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Egyptian Army Claiming Success in the Sinai, But Most Terrorists Are Still Roaming Free

Egyptian soldiers preventing Palestinians from coming close to the iron gate of a Rafah border crossing with Egypt in the southern Gaza strip.

Egyptian soldiers preventing Palestinians from coming close to the iron gate of a Rafah border crossing with Egypt in the southern Gaza strip.
Photo Credit: Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash 90

The Egyptian army has slowed down its all-out attack on terrorist enclaves in the Sinai, several weeks after its initial, aggressive spurt on August 5, reports Al Ahram, which claims that the terrorist culprits who murdered 15 Egyptian Border Guards remain at large, and seems to insinuate that the lack of progress is rooted in political uncertainty back in Cairo.

Here’s one unexpected aspect of what was touted as a jihad against the murderers: the Egyptian government is going through unofficial channels, employing negotiators to talk to the Sinai terrorists. This has enraged the secular law and order types at home, who blasted the notion of negotiating with terrorists, and are concerned about the Sinai jihadists’ influence on national policy.

It appears that no one knows who is to blame for the bloody attack in early August: was it the Hamas government in Gaza? Al Ahram cites Ramallah-based officials who say so, pointing to the proliferation of Hamas agents in the Sinai in recent years.

Hamas officials deny the charge, saying they are supporting President Morsi and will never do anything to damage his government. Indeed, Hamas has been on good behavior since the Morsi election, confirms Al Ahram.

So things are murky on the Sinai front. Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Sobhi Sidqi has met tribal chiefs, in an attempt to get them on the side of the army, especially to buy their cooperation with the intelligence services.

President Morsi sent in his official vehicles a delegation of mediators, including well-known Islamists, to go to Sinai and try to talk sense into the militants. Al Ahram knows about preparations for a meeting in Cairo this week, to hammer out an agreement on ending the violence in the Sinai.

Critics of the government are looking for more resolute ways of imposing law and order, preferably with less cajoling of members of violent groups.

Ashraf Al-Hefni, of the Revolutionary Socialists movement, declared: “The affiliation of the men currently involved in the negotiations is well known. It would have been more advisable for the government to prosecute those who embrace jihadist thinking instead of talking to them and trying to influence their thinking. There are some families in Sinai who have lost sons because of the violence.”

Al-Hefni promised: “We will support the government if it takes action against extremism and its manifestations.”

According to Sinai activist Mosaad Abu Fajr, government induced violence is the real problem, and that the government continues to deal with the wrong people. The mediators, sanctioned by the government, are preferring to hold talks with violent groups that dream of an Islamic state in Sinai, he said.

“This is an expression of failure. The state is not being defeated by social forces with a different political approach. It is being defeated by groups involved in violence,” Abu Fajr declared.

“What is hampering security in Sinai is not the Camp David accords, or the security addendum of the peace treaty. What is hampering security in Sinai is the lack of political imagination … Shall we address the Sinai with the imagination of Nelson Mandela? Should we forget about the mindsets of Abdel-Nasser, Mubarak, and Morsi, and think instead outside the box? Unless we do that, we may lose Sinai forever,” Abu Fajr argued.

The army is not particularly concerned with its critics. It has been talking to the Israelis, the Bedouins and the Palestinians, and has slowed down, if only temporarily, ‘Operation Eagle,’ the military campaign to eradicate terrorist hangouts in mountainous areas.

Squads of police, army, and intelligence services are still searching for suspects in the areas around Rafah, Sheikh Zoweid and Al-Arish, according to Sinai lawyer and activist Islam Kodeir.

Several suspects, including Palestinians, have been arrested. They had incriminating images on their smartphones, which connect them with the Rafah incidents.

The suspects are being interrogated.

Military expert Talaat Mosallam told Al Ahram that Operation Eagle has been a success in several ways. Just the presence of the army has helped track down some terrorist cells, even if by sheer coincidence, he said. The operation has also blocked trafficking lanes and shut down many of the tunnels that were used to smuggle arms and drugs to and from Gaza.

“From the military point of view, the operation is not supposed to branch out in all directions. It must be carried out, but it must remain surgical in nature,” Mosallam exlained.

As part of Operation Eagle, the army has brought in hardware that is not permitted under the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. When the Israelis protested, army officials got in touch with them, and arrangements were made to satisfy both sides.

“There has been an implicit agreement since the beginning [between Egypt and Israel]… When [Israeli] protests mounted, defense ministers Al-Sisi and Barak had a discussion during which they agreed on the target of the operation and that it won’t threaten Israel in any way,” a military source told Al Ahram.

Reacting to criticism that the army was actually failing in carrying out its mission, the same source said that Operation Eagle had achieved several “notable successes.”

“We have to look at the accomplishments on the ground, at the fact that the tunnels were demolished and the arms dealers, the splinter groups, and the terrorist hotspots were held at bay. We now have lists and maps of everything, from houses that were used as fronts to run underground tunnels to depots used for arms, drugs and human trafficking,” the source said.

Said Okasha, an analyst with Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said that what the Egyptian army is doing now is not worse than what Israel has done in the past.

“Following the January 25 Revolution, reports spoke of Israel infiltrating Zone D. Israeli forces dealt with Zone D as a security belt and set up rapid-deployment units there, helped by the fact that there was little or no Egyptian security there at the time. Perhaps this was justifiable then, but not anymore,” Okasha remarked.

An Egyptian military source denied any significant breaches by Israel of Egypt’s borders. Apart from a flight by a pilotless plane, Israel has not infiltrated Zone D in recent weeks, he said. The source added that Egyptians and Israelis were “in constant touch” to ensure such incidents will not be repeated.

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