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Reviewed by Georgios Rigas, University of Edinburgh
American University in Cairo Press, 2015. 320 pages, $34.95, hardcover.
Mohannad Sabry's book is a comprehensive analysis that substantially illuminates the sociopolitical conditions and developments in the Sinai Peninsula, an area which, until February 2011, suffered from an almost absolute media blackout. As the author states, during Mubarak's reign "no one knew what went on in Sinai unless it was published in international or Israeli media" (p. 16). The suspension of media-coverage restrictions after the 2011 revolution was an opportunity that Sabry seized in order to present how Sinai and its residents were treated by the Mubarak regime, what implications this treatment had on how they responded to the events leading to Mubarak's ouster and how, after February 2011, the developments in Sinai were connected with both the shifting dynamics of Egypt's central political scene and the wider security and political upheavals in the Middle East since the outbreak of the Arab Spring. By addressing these issues, Sabry not only enhances the reader's understanding of Egypt's modern history and politics, but also provides an explanation of how and why Sinai came to be Egypt's most volatile region, currently the site of hostilities between the so-called Islamic State and the Egyptian military.
The book is divided into 10 chapters in which Sabry presents a linear narrative stretching from the first days of the 2011 revolution until roughly November 2014, when Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, Sinai's main Jihadi militant group, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Yet, in each chapter the author jumps back in time so as to portray a comprehensive image of Sinai's history since its occupation by Israel in 1967. In this way, the reader becomes aware of the social and political context of the behavior and actions of Sinai Bedouins between the forced resignation of Mubarak and the first months of al-Sisi's regime.
Sabry, an Egyptian journalist, writes in a readable style that makes his book accessible, illustrating his arguments through personal stories. He makes extended use of material from his interviews and meetings with people who have experienced the recent history of Sinai from different perspectives. Sinai's part in the demonstrations that brought about Mubarak's resignation unfolds through the story of a slain Bedouin protester and the aftermath of his killing. The hatred of Sinai residents towards the security apparatus is reflected in the desire of the protesters to capture an infamous officer whom Sabry refers to as Colonel E. The discrimination, arbitrary detention and torture that Bedouins suffer is portrayed through experiences of a local activist and a journalist at the hands of the security forces. Similarly, the involvement of Bedouins in the tunnels connecting Egypt and Hamas-controlled Gaza, and the discussion of that phenomenon, are developed through the story of a local small-time smuggler. Accordingly, the author depicts the rise of sharia courts and the Islamist militancy in Sinai through the stories of a sharia judge, a member of a Salafi vigilante patrol and some Islamist militants. Sabry also makes use of the testimonies of an army officer and a policeman, father and son, who served in different generations.
The author elucidates several incidents that had significant implications for Egypt's central political scene. Such incidents were the prison breaks during the 2011 revolution and the breach of the Egypt-Gaza border wall in 2008. The conditions under which five of Egypt's main prisons came under attack on January 29, 2011, and which resulted in the escape of roughly 22,000 inmates, were not clarified at the time, thereby facilitating the emergence of several conspiracy theories. According to a widely circulated one that was later used as a legal weapon against Morsi by his opponents, the prisons were breached by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) with the aid of Gaza militants affiliated with Hamas, an offshoot of the MB. This approach seemed to acquire added credence because it fits into the official interpretation of Sinai's role in the 2011 revolution. Egypt's security and government officials portrayed the unrest in North Sinai as "an evil conspiracy carried out by the Gaza-ruling Hamas movement and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to topple the Egyptian regime" (p. 17). Sabry, with his detailed analysis of the development of the protests that occurred in Sinai during the 2011 revolution, dispels a dominant myth of Egypt's recent history showing that "[the] attacks on prisons were the reason for the Hamas breach [to collect its cadres who had escaped Egypt's prisons], not the other way around" (p. 20).
