SOLDIERS IN A CONVOY .
(photo credit: REUTERS)
After spectacular attacks mounted against police and army targets in Sinai by Islamic terrorist organization Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis left dozens of dead and wounded late on Thursday, there was an outpouring of support for the army, probably the most popular organization in Egypt.
“I am an Egyptian soldier” trended on social networks.
Nevertheless, some hard questions are being asked.
Why can’t the Egyptian army, arguably the strongest and largest Arab army in the Middle East, defeat a terrorist organization in an integral part of the country, the Sinai Peninsula? After all, the regime rushed huge reinforcements to the area, including helicopters, armored personnel carriers and other heavy equipment. The media in Egypt, which enjoys greater freedom than in the past, is vocal in its criticism of the president, who came from the ranks of the army and had pledged to eradicate terrorism.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi immediately cut short his visit to Addis Ababa, where he was attending the annual summit of the organization of African Unity to deal with the situation. The fact is that in the 18 months since the ouster of the Muslim Brothers, Islamic terrorist organizations in the Sinai Peninsula have vastly developed their operations. They have united under the banner of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis and have demonstrated that they can be highly effective. Last October, an attack on an army post left 31 soldiers dead. A night curfew was imposed on Northern Sinai and a buffer zone 1,000 meters deep along the Gaza Strip was created, its inhabitants being forced to relocate. Though they did receive compensation, the move deepened the hostility felt by local Bedouin against the regime.
The army has met with some success. Some 1,850 contraband tunnels were destroyed, hundreds of terrorists killed or jailed. In the past few weeks there appeared to be a marked decline in terrorist attacks; at the same time, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis declared its allegiance to the Islamic State and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and took the name of “Sinai Province.”
It was under this name that it took responsibility for Thursday’s attacks.
Throughout Egypt, police stations, government buildings, power lines and other strategic facilities are targeted by explosive devices. Though the overall damage is slight, the population feels threatened, and economic development in hampered. The Muslim Brotherhood regularly tries to organize mass protests.
While they attract fewer and fewer participants, they are becoming more violent, leading to aggressive repression by exasperated security forces. The president still has the situation well in hand, and his efforts to develop the economy are bearing fruit; his popularity is still very high.
It has become only too apparent that after 18 months of intensive efforts in Sinai, the army still does not know how to fight guerrillas.
The problem of course is that the Egyptian army was never properly trained for that type of warfare – not by its own commanders and not through American military assistance. That assistance included training in military academies in the US (Gen. Sisi attended such an institution) and joint military exercises.
However the focus was on classical warfare – a type of warfare not relevant in the Middle East today.
Furthermore, though the Egyptian army is fighting on Egyptian territory, it has to deal in Sinai with a largely hostile Bedouin population that shows no disposition to cooperate with a central government which has ignored them for decades. This was to prove a fertile ground first for Hamas, which during the Mubarak years set up with the help of the Bedouin contraband routes to bring missiles and weapons from Sudan to Gaza. Today there is an added danger coming with jihadists crossing from Libya to join Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis and bringing with them missiles and weapons pillaged from Muammar Gaddafi’s arsenal.
Urgent measures are needed to help Egypt overcome a terrorist threat which is now compounded by the presence of an outpost of Islamic State in Sinai and the flux of militants from other zones.
Unfortunately Cairo’s long term ally, America, in spite of the many military assistance agreements it entered with Cairo following the peace treaty with Israel, is dragging its feet and has yet to restore fully its military cooperation, put on hold following the army takeover. Egypt is not receiving the help it so desperately need to maintain its stability.
The Obama administration still supports the Brotherhood, claiming that far from being a terrorist organization it is an authentic and legitimate political current of Islam. Only last week a delegation composed of members of the Brotherhood who fled Egypt in the wake of their ouster was received at the State Department. The photo- op went viral.
When will the West – and America – finally understand that a prolonged and bloody conflict in Sinai will ineluctably affect all countries in the region and threaten not only Israel but Europe, where heightened tension is already felt – and ultimately the United States itself? The writer, a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.