The misery of a common enemy can acquaint a country or group with strange bedfellows. Such is the case with Israel, Hamas and Egypt, which will likely put aside many of their differences in the wake of the Islamic State’s recent show of force in Sinai. The success of the jihadist group’s violent July 1 attacks on the town of Sheikh Zuweid in northern Sinai betrayed the unpreparedness of the Egyptian military and will prompt an intense escalation of force to address the militant problem. But the Egyptian military will be unable to eliminate the problem in Sinai because its rigid structure will prevent it from performing an effective counterinsurgency. Simultaneously, the response to the Sinai attacks will draw the interest of both Hamas and Israel, which will cooperate with each other and Egypt to halt Wilayat Sinai’s momentum.
Following President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s takeover of Egypt, Hamas only recently made some progress in burying the hatchet with Cairo; in the past few weeks Egypt has opened the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza for long stretches and allowed people and goods to pass in and out of the choked Gaza Strip. The conventional wisdom is that the relationship between Egypt and the Palestinian militant group will again deteriorate. There have even been reports in Israeli newspapers linking Hamas with Wilayat Sinai, hinting that the two sides have cooperated by sharing weapons. However, given the differences between the two groups, Stratfor is skeptical that they would coordinate efforts. Hamas is fundamentally an organization bent on the realization of an independent Palestinian state; its ideology is incompatible with the Islamic State’s universal aspirations to achieve a global caliphate. Furthermore, Egypt and Israel are the ones actually blockading Hamas’ territory, not the militant jihadists. Hamas knows that if it provided even tacit support for an Islamic State affiliate, Egypt and Israel would crack down on the group and jeopardize its control over Gaza.
Hamas, then, is ideologically opposed to the Islamic State. It has cracked down on the Islamic State and other Salafist elements in the Gaza Strip precisely because they pose a challenge to its authority. It has publicly and loudly denied that it is in any way cooperating with the Islamic State as well. Most important, Hamas cannot rule the Gaza Strip without some level of understanding with Egypt and Israel. Supporting the Islamic State would effectively destroy any relationship, however limited, that Hamas has with both — something it cannot afford. Comments made by Israel Defense Forces officials that Hamas is actively working with the Islamic State in Sinai only serve to score a quick public relations victory over Hamas.
Israel is also keeping a close eye on developments in the Sinai Peninsula. On July 1, Israel immediately closed the Nitzana and Kerem Shalom border crossings, though Kerem Shalom reopened on July 2. Israel Defense Forces have increased the alert status of troops along the border and sent additional forces to the region. Relations between Israel and Egypt have also been improving of late, with al-Sisi assigning an ambassador to Israel for the first time since the previous diplomat was withdrawn after Israeli forces conducted Operation Pillar of Cloud in Gaza in October 2012. Egypt has not yet requested permission to increase military forces in the Sinai beyond the limits set forth by the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty. But given historical precedent — Egypt successfully made a similar request in July 2013 — and the uptick of violence, al-Sisi’s government will likely ask that the terms of the treaty be relaxed again.
The Israeli intelligence apparatus may also be able to supply the Egyptian military information as it embarks on clearing out the Sinai Peninsula. The possibility that Israel would pre-emptively strike positions in Sinai if it considered them to be a threat cannot be dismissed either, especially if Wilayat Sinai decides to launch more rocket attacks on Israel from Sinai, as it did on July 3. At least for now, the Islamic State’s Sinai franchise seems to consider Israel a secondary target compared with Egyptian military and security installations.
Cairo’s Military Challenge
For its part, Egypt will need to cooperate with its northern neighbors. The Egyptian military is an imposing force; indeed, it is the most powerful military in Africa and one of the strongest in the Middle East. The country’s armed forces were designed with Egypt’s 1967 and 1973 wars against Israel in mind. But while Egypt boasts an impressive array of military firepower, the training required for a counterinsurgency differs from that used to repel a foreign invasion.
In addition, the military is the main political institution in the country, designed to maintain the government. It is also woven into Egyptian economic life, reportedly controlling anywhere from 30-35 percent of the Egyptian economy. Because it is a highly centralized institution, the military has balked at adopting the type of flexibility that would encourage individual initiative at lower levels of command, instead stifling ambition among junior officers for fear of a potential coup. After all, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the former Egyptian president who ruled for 14 years, came to power after helping to overthrow the British-backed monarchy in 1952. Shifting toward counterinsurgency would empower non-commissioned officers and special operations forces at the expense of entrenched military leaders.
The Egyptian military’s response to the July 1 attack in Sinai is illustrative. First, it appears the attack caught the Egyptian military completely unawares. It is unclear how Wilayat Sinai could have mobilized improvised fighting vehicles, mounted with large anti-aircraft guns without the Egyptian military’s knowledge — betraying a poor grasp on local intelligence. After finally subduing the initial attack, the Egyptian military then conducted airstrikes on militant positions, killing as many as 22 militants.
As in the past, the Egyptian military’s conventional response to guerrilla tactics will be able to temporarily degrade militancy in the Sinai Peninsula. However, simply engaging in strikes or even briefly increasing force projection in the region could serve to create new recruits for the jihadist groups. On July 6, an Egyptian army spokesman claimed the army had eliminated 241 militants since the Sinai attack, mostly through air and artillery attacks. A Stratfor source reported that such indiscriminate counterattacks are only boosting the credibility of militants and radicalizing poor and angry Sinai youth to join them. If the Egyptian military is to meaningfully curb militant capabilities in Sinai and across the country, it will have to indefinitely increase the forces it maintains in Sinai and also invest in counterinsurgency tactics. Even if Egypt musters the will, it will be a lengthy process. Jihadist groups also have the advantages of a head start and generally higher morale.
To combat Wilayat Sinai’s growing power, Egypt, Hamas, and Israel will have to work together and rely on one another’s strengths. Even so, the Islamic State affiliate has demonstrated that it is a resilient and resourceful enemy, and it can be expected to attempt more complex attacks in the style of the Islamic State core. Egypt does not face an existential threat from the Islamic State affiliate or from other jihadist groups attempting to destabilize Egypt. But Wilayat Sinai could cause a great deal of disruption in the country, which will hamper Cairo’s ambitions to project its influence beyond its borders. Egypt will have to tread carefully as it manages multiple threats, all the while attempting to hold parliamentary elections and continue reforms of its subsidy government.