Egypt Cabinet Passes Anti-terrorism Laws Amid Deadliest Sinai Battle in 40 Years

Contradicting earlier reports, army says at least 100 militants and 17 troops were killed in North Sinai.

File photo of Egyptian army patrol in Sheikh Zuweyid, North Sinai, Egypt, 2013.
File photo of Egyptian army patrol in Sheikh Zuweyid, North Sinai, Egypt, 2013. AP

Egypt's general command for the armed forces said on Wednesday the army had killed at least 100 militants in North Sinai, after the militants attacked military checkpoints in the region.

The statement, which was aired on state television, said 17 soldiers, including four officers, were also killed. Thirteen soldiers were also wounded. The general command said it will not stop until Sinai is free of all "terrorist concentrations."

The official statement however contradicts reports that cited unnamed Egyptian security officials and said that more than 64 troops have been killed while fighting militants in the northern Sinai in what appears to be the deadliest battle on the peninsula since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

The army said five checkpoints in Sinai were attacked by about 70 militants and that soldiers had destroyed three landcruisers fitted with anti-aircraft guns. Security sources said the militants had planned to lay siege to Sheikh Zuweid town, where most of the fighting has been concentrated, by hitting all army checkpoints simultaneously. "But we have dealt with them and broke the siege on Sheikh Zuweid," one of the sources said.

The attack was claimed by an affiliate of the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Sinai-based militants have stepped up attacks on Egyptian security forces since the 2013 military ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

The Israeli army has raised the alert level in the area for fear of terror attacks on the Egypt-Israel border. Under the terms of Egypt's 1979 peace accord with Israel, the Sinai is largely demilitarized. But Israel has regularly agreed to Egypt bringing in reinforcements to tackle the Sinai insurgency, and one Israeli official signaled there could be further such deployments following Wednesday's attacks. 

Egypt cabinet approves anti-terrorism laws

Also on Wednesday, Egypt's cabinet approved draft anti-terrorism and election laws, the transitional justice minister said.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi had promised a tougher legal system on Tuesday, after a car-bomb attack that killed the top public prosecutor, the highest-level state official to be killed in years.

The Cabinet said in a statement that the anti-terrorism legislation would provide "quick and just deterrence" against terrorism. It said there were also measures that would dry up the avenues of terrorism funding.

The statement said it had approved a "package of draft laws that achieve swift justice and retribution for our martyrs", without providing further details.

The insurgency, which has killed hundreds of soldiers and police, has intensified since then-army chief Sissi ousted the Islamist president Mohamed Morsi after mass protests against his rule in 2013.

Sissi has since overseen a crackdown on Islamists. Thousands of alleged Islamist supporters have been jailed and scores have been sentenced to death, some in mass trials. Morsi and other senior Muslim Brotherhood figures have been sentenced to death.

The government considers the Brotherhood a terrorist group and does not distinguish between it and other militants. The Brotherhood, which says it rejected the killing of the public prosecutor, Hisham Barakat, says it is committed to peaceful activism.

In February, Sissi signed off on an anti-terrorism law that gives authorities more sweeping powers to ban groups on charges ranging from harming national unity to disrupting public order.

The "Terrorist Entities" law enables authorities to act against any individual or group deemed a threat to national security, including people who disrupt public transportation, an apparent reference to protests.

The cabinet also approved a slew of election-related laws, opening the way to setting a date for a long-delayed parliamentary election.

Egypt's parliamentary poll was due in March, but was delayed after the Constitutional Court ruled part of an election law unconstitutional.

The election is the final step in a political roadmap that the army had announced in July 2013.

The draft election laws include legislation on electoral districts. The new law allocated 448 seats to individuals and 120 seats to lists. The previous law had allocated 420 seats to individuals and 120 through winner-takes-all lists with quotas for women, Christians and youth.

The laws have to be approved by the president.