Sinai terror attack serves as a bloody wake up call for Egypt's new president
Senior Haaretz analyst Avi Issacharoff says Mohammed Morsi now faces the major challenge of combating jihadists in the lawless desert peninsula.
ON THE ISRAEL-EGYPT BORDER - The Egyptian military operation in northeastern Sinai, which began in the early hours of Wednesday morning, is completely different from the pattern of action - or, more accurately, inaction - that Israel has grown accustomed to seeing in recent years.
Even after the suicide attacks on some of Sinai's most popular tourist sites along the Red Sea in 2004, and a rash of terrorist attacks and attempted attacks in subsequent years, the Egyptian army preferred to devote most of its efforts to maintaining quiet on the coastal strip. The center and north of Sinai were neglected, apart from small-scale raids that led to the arrest of a few dozen people, who were afterward released.
However, the killing of 16 members of the Egyptian security forces this week generated a sense of genuine crisis at the highest levels in Cairo. The attack by armed assailants against an Egyptian border police post, about two kilometers from the Israeli border - at the start of the iftar meal that breaks the daily Ramadan fast - was taken in the capital as a concrete declaration of war, not only by elements of the global jihadist movement but also by their Bedouin henchmen in Sinai. On Wednesday at 3:20 A.M., Egyptian forces received the go-ahead to launch an extensive search at two sites considered to be Islamist bastions: the villages of A-Touma and Jabal Halal. The ground forces, aboard armored vehicles, were supported by the air force, which bombed several targets. The result, according to Egyptian media, was about 20 terrorists killed and a few dozen people wounded.
The images from A-Touma evoked memories of the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead: groups of people outside hospitals, wearing the traditional galabias of the region, milling around and waiting for the arrival of ambulances carrying casualties of the army's action - this time, the Egyptian army.
For the Egyptians to eradicate the terrorist cells in Sinai, they need to embark on a series of operations that they are probably unprepared to carry out. These would involve large-scale arrests, the assassination of terrorist activists, the creation of an intelligence network in Sinai, a campaign to stop the smuggling via tunnels into Gaza and Sinai, and the inflicting of punishment on those who abet terrorism, even at the most basic level.
Do President Mohammed Morsi and the Supreme Military Council have the motivation and ability to carry out such measures? During basic training, every Israeli soldier hears the expression: "There is no such thing as can't; there is only won't."
In a speech to the nation, Morsi promised that the perpetrators of the border attack would pay dearly for their deeds. He quickly convened the Supreme Military Council, whose support he needs to consolidate his standing not only as a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood but also as the president of all Egyptians.
Targeting the tunnels
At present, Morsi and the military have to deal with both Islamist terror in Sinai and also a rampant sense of insecurity felt by Egyptians across the country. For example, for the past two weeks there have been clashes between Christian Copts and Muslims in the town of Dahshur, about 20 kilometers south of Cairo. The unrest began when a Copt who owns a laundry got into an argument with a Muslim client about the ironing of a shirt. The argument deteriorated into a fistfight, from there to a brawl between families, and then to violent clashes between adherents of the two religions in the town. One Muslim was killed after being hit by a Molotov cocktail. Since then, the Muslims have been harassing the Copts. A few days ago, most of the Christian families left and found shelter in neighboring villages.
There is a rare consensus in Egypt about the need to take action in Sinai. The massacre of security forces in the holy month constitutes the crossing of a red line for all of Egypt's leading parties - indeed, even for some of the residents of Sinai, and certainly among the tribes that are not affiliated with the jihadist organizations.
Morsi, then, will be able to use considerable force to restore government control in Sinai. The problem is that to accomplish this, he has to do more than declare war on some of the leading tribes in northern Sinai. He also has to target the smuggling tunnels into and out of the Gaza Strip. The tunnels provide a livelihood for tens of thousands of people in Sinai and Gaza. They also facilitate the movement of the global jihadists between Gaza and Sinai, allow them to acquire arms easily and enable them to disappear if needed.
This is a sensitive subject for Morsi. The tunnels are a key source of revenue for the Gaza Strip as a whole, and for the Hamas government in particular. Their closure will lead to a large-scale loss of income for Hamas and thereby also reduce its ability to acquire weapons. Protests will be held in Gaza against Egypt - and this at a time when the Muslim Brotherhood, the umbrella organization of Hamas, is in power in Cairo.
Large military reinforcements, accompanied by heavy machinery, began to arrive at the Egyptian side of the tunnels area on Tuesday. The message to Hamas was clear: You did not prevent the entry of terror activists from Gaza into Sinai, you ignored intelligence that was passed on from Cairo about the intention of members of the global jihadist movement to enter Sinai via the tunnels - and now we intend to act.
