Egypt straining to show it's in control of Sinai

“There is a red line and passing it is not acceptable. Egyptians will not wait for long to see a reaction to this event,” army says.

An Egyptian soldier on the Israeli border in Sinai 311 (R) (photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)
An Egyptian soldier on the Israeli border in Sinai 311 (R)
(photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)
The Egyptian government scrambled on Monday to show that it could assert its power over an increasingly lawless Sinai Peninsula, following Sunday night’s attack that led to the deaths of 16 Egyptian soldiers.
Egyptian security forces deployed helicopter gunships to the area – ostensibly to look for militants on the run but also to flex Egypt’s military muscles – as the country’s new president, Mohammed Morsy, faced his first major international crisis since assuming power a little more than a month ago.
It took several hours for Morsy, the Muslim Brotherhood politician who narrowly defeated secular rival Ahmed Shafik in June, to comment on the attack, but he has since been talking tough about bringing those responsible to justice.
“There is no room for such a crime in our society. Everyone will see that the Egyptian security forces, the police and the military will be able to capture those who are behind this attack, wherever they are,” Morsy said.
Egypt’s military, still the primary powerbroker in post-Mubarak Egypt, blamed “jihadists” and called the attackers “infidels” whose bold assault pushed things too far, Reuters reported.
“There is a red line and passing it is not acceptable. Egyptians will not wait for long to see a reaction to this event,” the Egyptian army said in a statement.
Several of Morsy’s critics took the attack as an opportunity criticize the new president for being too lax about security along the border with Gaza. Since the Muslim Brotherhood’s success in runoff elections in June, the crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt has been more porous than it has been in several years, to the relief of many average Palestinians, who can’t otherwise leave Gaza.
Following Hamas’ takeover of the strip on 2007, then-president Hosni Mubarak largely kept the borders closed – at Israel’s request and to keep militants from spilling over into Sinai.
Mohammed Abu Hamed, a former liberal member of the Egyptian parliament and an outspoken critic of Morsy, charged Monday that the task of asserting control rests on the new president’s shoulders.
“The president bears responsibility for this, which was caused by actions his government has taken recently, such as opening the crossings and giving amnesty for Islamist detainees,” Abu Hamed told his followers via Facebook.
“These exceptional measures, which allowed the opening of the Rafah crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip without any security measures, allowed the entry of a large number of extremist religious groups from al-Qaida and others to Sinai in addition to the elements of Hamas,” Abu Hamed charged. “It is known that these groups have beliefs and ideas of jihadists who are seeking to involve Egypt in a new conflict with Israel. This is in addition to the president-elect’s decision to release a number of extremists, some of them facing death sentences… which is spreading extremist ideas again in breach of the peace agreement, something that is not in the public interest.”
Abu Hamed, who is aligned with Shafik and who started a new party in April called the “Life of the Egyptians” party, explained in an interview with the Daily News Egypt that his movement is calling for an “August 24/25 Revolution” – against the Muslim Brotherhood, which he and like-minded Egyptians say is turning out to be as oppressive as Mubarak’s regime.
The very name is a clever spin-off on the January 25 Revolution, the name many Egyptians use in reference to the height of the Arab Spring-inspired protests which brought down Mubarak last year.
“Since the ascension of Morsy to power, I am exerting maximum energy to bring the idea of the revolution against the Brotherhood to Egyptians,” Abu Hamed said in an August 4 interview.
“Regardless of the outcome of such a move, I believe that Egypt cannot stand without the dissolution of the Muslim Brotherhood, irrespective of who will rule the country afterwards.”
He went on to list what he views as Morsy’s missteps. “When Morsi challenged the constitution and the law and decided to reinstate the parliament, the people started to be on poor terms with him. When he started to overemphasize Hamas and exporting fuel to Gaza, people were once again dissatisfied with him,” Abu Hamed said.
The attack on Sunday night is just one of the more palpable signs of disorder and lawlessness in the Sinai Peninsula. Over the weekend, some 900 tourists who were scheduled to travel from Sharm el-Sheikh to Cairo were stuck for hours due to protests in the southern Sinai. Tourists buses in Nuweiba and Dahab were also stopped due to a shooting in Nuweiba, local wire services reported.
Those more empathetic to Morsy’s formidable challenges complained Monday that the peace treaty with Israel ties his hands by allowing only a limited number of troops in the Sinai.
Following the signing of the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty in 1979, the sides agreed that the Sinai would be largely demilitarized and that a Multinational Force and Observers would guard the border instead.
In January 2011, following a popular protest by Egyptians over the issue, Israel agreed to allow Egypt to move several hundred troops into the Sinai Peninsula for the first time since the peace treaty was signed. But the additional two battalions, or about 800 soldiers, were permitted to be based specifically in the Sharm el- Sheikh region, far from the area of yesterday’s attack.
Mark Heller, a regional expert at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, said that criticism seemed more an “excuse” than an explanation.
“There are limitations on Egyptian deployment because of the treaty. Egyptians under Mubarak indicated that they wanted to step up their force posture in the area, and Israel agreed. But the major limitations close to the Israeli border are not about deployment of internal security forces, which would be most appropriate for dealing with this situation, but it has to do with battle formations and heavy weapons,” Heller said.
“The challenge of dealing with this sort of problem is not lack of heavy tanks, but several other factors: the alienation of Sinai Beduin from the Egyptian government, and the question of the effectiveness of the paramilitary and Egyptian forces, including how good their intelligence is and how determined they are to try to deal with the problem.”