Egypt has been battling with Sinai-based terrorists ever since the overthrow in 2013 of former president Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood government that he headed.
Their year in office demonstrated all too clearly to the majority of the Egyptian population what living under an extreme Islamist administration meant, and by and large they rejected it. Even so, the Muslim Brotherhood retained the support of a fair minority of Egyptians, and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, later to be president, inherited an inherently unstable situation which, he believed, could only be contained by suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood and all its works. Hence the trial of Morsi, the clampdown on leading Brotherhood figures and its adherents, and the jailing of journalists employed by the TV station Al-Jazeera based in Qatar, which supported the Muslim Brotherhood.
As Sisi’s clampdown grew in severity, prominent Brotherhood figures fled the country, while existing Islamist bodies in Sinai affiliated either to al-Qaeda or Islamic State were joined by new extremist terror groups. The Sinai Peninsula, vast and sparsely populated, was the ideal launching pad for pro-Brotherhood bodies intent on harassing Egypt’s new administration.
But the eastern edge of the Sinai Peninsula delineates the internationally recognized 213 kilometer (132 mile) border between Egypt and Israel. Military action by either nation in the region is subject to a delicate balance set out in the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979. On the one hand the agreement imposes strict limitations on Egyptian military deployment; on the other, any Israeli incursion into the Peninsula requires Egypt’s permission.
Ever since the jihadist groups stepped up their terror attacks in the Sinai, Israel has given its approval to Egypt’s greatly enhanced military presence. Equally, as reports like that in the New York Times on February 4, 2018 assert, Egypt has been approving Israeli air strikes – more than 100 of them over the past two years − against Islamic State targets in northern Sinai. That suggestion was vehemently denied by Egypt’s military spokesperson Tamer El-Refaai. The Egyptian army, he asserted, was the sole entity conducting military operations in North Sinai.
Although at least six other extremist Islamist groupings have been identified in the region, most of the attacks in the Sinai Peninsula in recent years have been claimed by Sinai Province, the Egyptian affiliate of Islamic State. The group has never claimed responsibility for what has been described as the “deadliest militant attack in modern Egyptian history”, but all the evidence points to it. It was this atrocity that has led to the intensive military effort just launched by the combined Egyptian military forces.
In the midst of Friday prayers on November 24, 2017, militants launched a bomb and gun attack on the al-Rawda mosque in the town of Bir al-Abed, in Egypt’s North Sinai province. 311 people were killed, including 27 children, and at least 122 other people were wounded. When ambulances arrived to transport the wounded to hospitals, the attackers opened fire on them as well, from pre- selected ambush points.
Immediately after the attack Sisi declared three days of national mourning and ordered his armed forces to mount a full-scale military operation aimed at defeating the Sinai-based militants within three months. It took some eight weeks to plan the campaign. On February 16 the operation, named Sinai 2018, began. Involving the army, navy, air force and police, it is targeting “terrorist and criminal elements and organizations” in north and central Sinai, parts of the Nile delta and the western desert.
According to Egypt’s Colonel Tamer al-Rifai in a news conference broadcast on state television, forces have so far destroyed over 1,000 kg of explosives, 378 militant hideouts, and weapon storage facilities including a media center used by the militants. Some 680 people have been detained. The air force has carried out more than 100 airstrikes in northern and central Sinai, focusing on militant hideouts outside residential areas to avoid hitting civilians.
Major General Yasser Abdel Aziz of Egypt’s Military Operations Authority said that the operation would only end when Sinai was free of “terrorists”. When this happy state of affairs had been achieved, he said, Egyptian authorities would push ahead with a comprehensive development plan for Sinai.
Sinai 2018 started just a couple of days before US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Cairo. For several years now, American commanders have provided intelligence assistance to Egyptian commanders in Sinai including reconnaissance imagery, intelligence gleaned from eavesdropping devices, and other information from sophisticated sensors. In addition, ever since 2015 there have been reports of Egypt working closely with Israel in Sinai, and of Israeli drones, helicopters and jets carrying out dozens of attacks in the region.
Neither Egypt nor Israel is acknowledging their growing cooperation as they face a common foe − a jihadist insurgency in the Sinai. Their relationship mirrors that between Jordan and Israel − security cooperation, but as far from the public eye as possible. Nothing, however, can disguise the $15 billion natural gas deal just struck under which the operators of Israel’s vast Tamar and Leviathan fields will be selling some 64 billion cubic meters of gas to Egypt over ten years – an agreement mirroring Israel’s 2016 gas deal with Jordan worth some $10 billion. Today’s political and commercial realities are overriding the outworn imperatives of yesteryear.
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