Egypt’s Generals turn to an Old Rival in the Fight against Islamist Militancy in Sinai

For over two years, the Islamist militant group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) has been launching violent attacks against the Egyptian state in North Sinai. These fighters have been responsible for killing dozens of Egyptians in coordinated bombings, carrying out a handful of assassination attempts, and earlier this month demonstrated a possible change in tactics when suicide attackers blew up a bus killing three South Korean tourists and the Egyptian driver.

Despite regular claims to have killed or captured key militants, the Egyptian government’s attempts to quell the violence from this group have so far proven ineffective. There have been over 300 reported attacks since last July, and the run of attacks shows no sign of abating.

With insecurity in the Sinai peninsula deteriorating and Cairo looking short of options, it is little wonder that it has turned to others for help in tackling the Islamist militancy. However its latest choice of partner may raise some eyebrows.

When Cairo met Khartoum

At the start of February, according to Al-Sayyid Al-Badawi, head of the al-Wafd party, an Egyptian delegation returned from a visit to Sudan. There, the officials had agreed a deal with Khartoum over the deployment of joint military patrols along the Egyptian-Sudanese border.

Shortly after that meeting, another higher-level engagement was arranged with the Sudanese Defence Minister Abdel Rahim Mohamed Hussein who flew to Cairo for talks with Field Marshall Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, his counterpart/Egypt’s de facto ruler, and General Sedqi Sobhi, second-in-command of the Egyptian armed forces.

Such meetings are hardly typical of Cairo’s current relationship with Khartoum. Relations had been warm during the presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, with the country’s newfound friendship reaching its apogee in September 2012 when Morsi gave a speech to the United Nations expressing support for President Omar al-Bashir.

But Morsi was toppled in July in a military-led movement. And Egypt’s military establishment has never been particularly genial towards al-Bashir and has always maintained that the Sudanese president, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, should stand trial. Egypt’s relations with Sudan therefore cooled once more when Morsi was deposed. The new military-led government soon went about clamping down on the Brotherhood and eventually designated the group a terrorist organisation, leading many senior Brotherhood members to try to flee to Sudan.

Sisi’s campaign

In September, a couple of months after Morsi was deposed and Sisi became Egypt’s de facto ruler, the military announced that it was expanding its campaign in Sinai in response to ABM’s attemptedassassination of the Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim.

This fit in with Sisi’s general approach to Sinai since being appointed head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in August 2012. Sisi’s predecessor, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, is known to have been against trying to control Sinai militarily, arguing instead for an informal arrangement whereby the state gave militant groups leeway in return for them confining themselves to specific areas and limiting activity. By contrast, Sisi since taking office has put his own stamp on the government’s policy in Sinai, favouring a much more aggressive approach.

“The Sinai campaign as it is today is very much Sisi’s campaign,” says Issandr el-Amrani, the Cairo-based North Africa Project Director for the International Crisis Group. “Sisi pushed in January 2013 for a more active campaign, where Egypt now takes advantage of its full military deployment quota in Sinai and goes directly after the militant groups.”

Unfortunately for Sisi, however, the results have thus far have not been impressive. Although accurate data is difficult to come by, the number of security forces personnel that have been killed may well be higher than the number of militants.

Indeed, in response to the September announcement that the military would step up its campaign in the region, ABM increased its violent activity. On 11 September, suicide bombers attacked the military intelligence building in Rafah and an armoured personnel carrier at any army checkpoint killing nine soldiers. Next, the group bombed the el-Tor Security Directorate, attacked the military intelligence facility in Ismailia, and in November claimed the assassination of intelligence officer Lieutenant Colonel Mohammed Mabrouk. By December militants had also killed 16 in an attack on a security directorate in Mansoura, bombed the Cairo security directorate in Abdeen, andassassinated senior Interior Ministry official Mohamed Said. On 25 January, the Islamist militants used a SA-18 surface-to-air missile to take down an army helicopter, killing five. And now it seems that it may have adopted a new tactic of also targeting tourists.

My enemy’s enemy

It is in the face of this inability to stem to violence that Cairo has called on Khartoum for help. Part of the problem with a military campaign against Sinai militancy is that the groups involved often don’t have traditional hierarchical command structures and are highly adept at concealing their plans and communications. ABM, for example, doesn’t have a clearly defined organisational structure, and intelligence is not even confident on basic facts about the group − estimates as to its size vary from 500 to 5,000 members. Meanwhile the insurgency is not confined to just one group − ABM appears to be the most active, but the likes of al-Salafiya al-Jihadiya, the Mujahideen Shura Council, al-Tawhid Wal Jihad, Ansar al Jihad, and the Egypt Free Army also operate in Sinai.

