anywhere near it in the past.
When extremist groups find in Egypt a safe haven and when a part of Egypt is gradually becoming out of control, it is important to take concerns about Sinai turning into another Waziristan seriously.
Waziristan is a mountainous area in northwestern Pakistan on the borders with Afghanistan. The province’s self-autonomy and the government’s inability to control it did not happen overnight or as a result of some coup or revolution, but mainly owing to the nature of the place since time immemorial. Waziristan was ruled by tribes since 1893 and stayed outside the empire of the Indian Subcontinent which was occupied by Britain as well as out of Afghanistan’s control. This remained the case even when Pakistan gained its independence and the province became Pakistani only on paper.
The demographic and tribal makeup of Waziristan is very complicated. Three main tribes live in the province: Wazir, Mahsud, and Bahtani in addition to several smaller tribes. Members of Wazir and Mahsud are involved in all the regular tribal rivalries, including even the formation of terrorist groups.
Taliban took control of Afghanistan following the defeat of the Soviets and after al-Qaeda had started coming into being. A large numbers of residents in Waziristan sympathized with Taliban. With lack, or rather absence, of government control, Waziristan became a fertile soil for terrorism and this was more the case after the fall of Taliban at the hands of American troops in 2001 and which made of the caves and mountains of Waziristan a safe haven for all runaway militants whether from Taliban or al-Qaeda.
The border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan have been subjected to intensive strikes by the Pakistani army, which is backed by the United States, in the period between March 2004 and September 2006 in an attempt to regain control of the province and uproot all terrorist cells. However, most of these strikes failed to achieve their goals owing to the rugged topography of the area and which made it very hard to infiltrate. The conflict between the Pakistani army on one hand and Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives and their sympathizers in Waziristan on the other hand is still ongoing.
The end result is that Waziristan is no longer just a shelter for extremist groups, but it has now become a certified international training center for terrorists. We do not want another of those centers in Egypt and that is exactly why we should not be repeating the mistakes of the past through prioritizing the interests of the “group” over that of the nation.
The writer is an Egyptian columnist