Altering dynamics of Egypt’s war on terror
It was a complex assault that involved a car bomb, rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs that targeted rescuers, according to news agencies. It was the bloodiest attack on Egypt’s armed forces since the overthrow of President Muhammad Mursi last year, which triggered a wave of terror especially in Sinai.
The army has been fighting extremists in the peninsula for more than two years with mixed results. The main target is a militant Salafist group, Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdes or ABM, which is comprised of local Bedouins, foreign militants and radical Palestinians who have been chased out of Gaza by Hamas. The government in Cairo has blamed the Muslim Brotherhood, now banned and designated as a terrorist organization, of master minding terror attacks across the country.
Former President Mursi has been accused of releasing radical elements when he was in power. But there are indications that foreign hands are also involved and that Egypt is being drawn into a wider regional war.
President Abdel Fattah El-Sissi believes the latest attack was a “foreign-funded operation” and commentators were quick to point the finger to two countries, which backed the Muslim Brotherhood and stood against the overthrow of Mursi.
El-Sissi warned Egyptians of a conspiracy and said his country is fighting “a war for its existence.” He has summoned the National Defense Council and declared a state of emergency in northern Sinai for three months. The government closed the Rafah border crossing indefinitely and postponed talks between Palestinians and Israel over the Gaza ceasefire.
El-Sissi promised to respond to the latest attack with force. Those involved in terrorism will now be tried before military courts and the government is considering plans to build a protective wall along its borders with Gaza. Extreme measures will also be considered including the relocation of tens of thousands of citizens from their homes close to Gaza.
The war on terror has become El-Sissi’s most urgent mission. He was elected on the premise that he would rescue the country from the state of lawlessness and chaos that led millions to call for Mursi’s ouster last year. With his military background, El-Sissi was viewed as Egypt’s strong savior. His crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood was cheered by most Egyptians and brought him closer to moderate Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Jordan. Even though Washington criticized the removal of Mursi, El-Sissi was able to withstand western pressures and eventually mend relations with the United States, while bringing Cairo closer to Moscow.
The extended military operation in Sinai constituted a challenge for the new regime. In spite of dispatching thousands of troops to northern Sinai and carrying out special missions to hunt down ABM operatives, the state of instability continued. The extremists were able to elude the army and plan and execute attacks against checkpoints, personnel carriers and police stations, resulting in many deaths. Even when the army destroyed most tunnels linking Sinai to Gaza and created a buffer zone along the border, smugglers associated with militants continued to be active making use of the massive desert, difficult terrain and the long border with Israel. For decades that part of Sinai presented a problem for Egyptian security because locals were involved in cross-border drug and weapon smuggling.
Friday’s attack could signal a major change in the dynamics of the fight. Egyptian media talked about links between ABM and the Islamic State (IS). Newsweek magazine claimed that IS has opened a new front in Sinai. It said that ABM now shares the same IS vision of a worldwide “Islamic” caliphate. It is no wonder that the Egyptian government is now asking regional allies for help in its war in Sinai.
The link between ABM and IS in Sinai will be a game changer. Egypt is part of the coalition fighting IS in Iraq and Syria. In return for joining the alliance it had asked that its efforts to fight local terror be supported. The US has provided it with gunships and security cooperation with Egypt’s neighbors, including Israel, will now increase considerably.
On the other hand, last Friday’s bloody attack will tighten the grip of the army and police on Egyptian affairs even further. In the aftermath of last week’s carnage pro-government newspaper editors announced that they would take measures to prevent the publication of anything that could be considered as an incitement against the army or state institutions. TV stations promised to do the same and took some broadcasters off the air.
The war in Sinai will be long and costly and its effects will reverberate across Egypt and the region. Furthermore, those who believe the regime should seek a political settlement with the Muslim Brotherhood to end the local mayhem will find no room to voice their opinions.
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