However, amidst all the uncertainty, one thing about the militants in Sinai is relatively well-accepted, which is that the militants get at least some of their arms from local Bedouin smuggling gangs. These groups are believed to run weapons from Sudan through routes running along the Red Sea, before passing through the Suez towns or across the Gulf of Suez in small boats. Egyptian intelligence has been particularly concerned by this flow of weapons since the downing of one of its helicopter with a surface-to-air missile.

Military or military border guards are meant to control the roads along these routes, but shipments still appear to be slipping through. One explanation is that the smugglers are highly skilled at avoiding main roads and border guards; another is that the security forces − those supplied by the state as well as by private oil and gas companies in the region − are drawn from local Bedouin communities and have ties with the smugglers.

These gangs are also known to engage in the trafficking of humans, particularly of Eritrean refugees who they torture and hold for ransom. But so far, pressure from international human rights organisations on Egypt and Sudan to coordinate and crackdown on traffickers has largely been unsuccessful, partly perhaps because of the two country’s ongoing disagreements over issues such as the Renaissance Dam project and the Hala’ib Triangle border.

However, with insecurity in Sinai growing, this reluctance to combine forces now seems to be waning. Whether increased co-operation in tackling arms smugglers will lead to closer diplomatic ties between Egypt and Sudan remains to be seen, but with attack after attack undermining Sisi’s control of the Egyptian state, he is hoping he can find a friend in an old rival.

This article was originally published with Think Africa Press on February 26th 2014.

Tunisia’s NSA-style intelligence drive

A few weeks ago, in a coastal suburb of Tunis known as Raoued, the government of Tunisia set the stage for creating an NSA-style spy agency to monitor telecommunications and Internet activity, including by its own citizens.

That day, the nation’s counterterrorism police fanned out through the normally quiet residential area as special forces armed with automatic weapons surrounded a large house, inside of which heavily armed militants were believed to be hiding. Onlookers were cordoned off at a distance.

The operation unfolded slowly over the course of 24 hours. When police finally issued orders by loudspeaker for those inside the building to give themselves up, there was silence. Then suddenly a firefight broke out, and by the time it was over, seven militants and one national guardsman were dead.

The government would later proclaim the successful raid a victory for the people, made possible by its increasing ability to monitor terrorist groups and prevent attacks before they happen. Underlying those claims was a subtext that has often been cited by American intelligence agencies and the Obama administration in recent years: that monitoring the activities of private citizens is essential to counterrorism efforts.

In Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, that approach has a particular resonance, because the protests in 2011 were in part sparked by the authoritarian government’s spying on its own citizens. As Tunisia prepares to create an agency known as the Technical Agency for Telecommunications (abbreviated ATT), some are concerned that the country is headed back in the direction of where the trouble began.

Jillian York, director of the San Francisco-based International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Freedom Foundation, noted that the ATT “is entirely inspired by the NSA, and in much the same way, there’s the justification for spying on a state’s own citizens using legitimate security concerns.”

Others inside Tunisia are more critical. Tunisian lawyer Kais Berrjab accused the government of “voyeurism” and claims the establishment of the ATT represents a “battery of legal irregularities related to unconstitutionality and illegality.” Berrjab added that what little official documentation exists regarding the ATT is obfuscated and fails to properly define the organization’s relationship with judicial authorities, and that there is no legal framework for providing civilian accountability over the agency’s actions.

The day after the attack on the house in Raoued, on Feb. 3, 2014, Tunisia’s minister of the interior, Lotfi Ben Jeddou, released a photograph of one of the slain men wearing a belt laden with explosives. The man was Kamel Gadhgadhi, a senior member of the militant organization Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia.

Gadhgadhi had been wanted for some time, and his death was considered more significant evan than the much-publicized government crackdown on Ansar al-Sharia. Gadhgadhi was the main suspect in the assassination of popular left-wing politician Chokri Belaid last year, an event that plunged the country into new political turmoil, from which it has only recently recovered.

Belaid had been an outspoken critic of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s dictatorial Tunisian regime and the Islamist Ennahda movement then leading the country’s ruling coalition. Though partisan, Belaid was respected across the political spectrum, so when suspicions surrounding his assassination fell on Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia, the government’s reputation suffered. Belaid’s assassination was seen by many as evidence that the Ennahda government was incapable of providing security for its own citizens, while others suspected that it was secretly encouraging extremists like Ansar al-Sharia.

