November 6, 2015 | Policy Brief

The Sinai Crash is Sisi’s Nightmare

November 6, 2015 | Policy Brief

The Sinai Crash is Sisi’s Nightmare

It’s still too early to definitively state the cause of the Russian airliner crash this weekend in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Islamic State claims it brought down the jet in retaliation for Moscow’s support for the Syrian regime – Egypt has dismissed that notion, but Western governments are increasingly inclined to agree. Whatever conclusion investigators reach, the damage to Egypt is irreversible. The incident has struck a blow to the one Egyptian tourist destination still drawing significant numbers of visitors, and to the image of stability that President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has striven so assiduously to promote.

The Sinai insurgency has its roots in decades of marginalization against the peninsula’s Bedouin inhabitants, but began to take on its current proportions amid the power vacuum that followed the 2011 revolution against then-president Hosni Mubarak. A group calling itself Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (“Supporters of Jerusalem”) began waging attacks on Egyptian servicemen (and occasionally Israel) with increasing regularity and audacity before rebranding itself as the Islamic State’s “Sinai Province” a year ago.

In the years since Mubarak’s ouster, political turmoil on the mainland and violence in North Sinai sparked a massive 95-percent drop in tourism, a sector that accounts for 14 percent of foreign-currency reserves and provides a livelihood for one in every nine Egyptians.

Unlike Egypt’s other great tourist draw – the Pyramids of Giza – the resorts of South Sinai had managed to weather the storm, and visitors from Russia and Britain continued to stream in. The downing of the Russian plane would mark the first large-scale attack against foreign tourists in Egypt since 2011, and could prove the end of South Sinai’s immunity from the crisis surrounding it. Sisi’s assurances that the Sinai problem is “under full control” now ring hollower than ever, and are unlikely to persuade skittish tourists and desperately needed foreign investors.

If that were not enough, Britain and Russia – the top two sources of tourists to South Sinai – have suspended flights to the peninsula until security is improved and details of the crash are clarified. Some 45,000 Russians and 20,000 Britons are now stranded in the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, where they report the same lax security measures that would have allowed a bomb onto the doomed flight: security guards asleep, preoccupied with mobile-phone games and accepting bribes for travelers to bypass security lines.

The air disaster has overshadowed what was supposed to be a public-relations coup for Sisi: an official visit to British Prime Minister David Cameron’s residence, where talk of a shared counterterror vision and investment in Egyptian energy was to replace reports of mass arrests, death sentences, curtailed freedom of speech and the heavy-handed response to the Sinai unrest. Instead, the visit has been dominated by questions of security in Egypt, the costs of doing business in the country, and the wisdom of keeping its air routes open.

Despite his government’s excesses, Sisi’s inner circle insists that his commitment to counterterrorism in a dangerous environment is reason enough to merit international support. It’s not a baseless argument – the world’s most unstable region is engulfed in unprecedented volatility, and Egypt is both the largest Arab state and a decades-long Western ally. Still, the possibility that on his watch Egypt suffered its worst-ever terror attack has called into question the president’s counterterrorism tactics. If Sisi’s uncompromising methods can’t prevent a brazen, mass-casualty attack, Western policymakers will inevitably wonder what purpose they have served.

Oren Kessler is deputy director for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @OrenKessler


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