Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi removed his armed forces chief of staff, Gen. Mahmoud Hegazy, over the weekend and the Interior Ministry is reportedly shaking up security personnel, including removing the chief of national security and other high-ranking security personnel.
The changes come after three years in power during which Sisi has attempted to bring security to the country amid challenges from terrorist groups operating in Sinai and along the Libyan border.
Hegazy was appointed chief of staff of the armed forces in March of 2014 when Sisi stepped down from various military positions to run for president. His other positions include deputy chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and deputy supreme commander of the armed forces. He also was chief of military intelligence from 2012 to 2014.
“Highly significant, Mahmoud Hegazy was very loyal to Sisi and rumored to be a possible successor,” tweeted H.A. Hellyer, an associate fellow in International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
Hegazy, who was replaced by Lt.-Gen. Mohammed Farid Hegazy (no relation), will now serve as the president’s adviser for strategic planning and crises management.
According to the Daily News Egypt
he was central to Egypt’s strategic partnerships, including meetings with US anti-terrorism officials and Libyan Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who runs eastern Libya and is essential to helping Egypt keep the border secure. The former chief of staff had visited Washington just a week before his removal.
Libya and terrorist attacks in Sinai have been the focus of Sisi’s attention.
On October 20, at least 16 Egyptian police were killed in a terrorist attack near al-Wahat al-Bahriya, some 200 km. southwest of Cairo in the Western desert. A week later, Egyptian police killed 13 terrorists in a raid.
According to Reuters, on October 15, at least 24 terrorists and six Egyptian soldiers were killed in battles around Sheikh Zuweid in north Sinai. Two rockets were fired from Sinai at Israel during the same chaotic night of battles. On October 30, gunfire from Sinai targeted the Israel, according to an IDF spokesman.
The battles, including in Sinai, appear to represent an uptick in terrorist threats to Egypt.
"Egypt is having trouble facing terror attacks in recent years. In most cases, its intelligence is poor and insufficient, its performance is clumsy, and overall, it has more failures than successes," says Dr. Limor Lavi, an expert who wrote her dissertation on religion-state relations in Egypt.
Hegazy's removal became a sort of "punching bag" for the recent failures to prevent attacks in Sinai and the Western desert. "In light of this, Israel should keep up the security coordination with Egypt behind the scenes, in order to ensure the safety of its southern border and the safety of Israeli citizens visiting Egypt."
Eric Mandel, the founder and director of the Middle East Political and Information Network (MEPIN) said Egypt is trying to “dry up the sources of terror.”
Some of this relates to Egypt’s attempts to shepherd a Hamas-Fatah unity deal
that was announced in Cairo on October 12.
“They hope Hamas will play ball in not supporting Islamists in Sinai… but now that ISIS is getting weaker in Syria and Iraq, it is growing in other places and one of those might be Sinai,” said Mandel.
Egypt-Israel relations are currently at a high level but visible displays of that on the streets of Egypt do not exist, he added. US support for Egypt’s war on terrorism, in this regard, is essential because security threats in Sinai affect the whole region.
Because terrorist attacks haven’t taken place in Egypt’s major cities recently, a sense of security prevails. However, the rumbling of war causes concern. In May, 28 Coptic Christians were murdered while on a bus to a pilgrimage southwest of Cairo.
Egyptian officials blame intelligence failures, inadequate coordination between the army and police and other problems within the security framework.
“A total lack of communication is pretty much par for the course here. Ego always gets in the way,” said one Egyptian who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Nervana Mahmoud, a commentator about Egypt and the Middle East who writes for Al-Hurra News
tweeted that the “army and police in Egypt have long history of mutual distrust.”
She has just finished an article on how extremists are able to “creep in” to neglected periphery communities, such as where the killing of police on Wahat Road took place, writing: “In order to reverse their [extremists’] advance, we have to strengthen our marginal communities and reverse the penetration of Islamism.”
According to Khaled Okasha, a colonel and member of the National Counter-Terrorism Council, in an interview with Egypt Today, the terrorists are migrating from Sinai to the western desert.
“Managing to cut off funding to terrorists is proof of the state’s might, which is also an important factor contributing to the increasing losses of terrorist organizations in Sinai.”
Events in Libya are a key factor, he said.
The “events” in Libya mean Egypt has dealt with a tidal wave of terrorists attempting to infiltrate the country.
According to various reports, more than 300 vehicles were destroyed in May. A closer look this year reveals 12 vehicles struck in June, 15 in July, nine in August, 52 in September and eight in October. These consist of trucks, arms convoys and SUVs laden with weapons. Sisi told France24 that some 1,200 terrorist vehicles have been hit in two and a half years.
According to David Mack a former US ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and Middle East Institute Scholar, Egyptian leaders are correct to be concerned about developments in Libya.
"By far the best way for Egypt to deal with the Libyan aspect of its security is for Egypt to contribute more reliably to international efforts to stabilize Libya rather than often being a spoiler that has engaged in unilateral initiatives that don't have broad international backing. The latter include cultivating favored clients in the turmoil of Libyan politics and, on occasion, engaging in direct military actions on behalf of one or more of those clients."
He urges against seeing as the main cause of security problems in Egypt. However the unstable government in Libya is a contributing factor to problems in Egypt. He warns against a "cross border deployment of Egyptian forces... However tempting that might seem as a short term measure, it would probably create adverse results for both Libya and for Egyptian security and political interests in the longer term."
According to The National, retired Egyptian Maj.-Gen Mohamed Noureldeine said ISIS members are moving from Mosul and Raqqa to Turkey and from there to Libya “with the aim of destabilizing Egypt.” If this is accurate, Egypt’s problems are only growing.