The killing sparked a general strike and protests in which as many as a million people, or around 10 percent of the population of Tunisia, took to the streets. Demonstrators flooded the central thoroughfares and economic heart of the city, Avenue de France and Avenue Habib Bourguiba. The anger was palpable. Business and day-to-day life ground to a halt. The following month, then-Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali was forced to resign.

Six months later, a second secular opposition figure, Mohamed Brahmi, was assassinated under strikingly similar circumstances. Tunisians again took to the streets, and this time anger with the government reached a higher pitch. Popular pressure then set in motion a chain of events that led to the dissolution of the entire cabinet and the appointment of a new, technocratic prime minister from outside Ennahda. So when the Interior Ministry announced that it had killed Gadhgadhi – the man accused of pulling the trigger that started it all – they wasted no time in declaring the operation a victory for the people.

“Gadhgadhi is the one who carried out the political assassination of Chokri Belaid… this is a gift to the families of the martyrs,” Interior Minister Ben Jeddou said in a national press conference.

“Inspired by the NSA”

With the anniversary of Chokri Belaid’s murder marked by Gadhgadhi’s death, and the country having recently passed a new constitution widely praised for achieving consensus between secular and Islamist camps, Tunisia’s new prime minister, Medhi Jomaa, is in an enviable position among North African leaders.

Neighboring Libya is gripped by militia violence, and Egypt’s political system and economy are in shambles, yet Tunisia’s reputation in diplomatic and international business circles remains good despite recent setbacks. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon went so far as to describe Tunisia as “a model to other peoples seeking reform.”

Beneath this hopeful veneer, the relationship between Tunisia’s government and its people is uneasy, and unstable. And the fight against extremism remains a sore spot. Some Tunisians (including the widows of Belaid and Brahmi) pushed the government to account for how they had discovered his whereabouts, and though the government has offered few details, it has acknowledged that a captured member of Ansar al-Sharia, Mahjoub Ferchichi, gave up the location of the militants’ house.

Intelligence of the kind that led to security forces tracking down Gadhgadhi had previously been gathered by two separate organizations based in the Interior Ministry’s imposing building: the General Directorate for Specialized Services, and the General Directorate for Technical Services.

Now, Tunisian authorities are creating a new, more professional spying service and establishing a single centralized intelligence agency that will include the kinds of mass-monitoring of telecommunications and Internet traffic that made the NSA so controversial in the U.S.

Rights advocates and observers fear that in the government’s desire to ameliorate popular dissatisfaction and secure the state against extremists like Gadhgadhi, it will return to the authoritarianism of the past. York pointed out that the head of the ATT will be directly appointed by the government’s Ministry of Information and Communication, making it difficult to argue that the agency is independent of the central state.

The group Reporters Without Borders has also heavily criticized what some call “Tunisia’s NSA,” arguing that it revives unwelcome memories of Ben Ali’s security state. “This violates the principles that should govern Internet surveillance mechanisms, above all control by an independent judicial authority and the principles of need, relevance and proportionality of surveillance measures, as well as transparency and monitoring by the public,” the organization said in a release, which also noted that the government plans to exempt the ATT from legal obligations of transparency that are required of other agencies, and that doing so “endangers respect for fundamental freedoms.”

Part of the impetus for the new surveillance program is to prove to Western allies that Tunisia can monitor terrorist communications on its own, according to Monica Marks, an Oxford University researcher based in Tunis. “The government was embarrassed by the fact that the CIA managed to get information on Brahmi’s assassination before they did, after the Americans had sent a notice to Tunisia’s interior ministry letting them know Brahmi was potentially in danger,” Marks said. “The Tunisian government wants to plug security gaps by building a new intelligence facility with well-trained employees and more-sophisticated technology.”

Doing so will not only reassure allies; it will help galvanize Tunisia’s position in the eyes of a wary international business investors that the country will continue to be more stable than its neighbors.

International Pressure

Signs that Tunisia is expanding intelligence operations, including the operation against Gadhgadhi and a subsequent raid in the suburb of Borj Louzir that resulted in the capture of Ahmed Malki (a suspect in the Brahmi case), are most welcomed by international observers in counterterrorism. A Western diplomat in Tunis told IBTimes that during the past few months European countries have been pushing their contacts in the Tunisian government to accelerate plans for an upgrade to its intelligence services. The International Crisis Group has also advised the Tunisian government to improve counterterrorism operations and crack down on smuggling. And when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made a surprise visit to Tunis to meet with Tunisia’s new prime minister, Medhi Jomaa, on Feb. 18, he publicly pledged American support for the country’s security program.

“No democracy can survive or prosper without security,” Kerry said in a speech at the U.S. embassy in which he praised the “very significant arrests that were made and the breakup of Ansar al-Sharia’s cells in the last weeks.”

