Egypt's Offensive Pits 'Mr. Security' Against the 'Sinai's Bin Laden'

The attack on Egyptian forces allows newly-elected president Morsi to rebrand himself as a daring national leader, but troubles at home are blowing down his neck.

Avi Issacharoff
Avi Issacharoff
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Avi Issacharoff
Avi Issacharoff

Quite a bit has been written and said about the how problematic the timing of the Sinai attack was for the new Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. The attack on an Egyptian police station that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers forced the president to respond to a complex and complicated reality that has taken root in Sinai – and perhaps even to confront Hamas over the tunnels connecting Gaza and Egypt.

Yet an closer look at the events that unfolded over the last few days may offer an opposite impression: Morsi used the attack as an opportunity to achieve a central goal – "Operation Eagle" – an Egyptian military initiative in the peninsula that helped rebrand the president and paint him as "Mr. Security." The battles raging on the ground distance him from his long-standing image as a Muslim Brotherhood leader and show him in a new light – a president who dared do what his predecessors didn't even try – go to war over the control of Sinai.

It should be noted that on the domestic front, Morsi's situation is far from optimal. The Egyptian public is looking for a scapegoat to blame for the power outages that crippled the country last week; the clashes between Muslim and Copts are far from over, and the chaos on the streets is far from subsiding. And all this is taking place on a backdrop of a deteriorating economic crisis.

The decision made by the Brotherhood-dominated parliament to fire and replace dozens of newspaper editors prompted a wave of criticism against the ruling party, with some parties and political organizations calling on Facebook for a mass rally to be held on August 24 against what they call "The General Guide State" (the Muslim Brotherhood leader is called "The General Guide)." Organizers also plan to protest the attempts to turn Egypt into a Sharia state (still, many parties have announced they will not take part in the rally).

Morsi, of course, prefers to focus his efforts in areas in which he is likely to succeed. In only three days, he has visited northern Sinai twice, toured the area with defense minister Gen. Hussein Tantawi, met with soldiers and even had Iftar dinner with them to break the Ramadan fast. On Friday, he met with Egypt's military chief of staff Sami Anan, who updated him on the operation.

In these three days, more and more information has been leaked to the Arab and Egyptian media, detailing the military's success in the El Arish and Sheikh Zouaid areas. One of the reports claimed that the "Bin Laden of Sinai" had been arrested.

According to the report, the man in question is 62-year-old cleric Silmi al-Hamadeen, who was arrested alongside other leaders of a suspected Jihadist group which operated in northeastern Sinai and was responsible for several attempted terror attacks, as well as weapons smuggling. The group had also tried to bomb the police station in Sheikh Zouaid.

It seems that only two days since the launch of "Operation Eagle," Morsi and Tantawi managed to arrest the man purported to be the most dangerous terrorist in Sinai. Yet despite reports of the arrest of five to nine terrorists (and their transfer to a Cairo court) and the killing of about 60 armed men, it is safe to say that it will take months – not days – to eradicate the extreme Islamist terror organizations in Sinai. Morsi will be forced to undertake major efforts to prevent further attacks on Egyptian or Israeli soldiers, with the tunnels between Sinai and Egypt remaining the most complex challenge.

According to a DPA report on Saturday, Hamas and Egypt have been discussing the establishment of a free trade zone as a countermeasure to the sealing of the tunnels. This is, naturally, only a partial solution that is not guaranteed to eliminate the tunnel activity. Morsi will have to order his men to close the tunnels by force – a move that not only may fail – it may draw harsh criticism from the Brotherhood and Hamas for targeting the livelihood of so many Palestinians and Egyptians. And yet the killing of 16 Egyptian soldiers gives Morsi the green light to do almost whatever he wishes to punish those responsible, and to prevent further attacks.

However, the flurry of reports only adds to the sense that someone in Cairo is preparing an extensive operation against the tunnels. One Egyptian commentator wrote in Al-Ahram newspaper on Saturday that the key to a solution in Sinai is "the tunnels, the tunnels, as well as the tunnels." Meanwhile, a top Egyptian official told the London-based Al-Hayat that although Egypt does not suspect the involvement of Hamas' military wing operatives in the attack, the perpetrators passed through tunnels that are under the supervision of that Hamas arm. According to Hamas activists, the identity of the operatives was known. At this point it is difficult to predict how the organization will respond, at least until a press conference which has been scheduled for Sunday.

A boy walks near army trucks carrying tanks and vehicles at Rafah city, northeast of Cairo, August 9, 2012.Credit: Reuters

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