IN A lethal attack in late January, radical Sunni militants killed some 40 Egyptian soldiers and security personnel, most of them in the city of El Arish in northern Sinai.The attackers were members of a group called Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which recently declared its affiliation to the jihadi Islamic State active in war-torn Syria and Iraq. Its declared goal is to widen the war against what it sees as corrupt Arab regimes to include Egypt in the Sinai theater.In a major operation a week later, Egyptian forces killed 47 militants. Yet despite the intensity of the campaign it is waging against the Jihadists, the Egyptian army’s complex war in Sinai is far from over. The outcome will have far-reaching domestic and regional repercussions, and will impact on developments in Egypt and on neighboring countries, including Israel.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s remarkable New Year speech at Cairo’s al-Azhar University reflected the enormity of the challenge the Egyptian regime faces and its effort to claim the moral and theological high ground. Al-Sisi lambasted radical Islam as a perversion of true religion. “It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma (Islamic world) to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world,” he declared. And he called on Egypt’s religious authorities to redefine the principles of the true faith. “I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. Honorable Imam [the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar] you are responsible before Allah. The entire world awaits your words because the Islamic nation is being torn apart, destroyed…” Sinai, with its wide-open spaces and years of neglect was fertile ground for radical penetration. For decades various groups and organizations exploited the topographic conditions and the sparse security presence to conduct illegal trafficking of goods, weapons, drugs, migrant workers and even prostitutes.After Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai in the early 1980s, the Egyptians drew up dozens of ambitious plans for developing the region but, save for a few tourist projects, very little materialized. The level of unemployment among the local Bedouin population grew rapidly, as did a profound sense of alienation from the Egyptian authorities. Smuggling into the Gaza Strip and Israel became a prime source of income for thousands of families.The fall of President Hosni Mubarak in February in 2011 led to a serious decline in internal security in Egypt, especially in the outlying areas. The army, which took over the government, concentrated on reasserting control over the urban districts. The chaotic situation further afield was exploited by militant Islamic groups to establish themselves in Sinai. Hundreds of jihadis flocked to the ranks of Ansar, including many young Bedouin.There was a dramatic increase in weapons smuggling into Gaza. Army and police installations came under intensive attack. There were reports of abortive attempts to fire on ships crossing the Suez Canal. The gas pipeline from Egypt through Sinai to Israel and Jordan was frequently sabotaged. On several occasions, targets in Israel came under attack from Sinai.Soon after Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brothers assumed the presidency in June 2012, 17 Egyptian officers and border policemen were killed in an Ansar raid that sent shock waves across Egypt. The Egyptian army announced “Operation Eagle” to search for and destroy terrorist bases in Sinai. With Israel’s tacit consent, the Egyptians sent in forces of a size and caliber far in excess of what the military annex to the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace agreement allowed.The reinforced Egyptian army intensified its operations along the border with Gaza. The Rafah border crossing was largely closed; dozens of smuggling tunnels were located and sealed; hundreds of young Bedouin were arrested; travel restrictions were imposed. All these steps, however, came at a price – increased tension between the local population and the Egyptian authorities.Against the background of Operation Eagle, profound differences of opinion emerged between the army high command and Morsi over who controls policy on national security. The wide powers he arrogated and his decision to replace almost the entire army high command and the top internal security establishment encountered widespread opposition. In the public discourse, Morsi was sharply criticized for alleged Islamization of the institutions of government, moving closer to Hamas in Gaza and releasing scores of imprisoned jihadi activists. Criticism of the Muslim Brothers became even more severe after Morsi’s overthrow in July 2013, until it was eventually branded an illegal organization.Just over a year and half has elapsed since al-Sisi led the army takeover and nine months since he published his “map of the future” designed to extricate Egypt from the deep political, economic and social morass into which it has fallen. From the moment he took over, al-Sisi was hailed as Egypt’s savior and the public support he received paved his way to the presidency in June 2014. The hopes of millions of Egyptians were that the president/ general would quickly restore law and order, and find a way to rehabilitate the flagging economy.But the repeated attacks on the Egyptian forces in Sinai and acts of sabotage in Egyptian cities show that al-Sisi’s mission is far from over. Moreover, we cannot discount the possibility that his iron-fist policy toward the Muslim Brothers might lead to further radicalization in its ranks and further exacerbate the deep religion-based divide in Egyptian society.A similarly uncompromising campaign against the Muslim Brothers was waged in Egypt 60 years ago. The confrontation then between the “Free Officers” regime led by Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Muslim Brothers was a watershed in the struggle for power in Egypt. It led to a rift within the Brothers organization over legitimate means of opposition against a repressive regime. In a series of writings, Sayyid Qutb, one of the most prominent leaders of the movement, argued the case for radical armed struggle. His trial and execution established his status as a martyr and his writings constitute a guide for radical jihadi groups both in and out of Egypt to this day.The struggle to restore internal security in Egypt as a whole, and in Sinai in particular, is at the top of the Sisi government’s priorities.This has already had a significant impact on Egypt’s relations with Hamas-ruled Gaza. The Egyptian military presence along the Egypt-Gaza border is at unprecedented levels; thousands of families have been evacuated from the border area to establish a buffer zone; passage through the Rafah crossing point is at a virtual standstill; and a Cairo court has defined the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, as a terrorist organization.The steps taken by the Egyptian army in Sinai have broad public support. The weak point in the government’s position is the linkage it makes between militant groups and political opponents, including Muslim Brothers activists and civil society groups that led the uprising against Mubarak. The latter see in the harsh measures taken by the al-Sisi regime a return to the old-style authoritarian ways. On the other hand, the ongoing struggle against terror has created a sense of national emergency, which helps the al-Sisi regime justify its toppling of an elected president, as well as the tough measures it is taking against its political rivals.As for Israel, Morsi’s overthrow and the return of the generals with some of the senior people in the old Mubarak regime to positions of power was enthusiastically welcomed.Military and intelligence coordination and cooperation was significantly increased; Israel took diplomatic and PR steps to minimize international criticism of the Egyptian regime’s excesses; it also observed with great satisfaction the change in Egypt’s position on Hamas and its resolute struggle against the militant groups in Sinai.For now, Egyptian and Israeli leaders are not saying anything on the scale and nature of the Egyptian military presence in Sinai once it achieves its current anti-jihadi goals.Egypt will probably insist on maintaining large forces in Sinai indefinitely to prevent future militant activity in the potentially volatile peninsula. From an Egyptian point of view, an irreversible military reality in Sinai is being established.How this might affect Israel-Egypt ties over time remains to be seen. Prof. Yoram Meital is the chairman of the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev