New Egypt faces twin struggles: On the streets of Cairo and the sands of Sinai

The war of attrition between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and opponents is interlinked with the military offensive against terrorism

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

A military attack helicopter flies near the presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, July 5 (photo credit: AP/Khalil Hamra)
A military attack helicopter flies near the presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, July 5 (photo credit: AP/Khalil Hamra)

The new Egyptian interim government led by Hazem al-Beblawi was sworn in Tuesday night in Cairo. Abdel-Fattah elSissi, the man who pulls the strings in Egypt, was appointed deputy prime minister, as well as defense minister.

The 34 ministers in the new government, including three women, convened at the presidential estate and were sworn in by interim President Adly Mansour. They then posed for a festive group photo of all of the government ministers in an attempt to convey to the people that a new government has been established in Cairo.

Nevertheless, the incidents that occurred several hours earlier in the streets of the Egyptian capital, as well as 200 km away in Sinai, hindered the celebrations and served as a painful reminder of the complicated, bloody reality in which this new government came into being. Seven people were killed in Cairo during the previous night in clashes between the Egyptian security forces and Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

The Egyptian Health Ministry reported that an additional 261 people were injured in the clashes. The Muslim Brotherhood protested incessantly throughout the previous week, and calls for a “Millions March” were heard every few days. Movement leaders, including ousted president Mohammed Morsi, have been arrested. Television channels associated with the Muslim Brotherhood have been shut down one after another, but well-attended protests in support of Morsi and his people continue nevertheless.

One course of action taken by the protest organizers is to call upon activists to block major thoroughfares in order to disrupt regular procedures and traffic in Cairo’s center. These include the 6th October Bridge and other central squares in the city. The objective is to prevent the city from settling into a routine, despite the new regime’s efforts to encourage the public to forget the incidents that occurred earlier this month.

This is a difficult, crushing battle of attrition that can only be won by those who display the most stamina.

Right now, both sides seem to be very patient. The military has succeeded in stabilizing the political situation in Egypt. The new interim government and president assumed their roles quite smoothly. The business sector has not called for major strikes that could put Egypt’s economy at further risk. According to the local media, the Egyptian stock market has recovered surprisingly well over the past week, despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempts to disrupt order and routine.

What’s more, one of the regime’s most significant achievements was to receive contributions of billions of dollars from countries in the Persian Gulf, such as Kuwait and the UAE (though not from the Muslim Brotherhood’s allies in Qatar, of course). These funds give the new government critical breathing space for the coming months to prevent strikes, major power failures, and painful cutbacks in subsidies. Egyptian sources claim that their security forces are prepared for much harsher scenarios and more severe clashes and violent Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations.

Nevertheless, continued protests and “battles of the squares” will make it difficult for the new government to make significant changes in Egypt. The Islamic Movement has enough supporters throughout the country to continue protests for weeks, while continuing to disrupt traffic and daily ways in Cairo.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s statements over recent weeks show no sign of defeat or humiliation. They continue to steadfastly promise to protest against the new regime, even at the risk of bloodshed. The few senior members of the organization who have not been arrested make insulting proclamations against Mansour and the military. Brotherhood leader Mahmoud Ghozlan, for example, ridiculed Sissi in a letter that was published in the London newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi, in which he demanded to know “which nation appointed you?” This was in response to a statement delivered by the defense minister in which he claimed that the military responded to the nation’s pleas to redeem Egypt from the suffering imposed by Morsi.

Sissi and his supporters know that if they are unable to make significant financial and political changes in Egypt over the coming months, increasing numbers of people will become frustrated with the new government and join the Islamic Movement protests. At the same time, Muslim Brotherhood activists who organize the demonstrations will incite more and more clashes with the military.

The equation is simple. Death and bloodshed will diminish the army’s legitimacy over time, protests will escalate, and cries will once again be heard to “Get out” — addressed this time to Sissi. Egyptian sources told The Times of Israel that the new regime hopes to bring the Muslim Brotherhood into the government, “but if they want to fight, we are prepared.”

The real battlefield

Meanwhile, Palestinian residents of Rafah, near the Egyptian border, woke up this week to find tanks overlooking their homes. These tanks were Egyptian, not Israeli, and were deployed along the Philadelphi Corridor on the opposite side of the border as part of a widespread military operation against terrorist activism in the Sinai, which is scheduled to begin at any moment.

The Palestinians have grown accustomed to seeing other types of military equipment as well, usually used by the IDF. Egyptian air force Apache helicopters were observed near the Gaza Strip and even directly above it last week, and testify to the battles that are already being waged in the Sinai. Indeed, the situation in the Sinai is the most problematic one that Egyptian security forces face today… apart, that is, from the contentions with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Only now did the army realize what it should have internalized years ago: Sinai is no longer merely a negligible threat to Egypt’s security. This issue has become the highest priority in Cairo, as any incident in the peninsula could have dramatic implications on Egypt’s economy and its security. Terrorist attacks against ships in the Suez Canal or against tourism targets in the region, instigated by activists hiding in the Sinai, could cause severe damage to two of Egypt’s greatest sources of income.

