The woes of an Egyptian Churchill

The woes of an Egyptian Churchill

Friday’s attacks on soldiers in Sinai demonstrate that Cairo is far from rooting out jihadi activities in the peninsula

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.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi speaks in front of the state-run TV ahead of a military funeral for troops killed in an assault in the Sinai Peninsula, as he stands with army commanders in Cairo, Egypt, October 25, 2014. (photo credit: AP/MENA, Mohammed Samaha)
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi speaks in front of the state-run TV ahead of a military funeral for troops killed in an assault in the Sinai Peninsula, as he stands with army commanders in Cairo, Egypt, October 25, 2014. (photo credit: AP/MENA, Mohammed Samaha)

The chain of attacks Friday in the northeast Sinai Peninsula which saw more than 30 Egyptian soldiers killed is a slap in the face to the administration in Cairo and its leader, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. Even after the army seemed to have stabilized the security situation in the Sinai, even after soldiers rooted out hundreds of Egyptian jihadists and were able to considerably reduce the number of smuggling tunnels from the Gaza Strip into Egypt, these terrorist bombings demonstrated that the battle with radical Islamists in the country is far from over.

It is not as if anyone in Cairo thought that within a matter of days or weeks, terror bases in the peninsula would cease to exist. On the contrary, many security officials in Egypt have assessed that in order to restore stability and peace to the Sinai, the army will need to operate in the area for at least another three years. And yet, the partial calm experienced in the peninsula over the past months had led many to believe that el-Sissi could now focus his efforts on the security and political threats posed by local terrorists deep inside his country, and on the suppression of Muslim Brotherhood protests in Cairo, along the Nile Delta, and elsewhere.

It seems el-Sissi now realizes that he must make great efforts on several fronts simultaneously. He will have to allocate elite military units to operate not only inside Egypt, in order to allow for parliamentary elections to take place as promised, but he will also need to deal with jihadists in northeastern Sinai cities such as Sheikh Zuweid, el-Arish and Rafah. To that end, Sissi began Saturday to bolster the 12 battalions of the Egyptian army deployed in the peninsula with additional forces.

According to Arab media reports, soldiers from the 777th and 999th units, considered the most elite of Egyptian forces, and paratroopers were deployed at key points in northeast Sinai. Other special units were sent to Sinai as well, in order to boost intelligence-gathering efforts in the region. The entry of these forces, of course, requires the approval of the Israeli government, as specified in the peace agreement between the two countries, but opposition to such a move is not expected; Israeli officials would like to see a strong and stable Egypt led by President el-Sissi.

The challenges facing Egypt in the Sinai, along with the government’s loathing of the Palestinian Hamas group in Gaza, seem set to foster natural cooperation based on common interests with the Israeli side. This is recipe for tightening the already warm relations between the two countries.

Still, one should not be tempted to view this issue as devoid of problems for bilateral ties. A major dispute is still tainting the “honeymoon” between Cairo and Jerusalem, namely the Palestinian conflict. In a series of overt and covert messages to Israel, el-Sissi and his administration have repeated the same mantra — that in order to help stabilize the situation in the Egyptian cities, Jerusalem must promote negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

For Egypt, Abbas is the key to regional stability, in terms of the Gaza Strip and even in the face of internal Egyptian problems with the Muslim Brotherhood. Abbas is the only way for el-Sissi to rehabilitate Gaza while at the same time weakening Hamas.

But el-Sissi cannot tell whether Israel even has a clear policy regarding the Strip. He also cannot fathom Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s apparent obsession with condemning Abbas, in what is perceived by Cairo as a counterintuitive Israeli effort that can only ensure that Hamas continues to rule the Strip.

El-Sissi himself sounded on Saturday a bit like an Egyptian version of Winston Churchill. He was careful not to seem overly optimistic in comments he made, instead stressing that Egypt was set to see some difficult days ahead in its effort to stamp out terror in the Sinai. “There were casualties and there will be casualties in this war,” he said, adding that foreign forces were likely involved in the attacks.

But despite the tendency in Cairo to immediately accuse Hamas of any violent activity within Egypt’s borders, it is unlikely that the Palestinian organization, which is now looking for a way to rebuild Gaza, was responsible for the weekend attacks since it would be averse to risking such an action at this time.

The possibility that the jihadists who took part in the attacks were assisted on some level by activists in the Gaza Strip, however, cannot be ruled out. That is why the Egyptian military believes that a buffer zone in the Gaza border area would significantly weaken terrorist organizations in the Sinai. In other words, the Egyptian military will uproot tens of thousands of people living near the border in order to defeat the terrorists hiding in residential areas. The Egyptian High Court is not likely to prevent el-Sissi from doing so.

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