Last week’s terrorist attack against Egyptian army positions in northern Sinai, which resulted in the killing of 23 soldiers and officers and 40 assailants, was the biggest since July 2015. It came after a lull that lasted for weeks, indicating a degree of success by the armed forces and intelligence agencies in containing an insurgency that has become Egypt’s longest war yet.
The timing of Friday’s deadly attack is important. It came in the wake of Egypt’s participation in a Saudi-led boycott of Qatar for its role in funding terrorist groups in the region, and for meddling in the affairs of Arab countries. It also coincided with news that Daesh had been beaten in Mosul and its fighters were on the retreat in Raqqa.
Reports spoke of a coordinated advance on an Egyptian special forces outpost south of the border town of Rafah, using a large number of modern 4x4 armored vehicles — all the same brand — and motorcycles. It was a qualitatively different mission from previous ones, indicating access to intelligence and funds, and freedom of movement.
It also came as Cairo and Hamas were carrying out the terms of their recent deal. Hamas had begun clearing a security buffer along Gaza’s border with Sinai, and destroying tunnels that have been used for years to smuggle goods, men and weapons to and from Gaza. At least three of the slain terrorists were Palestinians from Gaza, according to Egyptian reports.
Since May, a new Hamas leadership in Gaza has been involved in high-level negotiations in Cairo to normalize relations and heighten security cooperation. The new leadership, under Yahya Sinwar, is visibly distancing itself from Doha, and trying to end its political isolation and break the economic blockade that Israel has been enforcing on Gaza for years.
For Egypt, mending fences with Hamas is a prized national security objective, and an important milestone in fulfilling its anti-terror strategy. The insurgency in Sinai, which began under various forms in 2011, has morphed into a significant challenge to President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and the armed forces.
More dangerously, the jihadist threat has slithered into the Nile Valley, and Egypt now finds itself fighting terrorists not only in Sinai but in the Western Desert also. The Libyan debacle has unleashed waves of Daesh-affiliated terrorists, who have infiltrated the long and sparsely populated border between the two countries.
Promises to rebuild northern Sinai and bring economic prosperity to its people have never been fulfilled. It is time for Cairo to follow its promises with deeds. Treating northern Sinai as a purely security problem is short-sighted.
It is now clear that Hamas, whose role in facilitating the passage of weapons and fighters from Gaza into Sinai remains unclear, is now being challenged by Daesh-affiliated insurgents at home. It is no secret that Qatar had been pouring tens of millions of dollars into Gaza, especially after the unseating of Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi in 2013.
More recently, Hamas — which earlier had tolerated the presence of Daesh activists in Gaza — was forced to clamp down on the group. But some reports indicate that Daesh remains active among Gazans. The recent Egypt-Hamas detente will substantially undermine Daesh’s presence and influence in both Sinai and Gaza. But it is important to note that the problem of confronting home-grown extremists is not new for Egypt.
Some trace its modern roots to the 1950s with the publication of Muslim Brotherhood cleric Sayyed Qutub’s infamous book “Signposts,” which inspired future jihadists. Other groups appeared in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, setting the stage for the emergence of Al-Jihad Al-Islami, which later merged with Al-Qaeda.
Egypt is now at war with various militant groups that have attacked officials and symbols of the state, including policemen and soldiers. More seriously, they have bombed churches in an attempt to trigger sectarian strife. So far, most Egyptians have stood behind the government and support its anti-terror efforts.
But the war has made the task of economic recovery, following the Jan. 25 uprising and subsequent events, more difficult. Tourism has suffered and is yet to pick up, and the results of economic reforms will take years to bear fruit. In addition, the turmoil in neighboring Libya will continue to pose a security challenge.
Sinai has always represented Egypt’s soft underbelly, both in war and peace. Promises to rebuild northern Sinai and bring economic prosperity to its people have never been fulfilled. It is time for Cairo to follow its promises with deeds. Treating northern Sinai as a purely security problem is short-sighted. Perhaps the opening up to Gaza will pave the way for much-needed stability in that region.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.