The Egyptian government announced on Saturday that, in cooperation with Israel, it has started deploying troops in the northern Sinai Peninsula in order to stop the anarchy and terror there.
The news from Cairo sounded like it was coming from another place and time, perhaps near the end of the Hosni Mubarak era. Gen. Omar Suleiman, former head of Egyptian military intelligence during the deposed leader's reign, also announced his candidacy for the presidency on Saturday.
In both cases, while the news was apparently good from Israel's point of view, it might be better not to hold your breath. Egypt's loss of control in Sinai (Katyusha rockets were fired on Eilat on Wednesday night ), is too serious to be stopped in one go. And the shift in Egyptian public opinion over the last year has been so extreme in the wake of the Mubarak regime's fall that it is hard to see how Suleiman, one of its members, could put the brakes on the rising wave of Islamism.
Security sources in Egypt confirmed the announcement by the head of Egypt's forces in Sinai, Gen. Salah al-Masri, that Cairo was undertaking a broad campaign in Sinai to enforce law and order.
Al-Masri said the Egyptian interior ministry had reinforced its presence there with 150 police officers and members of special forces and other units, along with dozens of armored cars, in order to secure the main road between El Arish and Rafah; maintain control of the area close to the Israeli border; and defend the natural gas pipeline to Israel and Jordan, which has repeatedly been sabotaged over the last year.
Egyptian sources told Haaretz that the campaign that began on Thursday included deployment of forces on problematic roads and the approaches to them, as well as near the Israeli border. It is not clear whether the effort is connected to the rockets on Eilat, but it can be assumed that if the campaign is as broad as the Egyptians say, it was planned before they were fired.
Beyond the points already elucidated by the Egyptians, they confirmed that they had recently arrived at an agreement with Israel on the entrance of seven army battalions into Sinai, within the framework of the accords between the governments on military activity for the purpose of restoring order in the area.
According to Egyptian sources, there is no intention of introducing the battalions - a total of 2,500 to 3,000 soldiers - at one time, but rather gradually. Israeli military sources say that this merely amounts to a renewal of fixed agreements between the sides that were made some time ago.
Egyptian sources also say the campaign was launched because the situation in Sinai is likely to pose a serious threat to the security situation inside the rest of the country. In recent weeks, there have been numerous reports of attacks by armed Bedouin and other militias active within Sinai, even against Egyptian soldiers.
In a few cases Egyptian soldiers were kidnapped, as were several European tourists. The low point arrived when hundreds of armed men surrounded the International Peacekeeping Forces base and threatened to attack its inhabitants if five prisoners were not released.
The Cairo government is aware of the fact that, of the hundreds of armed forces active in Sinai today, some are backed by Iran as well as militias identified with the World Jihad (Al Qaida and its satellites ). Members of the Israeli security establishment recently criticized the inaction of Egypt's ruling military council against developments in Sinai as purposeful neglect.
Israel remains skeptical about the Egyptian announcements, although it sees them as positive signs. At the same time, the willingness of the military council to openly declare war on terror organizations that seek to strike at Israel, exactly when heavily freighted elections for the presidency are being conducted - in which every contact with Israel (or the West ) is perceived as a betrayal - should not be belittled.
The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, published photos of Omar Suleiman in the company of Israeli VIPs over the weekend, as part of its mudslinging campaign against him. Suleiman's candidacy does not pose a real threat to the Muslim Brotherhood, and will eat into the votes for another secular candidate, Amr Moussa. However, the Islamist movement apparently seeks to provoke hostility toward anyone identified with the old regime, and indirectly with a connection to Israel.
In any case, the Muslim Brotherhood should definitely be pleased with the events that took place over the weekend. On Saturday, the central elections committee in Egypt announced that the mother of one of its biggest rivals for the presidency - the Salafist Sheikh Hazem Salah Abu Ismail - is an American citizen. According to a new Egyptian law, the partners and the parents of presidential candidates are forbidden to bear foreign citizenship.
Abu Ismail had emerged as one of the more prominent candidates attracting religious voters, mainly at the expense of the brotherhood candidate, Khairat el-Shater, and the more moderate Islamist, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh.
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