Over the weekend, 30 Egyptian soldiers were killed and 31 wounded in one of the worst terrorist attacks in the past year in northern Sinai. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi reacted with a stark declaration, saying terrorism was an existential threat and that Egypt will fight it till it is eradicated.
Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis is at the forefront of Jihadi groups grimly determined to throw the country into chaos. The army is making an all-out effort to eliminate all Islamist terrorist movements, and claims to have killed some 600 insurgents and to have destroyed many of their strongholds, seizing huge amounts of arms and explosives – last week it estimated the number of underground tunnels blown up or closed at 1,875.
Those were heavy blows to the terrorists, but they are securely entrenched among the population in the north of the peninsula, and they can depend on their extensive networks of Beduin in the area.
Furthermore, they are being reinforced by a steady stream of men and material coming through all Egypt’s borders. It can be said that to a certain extent, Egypt is under siege, with the Gaza Strip functioning as the logistic hub.
Gaza has the capacity to develop and produce weapons, to package explosives and to train terrorists before infiltrating them to the peninsula through the tunnels, of which there are always enough left for that purpose.
However, an ever-growing number of fighters and ammunition are coming in through the borders with Libya and Sudan. The border between Egypt and Libya runs across 1,200 km. of deserts and mountains, making monitoring near impossible, the more so since strife-torn Libya is no longer functioning as a sovereign state.
Its capital city has been partially taken over by Islamic and tribal militias, its parliament and its government have fled to Tobruk, not far from the Egyptian border. Many jihadi terrorists, among them some who came from Syria and Iraq, can be found all along that border.
Dozens of Egyptians soldiers have been killed in recent months in a number of clashes with insurgents infiltrating from Libya. And if that was not enough, more arms and more rebels are coming in from Sudan, through its 400-km.- long border with Libya.
There could also be Iranian weapons still reaching the Sinai Peninsula. Iran is intent on destabilizing Egypt, even if it entails aiding extremist Sunni movements as it did with al-Qaida in the past.
During the Mubarak era, extensive smuggling networks were left to grow in Egypt as a whole and in the Sinai Peninsula, in the mistaken belief that it was a problem for Israel alone. It was a costly mistake, for which Egypt is paying dearly.
Sisi was confident he could depend on America’s assistance to fight the threat of terror.
However, instead of cooperating with Cairo, the White House, still smarting over the ouster of former president Muhammad Morsi and of the Muslim Brothers, declared an embargo on arms for Egypt.
The recent visit of the Egyptian president to Washington and his meeting with his American counterpart did not bring a thaw. Obama allegedly quizzed Sisi over human rights in Egypt. The Egyptian president retaliated by saying he would join the coalition against Islamic State but would not send troops, since they were badly needed to defend his country against terror.
Relations between the two countries are still fraught, though America is now grudgingly dispatching ten Apache helicopters that were meant to have been delivered a year ago.
Deprived of the support of his country’s former staunchest ally, Sisi had to look elsewhere.
He is in the process of setting up his own coalition with North African countries facing the threat coming from Libya, such as Sudan and Algeria.
He is in close contact with the legal government of Libya, whose prime minister, Abdullah al-Thani came to Cairo in mid-October and signed a cooperation agreement between the two armies.
Egypt will help train Libyan security forces and police, there will be joint border control, and cooperation will extend to exchange of intelligence.
This was followed by steps on the ground. “Unidentified” planes bombed Tripoli airfield, held by Islamic and tribal militias.
Various groups accused Egypt, and the White House was prompt to condemn the raids. Cairo denied that its forces intervened beyond its borders.
It appears likely that the attack was not carried out by the Egyptian army, but probably by Libyan pilots taking off from Egyptian air fields flying Egyptians planes and planes from the Emirates.
The Libyan army has now launched an all-out offensive against the Islamists with the help of former renegade general Khalifa Haftar and has retaken Benghazi – it is moving to reconquer Tripoli and restore order.
Sisi then turned to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. Little is known about their discussions, though a spokesperson for the Egyptian presidency said that both presidents agreed to cooperate, with special emphasis on the common threat from Libya.
It was also decided to set up a free-trade zone along their borders and to strive together to find a solution on the issue of the dam on the Blue Nile being built in Ethiopia, which threatens the water quotas of Egypt and Sudan.
By inviting the Sudanese president, under indictment by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, the Egyptian president was taking the calculated risk of outraging world public opinion. The needs of his country, deprived of the assistance of the United States, had left him little choice.
Last week, Egypt tried to convince Algeria, a country with a 600-km. border with Libya, to join its coalition against terrorism coming from Libya. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri visited Algeria, and his talks with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika centered on the threat posed by the situation in Libya to all bordering countries.
Following the weekend attack in Sinai, Sisi has ordered a crackdown on all terrorist organizations. A state of siege was decreed in Northern Sinai and the Rafah terminal was closed. A Hamas delegation to the negotiations with Israel following Operation Protective Edge, scheduled for this week in Cairo, was asked not to come after a Hamas connection to the attacks was hinted.
In fact, military commentators wanted all North Sinai Beduin deported in order to be able to proceed unhampered against the terrorists. It does not seem likely – for now.
However, there are talks of setting a no-man’s land between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, without vegetation or habitations and protected by a security border.
Such determined fighting comes at a price. Instead of concentrating the country’s efforts and resources on much-needed economic and social reforms on the way to development and progress, Sisi must fight Islamic terror trying to destroy Egypt as it has destroyed Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq and Syria.
Maybe his coalition will not make up for American training, equipment and technology, but he is doing the best he can; he might even ask for Russian help after the recently concluded agreement on the sale of Russian weapons.
Should he fail, it would be a disaster for the Middle East and for the West. Incredibly, neither the United States nor the European Union appear to care, let alone assist.The writer, a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.