Immediately following the visit, the U.S. agreed to provide Tunisian police with a mobile command and control vehicle and a forensic laboratory.

The West is not alone in its encouragement. Tunisian authorities are shoring up relations with neighboring states that have long since mastered the art of internal surveillance. Earlier this month, Jomaa visited Algeria for two days of meetings with high level officials there. Algeria’s shadowy security apparatus is known to be accomplished in both counterinsurgency operations and communications surveillance, and after the visit, the two countries agreed to set up three military surveillance systems along their joint border.

And, for better or worse, Tunisia has no shortage of people with experience in operating mass communications surveillance technology. Under Ben Ali, the country was a regional pioneer of state surveillance and a testing ground for surveillance products of U.S. origin, such as SmartFilter, technology created by McAfee that has been used in Tunisia since 2002 to block access to parts of the Internet.

Opacity at all levels

“Especially since the Snowden scandal, the commitment of Tunisians regarding net-freedom and privacy is strong,” said Moez Chakchouk, chair and CEO of the Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI), which was previously in charge of national cyberspace investigation but has since been superseded by the ATT. Chakchouk was responsible for reforming the Tunisian state’s Internet policies after the 2011 revolution, when transparency was the major goal. He is known for bringing bloggers and activists together in a cooperative drive to end the era of the state as Internet censor and monitor.

But since the establishment of the ATT, the role of Chakchouk’s organization has changed. He has been sidelined, and whatever progress his reformist agenda achieved will have little bearing on the actions of the ATT. He also has grave doubts about the future of Tunisian citizens’ freedoms.

“The benefits, if they exist, are about the fact that for the first time surveillance has a form, an agency, and we are no longer in the era of Ben Ali where monitoring was done without anyone knowing who practiced it,” Chakchouk told IBTimes.

Though Tunisia’s former information minister, Mongi Marzouk, claims the ATT was inspired by the model of countries such as Peru and Sweden, Chakchouk says he has his doubts. “There is a risk to users’ data protection, transparency, and in the composition of the ATT’s board — it isn’t nonpartisan,” he says.

Berrjab said he also has concerns about “the opacity of the agency at all levels, the lack of audit mechanism or neutrality, and impartial technical control over the work of the ATT, and the fact that its officers are not sworn,” which he said means citizens have no assurances that their rights and freedoms will be respected.

Representatives of the Tunisian government did not respond to requests for comment on the role of the ATT, but fears persist that it could be overzealous in its effort to track down militants like Gadhgadhi, and to allay Tunisians’ desires for security.

As York put it, “Starting with legitimate concerns about security, the state can then push beyond that and you see surveillance used against political dissidents or just in violation of basic privacy. This isn’t a total regression for Tunisia back to the days of dictatorship, but it is certainly very concerning.”

This article was originally published with the International Business Times on February 26th 2014.

Egypt’s government on collision course with labour

Egypt’s military government heads for collision with organised labour as doctors hold their fourth strike of the year, and pressure builds in the country’s textile industry.

Medical professionals in Egypt are planning an unprecedented series of strikes this month to demand authorities answer their calls for increases in spending on healthcare and a raise to the minimum wage for doctors, according to an announcement by Khairy Abdel-Dayem, head of the Doctors’ Syndicate.

On Wednesday the union held what was already its fourth strike of 2014, and second in February, when professionals across the country – excluding those working in emergency service roles – held protests at syndicate headquarters.

Doctors and nurses are claiming that the government has ignored their repeated complaints about poor working conditions, structural problems in the Egyptian healthcare service, and low pay.

The Doctors’ Syndicate saw a radical restructuring in December when an independent movement within the union won 11 of the 12 board seats, beating out Muslim Brotherhood candidates who had previously been dominant. The syndicate also elected its first female secretary-general, Mona Mina, a veteran labour campaigner and founding member of the activist group Doctors Without Rights.

But in a development this weekend Dr Mina announced that she was resigning from her post in the syndicate. “Doctors are suffering from a horrible deterioration in their status and they are hugely divided,” she said, adding that internal divisions had made her position impossible.

Dr Mina was involved in organising sit-ins and protests against the regime of the ousted president Hosni Mubarak, and helped found a group called Tahrir Doctors during the January 25 2011 uprising which provided medical assistance to demonstrators injured in the protests. Tahrir Doctors went on to support those injured in subsequent protests against the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces under Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi, and against Mohamed Morsi’s Islamist government.

