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War on terror in Sinai

Oct 28,2014 - Last updated at Oct 28,2014

Egypt’s war on terror took a turn for the worse last Friday when a military checkpoint in northern Sinai came under multiple attacks that left more than 30 soldiers dead and scores wounded.

It was a complex assault that involved a car bomb, rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs that targeted rescuers, according to news agencies.

It was the bloodiest attack on Egypt’s armed forces since the overthrow of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi last year, which triggered a wave of terror especially in Sinai.

The army has been fighting Islamist extremists in the peninsula for more than two years with mixed results.

The main target is a militant salafist group, Ansar Bayt Al Maqdes, or ABM, which comprises local bedouins, foreign jihadists and radical Palestinians who have been chased out of Gaza by Hamas.

The government in Cairo blamed the Muslim Brotherhood, now banned and designated as a terrorist organisation, for masterminding terror attacks across the country.

Morsi has been accused of releasing radical Islamists when he was in power. But there are indications that foreign hands are also involved and that Egypt is being drawn into a wider regional war.

President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi believes that the latest attack was a “foreign-funded operation”; commentators were quick to point the finger to Turkey and Qatar, two states that backed the Muslim Brotherhood and stood against Morsi’s overthrow. 

Sisi warned Egyptians of a conspiracy and said his country was fighting “a war for its existence”. He summoned the National Defence Council and declared a state of emergency in northern Sinai for three months.

The government closed the Rafah border crossing indefinitely and postponed talks between Palestinians and Israel over the Gaza ceasefire.

Sisi promised to respond to the latest attack with force. Those involved in terrorism will now be tried before military courts and the government is considering plans to build a protective wall along its borders with Gaza. 

Extreme measures will also be considered, including the relocation of tens of thousands of citizens from their homes close to Gaza.

The war on terror has become Sisi’s most urgent mission. He was elected on the premise that he will rescue the country from the state of lawlessness and chaos that led millions to call for Morsi’s ouster last year.

With his military background, Sisi was viewed as Egypt’s strong saviour. His crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood was cheered by most Egyptians and brought him closer to moderate Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Jordan.

Even though Morsi’s removal was criticised by Washington, Sisi was able to withstand Western pressure and eventually mend relations with the United States, while bringing Cairo closer to Moscow.

The extended military operation in Sinai constituted a challenge for the new regime. In spite of dispatching thousands of troops to northern Sinai and carrying out special missions to hunt down ABM operatives, the state of instability continued.

The Islamists were able to elude the army and plan and execute attacks against checkpoints, personnel carriers and police stations, resulting in many deaths.

Even when the army destroyed most tunnels linking Sinai to Gaza and created a buffer zone along the border, smugglers associated with militants continued to be active, making use of the massive desert, difficult terrain and the long border with Israel.

For decades, that part of Sinai presented a problem for Egyptian security because locals were involved in cross-border drug and weapon smuggling. 

Friday’s attack could signal a major change in the dynamics of the fight. Egyptian media talked about links between ABM and the Islamic State.

The Newsweek magazine claimed that IS has opened a new front in Sinai. It said that ABM now shares the same IS vision of a worldwide Islamist caliphate.

It is no wonder that the Egyptian government is now asking regional allies to help in its war in Sinai.

The link between ABM and IS in Sinai will be a game changer. Egypt is part of the coalition fighting IS in Iraq and Syria. In return for joining the alliance, it had asked that its efforts to fight local terror be supported.

The US has provided it with gunships, and security cooperation with Egypt’s neighbours, including Israel, will now increase considerably.

On the other hand, last Friday’s bloody attack will tighten the grip of the army and police on Egyptian affairs even further.

Already Egypt has come under censure for its crackdown on critics and opponents, including those who have been active in the January 25 uprising.

In the aftermath of last week’s carnage, pro-government newspaper editors announced that they would take measures to prevent the publication of anything that could be considered incitement against the army or state institutions. TV stations promised to do the same and took some broadcasters off the air.

The war in Sinai will be long and costly, and its effects will reverberate across Egypt and the region.

Furthermore, those who believe the regime should seek a political settlement with the Muslim Brotherhood to end the local mayhem will find no room to voice their opinions. 

The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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