The author does not stay there, however; he takes a step forward by subtly endorsing the claim of Mostafa al-Fiqqi, a regime insider, that "the opening of the prisons was a plan put in place originally to be activated in case of Mubarak's death" (p. 21). Sabry, in his effort to defend this viewpoint further, poses a number of rhetorical questions regarding the career path of the prisons' wardens after the revolution. Although rhetorical questions suffice to deconstruct an argument, they cannot convincingly support a counter-argument in the absence of additional evidence. In other words, as far as the discussion germane to what caused the 2011 prison breaks is concerned, Sabry's contribution is rather limited, as he does not bolster al-Fiqqi's theory. Nevertheless, the approach he adopts prompts the reader to seek relevant information in other readings.
With regard to the breach of the Egypt-Gaza border, the author discusses the incident in detail, depicting how the advancing economic interaction between Egypt and Hamas-controlled Gaza led steadily to both the military empowerment and the radicalization of Sinai Bedouins. In this task, Sabry is quite successful, providing the reader with a sound explanation of how Sinai became a safe haven for heavily armed Islamists. Nevertheless, when it comes to the broader picture, Sabry adopts viewpoints that need to be defended better. He claims that Egypt "allowed them [Hamas] to receive weapons … at a time when Mubarak and Suleiman were more than capable of crushing the whole operation" (p. 64). Based on this argument, he goes so far as to tacitly endorse the assumption that there was an "Egyptian agreement or prior knowledge of the incident [border breach]" (p. 70), with the aim of facilitating the aboveground shipments of large amounts of Iran-funded armaments into Gaza during the few days when there was no traffic control at the border.
However, for two reasons, this kind of thinking appears to be rather problematic. First, it contradicts Sabry's overall argument that arms smuggling was a regular and unexceptional activity facilitated by ad hoc opportunities. Second, it fails to take into account that Mubarak's approach towards the tunnel phenomenon was defined by a plethora of factors ranging from international and regional pressures, to the demand of the residents and rulers of Gaza for goods and arms and to domestic-security concerns that militated against challenging the pro-Palestinian Egyptian street. In this respect, Mubarak's alleged ability to control, let alone crush, the Rafah tunnels, even in their early phase, seems rather questionable.
It is also worth mentioning that the author's approach is similar whenever he discusses complicated aspects of Egypt's domestic politics, such as the alleged ideological compass of the top echelons of the Muslim Brotherhood. Sabry quotes — and thus seems to uphold — the claim of Ahmed Ban, an MB defector, that, after 2011, "the Brotherhood was ruled by a Qutbi current" (p. 143). This rather categorical assertion about the internal dynamics of the Muslim Brotherhood and the opinion of a single former member of the organization does not suffice to support it. A task of this kind would require additional evidence and testimonies from other sources. Consequently, the reader should not take Sabry's assessments of the politics of Egypt and the region at face value.
These weaknesses are to a certain extent justifiable, as Sabry's intention is not to provide a full-fledged account of Egypt's recent history. The aim of his book is to constitute a useful supplement to the wider literature on contemporary Egypt by focusing on Sinai and explaining how this underpopulated area became Egypt's most volatile region. In this context, Sabry's work functions for the reader as a well-informed guide to Sinai's current state of affairs. The author gives a clear picture of how Sinai Bedouins after 2011 started targeting the gas pipeline to Israel, enhanced their armaments with weapons from Libya and, in the wake of Morsi's ouster, got involved in an intense confrontation with the military, whose infrastructure "stood untouched in January 2011" (p. 240). Furthermore, Sabry not only has broken the media blackout that was re-imposed in Sinai after July 2013; he also offers a convincing counternarrative to the authorities' version of developments in the area. To understand how little the locals valued the announcements of the official military spokesman, it suffices to mention that they ironically likened him to "Saddam Hussein's information minister … ["Baghdad Bob"] before and during the 2003 U.S. invasion" (p. 173).
By showing and explaining what a critical region of the Middle East went through after 2011, Sabry contributes to the overall documentation of the Arab Spring. In this regard, Sinai: Egypt's Linchpin, Gaza's Lifeline, Israel's Nightmare develops the collective understanding of the political turmoil that has characterized the Middle East since 2011, facilitating the contemplation of its future implications. Thanks to Sabry's accessible writing style, the book constitutes a useful resource for both academics and the general readership.