The Egyptian military spokesman said Monday that the army thwarted a car bombing likely targeting a church and a military camp.
Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali said that three military vehicles took part in the raid against the militants, who were forced to flee, leaving behind a vehicle full of explosives, bullets and rocket-propelled grenades, as reported by the AP.
It has not been confirmed who the militants were, but reports indicate that they were most likely jihadists.
Rafah’s Coptic Christians were celebrating Christmas on Monday as the attempted attack only caused them to worry even more about their vulnerability since Islamists came to power in Egypt. Many Christians have already fled the city and left the Holy Family Church, which has not been used since the uprisings began, according to the report.
Meanwhile, the Egyptian pope called for Egyptians to “not be afraid” during Christmas ceremonies.
Later on Monday, Egypt’s State Information Service denied rumors that the army had halted its operation.
The Daily Beast reported that Western officials believe that foreign jihadis from Yemen and Somalia may be among several hundred extremists operating in the Sinai. The story quoted unnamed Egyptian military sources who claim that they are “outgunned” in the Sinai.
This follows news from last week that Egypt stopped the smuggling of missiles through tunnels into Gaza.
Michael Vickers, the US Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, arrived in Cairo Sunday for two days of meetings to discuss the security situation in Sinai.
Prof. Meir Litvak of the Department of Middle Eastern History and the Director for the Alliance Center of Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University says that it is in Morsi’s interest to take control of the Sinai and destroy the jihadist elements there.
“No government likes to have a no-man’s land, and no government can tolerate it.” For Hamas, however, “this suits their interests, since they can take advantage of the Sinai situation to smuggle weapons or to launch attacks against Israel,” he said.
Litvak added that Morsi is “afraid that he will be dragged into a war with Israel,” and at this time he “needs stability in order to get badly needed loans,” due to Egypt’s dire economic situation.
“Egypt needs tourists, and a war would be a political and economic disaster for Egypt right now.”
Joshua Goodman, a PhD student at Yale who has been studying Beduin in Israel and Sinai for the past four years, thinks that one of the problems in the Sinai is that the Beduin have historically been disregarded by the Egyptian state.
The lack of resources for “tribesmen in North Sinai pushed them to develop mechanisms for self-reliance, in comparison to the Beduin in the South Sinai, who have for the most part become dependent on state services, and where there is more stability than in the north."
Goodman adds that there is a difference between how the Saudis and Iran see Islamism.
For the Saudis “Islamism is about legitimizing the status quo, for Iran it is about legitimizing revolution and changes to the status quo. In Sinai, Salafism became a popular ideology, especially among the Beduin, precisely because of this revolutionary aspect of going against the state.”
The violence by the Salafists in Rafah is “an attempt to demonstrate their dominance over more moderate forms of Islamism. In this way it is a direct challenge to the regime.”
He adds that the Salafis and the Beduin do not necessarily have the same interests, and clashes have already occurred because of various issues such as human and drug trafficking.