In an announcement to press in January, Dr Mina claimed the government’s attitude to healthcare, and budgetary commitments to its improvement were unacceptable. “Egypt’s health expenditure is below that of poor countries, not just that of developed economies,” she said.

According to World Bank data Egypt’s healthcare spending is equivalent to around 4.9 percent of GDP, lower than the 8.4 percent of Sudan, 6.2 percent of Tunisia, or 6 percent of Morocco, but higher than in Algeria or Libya, which spend just 3.9 and 4.4 percent of GDP respectively.

Under Dr Mina, the syndicate was locked in disputes with the Ministry of Health and its head Dr Maha el-Rabat. Dr Rabat’s reputation among labour campaigners has never been good due to her involvement in a series of hospital privatisations (in collaboration with USAID) during the Mubarak regime.

The Health Ministry claims the government is taking the strikes seriously. On Thursday interim president Adly Mansour announced a decree that offered doctors bonus pay, although did not increase the base salary. The government also offered to marginally raise hazardous pay.

“We take the strikes very seriously and respect the constitutional right to strike, but we believe this bill is a step in the right direction for the negotiations given what the budget can currently withstand,” Dr Ahmed Kamel, an official in the Health Ministry, tells This is Africa.

The union has said it will continue to strike twice a week until its next major meeting on February 21.

On Saturday hundreds of junior ranked police officers also went on strike in seven different governorates to protest against bad pay and poor working conditions. Leaders claimed they would expand their demands to include the resignation of the Interior Minister, Mohamed Ibrahim, if their complaints are not addressed.

A legacy of revolution

Egypt’s professional classes have played an important role in recent uprisings. “The professional syndicates played a key role in the removal of Mubarak in early 2011, and remain a potent force within Egyptian politics,” says Citigroup’s chief economist for the Middle East, Farouk Soussa.

Mr Soussa believes that the greater political engagement of the middle classes resulting from the uprising against former-president Mubarak will now be a long-term trend.

“So far, professional unions have restricted their activities to the pursuit of the interests of their members, but their actions are still disruptive to economic activity, and reflect a legacy of the 2011 revolution that is unlikely to recede anytime soon,” he says.

The revolutionary April 6 movement, which was central in organising against Mr Mubarak during the 2011 uprising, originally arose from strikes in Egypt’s textile producing region, Mahalla, in 2008. The leadership of the April 6 movement has been imprisoned since the July military coup.

Over the past few months press in the textile industry has been building again. In July, more than 20,000 workers in the Mahalla state spinning and weaving company went on strike, claiming to have received just half of the bonuses previously promised to them by the state.

Plant managers attempted to placate the strike by promising to make up the difference the following month, but payments didn’t come through, and in August tens of thousands of workers again went on strike to demand the promised funds, reportedly equivalent to over a month’s salary.

Disputes have continued and in October Mahalla workers staged a major strike, this time storming the office of the company’s CEO, Fouad Abdel-Alim. For three days the plant was shut down by the sit-ins until the company agreed to pay another tranche of missing payments.

Bread, freedom, and social justice

Officials are aware that many of their planned policies put them in conflict with the interests of Egypt’s lower-paid workers, who are demanding social reform, and they have made some attempts to mitigate popular dissatisfaction.

In December of last year the government announced plans to introduce a minimum wage for public sector workers of 1,200 Egyptians pounds or just over $170 per month. The increase would have a practical effect, given roughly a quarter of the country’s population currently live below the poverty line, but only applies to around five million workers. The cost of the plans has been estimated at $2.6bn per year.

Average salaries are in fact higher in the public sector than the private, where no minimum wage regulations are planned. The overwhelming majority of spending outlined in two separate $4.3bn fiscal stimulus packages has still been targeted at the business community and not workers.

A World Bank official in Cairo tells This is Africa that it has launched a $200m intensive labour

programme in Egypt aimed at getting unemployed, unskilled workers into short-term employment in public works projects. The programme gives unemployed labourers jobs cleaning canals, repairing houses and roads, and working in community service roles.

“The current strike reflects the deeper structural challenges that the Egyptian state has been facing for over two decades: an inability to meet its responsibility to protect the social and economic rights of a variety of important social groups that the state had traditionally protected,” according to Hesham Sallam, a fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University.

Mr Sallam argues that this trend is a reminder that the structural problems and widespread societal grievances that contributed to Mr Mubarak’s downfall are still prevalent.

“That three years have passed since Mubarak’s downfall and demands for more humane wages and working conditions have persisted reflects the harsh reality that the quest for ‘bread, freedom, and social justice’ is still ongoing,” he says.

This article was originally published with Financial Times: This is Africa on February 10th 2014.