Hamas leaders panicked at the thought of Egypt blocking the tunnels. To demonstrate their complete control of the situation, they immediately closed the tunnels from the Gaza side. At the same time, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh tried to lay the blame for the attack on Israel.
The deputy head of Hamas' political bureau, Moussa Abu Marzouk, noted that there are about 1,200 active tunnels between the Egyptian and Palestinian sections of Rafah. He added that closing them would constitute collective punishment against all Gazans. As Haaretz went to press, Morsi had yet to give a green light for the commencement of a campaign against the tunnels. In the meantime, intensive talks are underway between Hamas and Egypt on the need to step up supervision of the tunnels, and possibly to reduce their number.
On Tuesday morning, when Egypt closed the Rafah checkpoint and Hamas shut down the tunnels, the Kerem Shalom crossing - through which goods enter the Gaza Strip from Israel - was reopened. Israel is ensuring that goods enter Gaza. Long lines of trucks, some of them carrying new Kia cars, others laden with refrigerators, waited to make the crossing. The first truck in line carried children's snacks.
About 100 meters from the crossing, Israeli workers were repairing the fence that was damaged when a booby-trapped truck exploded at the site on Sunday, immediately after an armored vehicle stolen by the terrorists from the Egyptian police breached the fence. It is not clear what went awry in the terrorists' plan. The truck was not supposed to explode at the fence; the premature explosion may have been caused by a technical problem or by a misjudgment by one of the terrorists.
On the other side of the fence, a few Egyptian soldiers watched the Israelis work on the fence. One of them tried to operate his mobile radio. He apparently got no answer and spent more than 20 minutes fiddling with the antenna. Most of the Egyptian forces that arrived in the area as reinforcements were transferred to the north, along the Gaza-Egypt border. Manned Egyptian posts, at about 500-meter intervals, were also visible to the south. The Egyptian soldiers in them look westward, on the lookout for attacks by Bedouin or global jihadist assailants.
The deployment on the Israeli side is also different from what it was just a few months ago. In addition to the hastily built security fence, large forces are also stationed along the border. A few new entrenched outposts have been built, and the Israeli soldiers look ready for battle.
On Wednesday evening, intelligence sources in Israel and Egypt still had no specific information about the terrorists' identities. The Egyptians asked a few tribal leaders in northern Sinai to find out whether any of the dead terrorists were members of their tribes. The Egyptian military operation is dependent, in no small measure, on the tribal chiefs' willingness to cooperate.
The staging ground for most of the armed attacks on the Egyptian army is northeastern Sinai, principally the area closest to the Gaza Strip. The marauders are not only a collection of Al-Qaida and global jihad militants. Some are from the local population, which has cut itself off from Cairo and become religiously extreme. In contrast, the tribes in southern Sinai, and those who remain along the Red Sea coast, cooperate with the authorities and enjoy tourist revenues. The northeast of the peninsula is considered poor and backward, and therefore of greater potential in terms of the recruitment of terrorists and smugglers.
In the 1980s, more than 40 tribes were counted in northern Sinai, incorporated in 12 groups - which accord them their "national" identity. The leading tribes are the Sawarka and Armilat. Another group that plays a significant role in Sinai consists of resident fellahin. Even inhabitants of cities such as El Arish operated in clan-like units. These cities are home to the majority of the Palestinian population of northern Sinai.
In the past few years, Salafists who were active in the mosques in El Arish, Sheikh Zuweid, A-Touma and elsewhere moved into northern Sinai. More and more men with untrimmed beards, sporting black Al-Qaida-style robes and distinctively shaped hats were seen on Sinai's Mediterranean shore. The collapse of the Mubarak regime last year offered the extreme Islamists an opportunity to operate openly in northern Sinai, given the absence of Egyptian security forces.
In addition to the challenge posed by the religious extremists, the Egyptian regime will now also have to cope with the tens of thousands of Bedouin whose livelihood derives from smuggling goods into Gaza and aiding terrorists. These smuggling networks, the same ones that collaborated with criminal elements in Israel, cannot allow the Egyptian security forces to restore control in Sinai.
On Wednesday, Morsi continued to rebrand himself as a president with authority. He fired his intelligence chief, Murad Muwafi - one of the most powerful figures in the security establishment. His replacement (temporarily ) is Mohammed Shehata, who was heavily involved in the handover of Gilad Shalit last October.
Shehata has maintained close ties with the Israeli defense establishment of late, but he also knows Hamas and Fatah on the Palestinian side well. His appointment will certainly not weaken security coordination between Israel and Egypt, which continued even after Morsi assumed the presidency. Precisely in the era in which the Muslim Brotherhood is ruling Egypt, unusually successful security cooperation is being recorded between the two countries. A senior Israeli source said this week it was the best and warmest period in terms of security cooperation between the sides.