While income from tourism has already significantly declined, business continues as usual at the Suez Canal. This led to the military’s decision to begin all-out war against terrorist groups that operate out of the Sinai. For years, Cairo has been attempting to depict its war against armed forces in the Sinai, via Arab and even Israeli media channels, as uncompromising. Declarations about widespread, unprecedentedly decisive operations are made time and again, but each time, the dismal reality is soon revealed — the army wages intensive attacks for several days, but then draws back and allows the terrorist organizations in the Sinai to continue to grow. But this time, military operations may indeed by “unprecedented.”

First, the sheer numbers of Egyptian forces fighting in the Sinai truly is unprecedented. This week, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon authorized two Egyptian infantry regiments to enter the Sinai and join the nine Egyptian infantry and commando regiments, tank battalion, and fighter planes already stationed there. The size of the Egyptian security forces positioned in Sinai may even increase further, all fully coordinated with Israel. The improved security collaboration between Israel and Egypt during Morsi’s presidency has been significantly enhanced since Sissi removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power.

While Morsi was in power, collaboration between the two countries was limited to coordination between security forces. Today, security and political decision makers in Egypt maintain direct contact with their counterparts in Israel. This teamwork is reflected by coordinated activity along the entire border, down to Eilat.

The third and most significant development of Egyptian fighting in the Sinai is related to the tunnels. Smuggling via underground tunnels has been on a dramatic decline for the past three weeks. This is an astonishing development, nearly miraculous.

For years, the Egyptian army has been explaining to Israel that it is incapable of completely putting a stop to smuggling incidents through the 250 tunnels. But suddenly, over the past three weeks, it has succeeded: The Egyptians have effectively closed down 80 percent of the tunnels. This victory is the result of pure determination. There have been no reported major developments in Egypt’s military and scientific ability to combat the tunnels. This time, the army decided to confront the challenge in order to prevent terrorists from entering the Sinai from Gaza to engage in terrorist activity against the new regime.

Every known terrorist organization in the Sinai has activists in the Gaza Strip. The tunnels are not one-way streets; military equipment is smuggled through them in both directions — from Gaza into the Sinai, and not only from the Sinai into Gaza. The Bedouin in the Sinai maintain ongoing contact with Muslim Brotherhood head Ghozlan’s people. Egypt claims that the large terrorist attack last August — in which 16 Egyptian soldiers were murdered — was conducted by armed forces from Gaza. This led to the decision to wage an all-out war against the tunnels, even at the risk of clashes with Hamas.

Generally speaking, relations between Cairo and Gaza have deteriorated. Hamas realizes that its allies in Cairo have been ousted by a hostile military regime and that it is now surrounded by two hostile military forces — Israel and Egypt. Ismail Haniyeh and other Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip comprehend the message that they received directly from the army as well as from multiple malicious articles that are often some distance from reality.

The London al-Hayat newspaper reported earlier this week for instance that the Egyptian army killed 32 Hamas activists in battles in the Sinai. While this report seems entirely unfounded (as no mourners’ tents have been erected in Gaza during the past days due to “battles” in Sinai), its main goal is to place Hamas on the defensive.

Complete closure of the tunnels over an extended period of time will lead to significant unrest among the Bedouin in Sinai, as well as Ghozlan’s people. Egypt understands this as well as Israel does. Blocking this major financial artery, which supports tens of thousands of people in both Gaza and the Sinai, can lead to the financial collapse of families that have invested a fortune in the tunnel industry. The problem is that if the tunnels are not uprooted completely, smuggling will continue to flourish, and the gangs and militant groups that thrive on it — including terrorists from Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other countries — will prosper.

Fighting in the Sinai presents the Egyptian army with several difficult challenges. First, its intelligence is insufficient. The Sinai has been neglected for years and Egypt does not have sufficient intelligence coverage in the enormous expanse of the peninsula — neither human resources, nor technological capabilities. Here too, stamina and patience are critical, because establishing an intelligence network in the region will take time.

The second problem is that, like the Muslim Brotherhood in central Egypt, the jihad movements show no signs of surrender.

Missiles were fired at Egyptian military posts in the Sinai last Wednesday morning and numerous battles were reported during the previous day. The armed forces, like their counterparts in central Egypt, strive not only to attack the army and soldiers, but also to disrupt everyday life in the peninsula. One example was the attack early Tuesday morning against a convoy that transported workers from a concrete plant, in which three people were killed.

Egypt’s military achievements in the Sinai all depend on developments in the mainland and in Cairo, and vice versa. Sissi and his people will not be victorious on one front if they are unable to make progress on the other. The army cannot invest hundreds of millions of dollars in civilian infrastructure and intelligence networks in the Sinai while all of its resources are devoted to combating the Muslim Brotherhood in the Delta cities and in Cairo. This means that the battles in the Sinai may have begun, but they are far from over.

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