Morsi faces test in Sinai
Egypt’s first Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, has shown his mettle and is determined to impose his authority within the country. Mid-week he launched air strikes and sent troops into north Sinai following last Sunday’s attack by jihadi militants which left 16 Egyptian border guards dead. This is the first time the Egyptian Air Force has been used in Sinai since the 1973 war with Israel, and is a major security test for Egypt’s new President.
After he ordered military strikes Morsi then sacked the head of the intelligence service, the commander of the presidential guard and the governor of north Sinai, and asked his Defence Minister to replace the head of the military police – which has been criticised for the way it dealt with protests over the past 18 months.
The sackings show that Morsi, who enjoys an uneasy relationship with the military, is trying to show that real authority in the country rests with him.
Morsi was heavily criticised by his political opponents in Egypt after the jihadi attacks on the border near Gaza. After all, he had freed Islamic militants serving jail sentences handed down in the 1980s and 1990s and his Muslim Brotherhood has close ideological ties with Hamas, which rules Gaza.
Furthermore, he had recently hinted that he would try to ease restrictions on the entry of Palestinians at the border crossing near Gaza.
In a sign of the difficult situation Morsi found himself in, he had to miss the military funeral for the slain border guards, because of protests from some of the mourners.
However, Morsi decided the time was ripe for action to be taken, as the jihadi attacks had threatened Egyptian sovereignty in the Sinai, which has been largely demilitarised since the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
There has been a security vacuum in the peninsula for quite some time now, and Morsi certainly couldn’t afford to let the situation spiral out of control.
Sinai is a huge desert peninsula of about 60,000 square kilometres with a population of about 400,000. It has a distinct identity from rest of Egypt and is populated by Bedouins and a minority of Palestinians.
It is also of strategic importance, and links Egypt to the Middle East; it borders Israel and is the only non-Israeli border with Gaza. The region was under Israeli occupation from 1967 to 1982, and under the special security arrangements agreed to by the 1979 Camp David peace accord Egypt’s military actions were restricted. It is understood that Israel gave the green light for last week’s strikes by the Egyptian military.
Many of Sinai’s inhabitants feel cut off from the rest of the country and claim they are largely ignored by the government’s economic development programmes. It is no wonder that the area has turned into a breeding ground for Islamic militants, who have also resorted to smuggling – a lucrative business – through a vast network of tunnels beneath the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip – to provide goods for Palestinians unable to leave the territory.
There have been a number of violent incidents in the recent past in the region. In 2005 over 80 people were killed in bomb attacks at the tourist resort of Sharm el-Sheikh and there have been a number of attacks in the past two years on the gas pipelines running between Egypt and Israel. This latest attack will no doubt test Morsi’s ability to establish control over Sinai – a vast barren region which is difficult to police – and it is also a test of his policy toward Israel.
The Israelis are clearly worried about the state of lawlessness in the Sinai and have urged the Egyptians to reassert their authority in the region. Israel’s Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, remarked that Cairo had received a “wake-up call” after Islamic militants had attacked the Egyptian base in northern Sinai.
After the attack the jihadis headed towards the Israeli border with the intention of launching attacks inside the country; one armoured vehicle managed to enter Israeli territory but was destroyed by the Israeli military.
Yoram Schweitzser, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, remarked: “The Sinai has always been a loose place. But under the former Egyptian regime the authorities used a heavy hand and were basically able to control the situation. Now, after the collapse of the regime, the Egyptians are busy with other things and they don’t have the capability and the political will to enforce their sovereign dominance in the area.”
On Wednesday the Egyptian army read out a statement on television that appealed for cooperation from Sinai’s Bedouins, and in a way admitted that the region was not fully under national control: “We call on the tribes and residents of Sinai to cooperate to regain security control of Sinai,” it said.
Sinai will be a key place to watch over the next few months because there is a potential for an escalation of the situation – which could have serious implications for President Morsi’s authority as well as Egyptian-Israeli relations.
It is indeed ironic that Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, now has the task of clamping down on Islamic militants – who have links to Hamas, the Brotherhood’s ideological ally.
But the Middle East is full of ironies.