A militant attack on a police patrol in the Sinai Peninsula has escalated tensions in the troubled region, as Egyptian authorities struggle to restore law and order in the vast desert territory bordering the Gaza Strip and Israel.
Three policemen were killed and three others were wounded on Saturday when suspected jihadi militants ambushed a police patrol in the northern town of Al Arish. This incident was merely the latest in a series of violent attacks on security forces in North Sinai since the January 2011 uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.
The gunmen raised black flags bearing the Muslim declaration of faith, and chanted “Allahu Akbar!” (God is great) as they attacked.
In August, 16 border guards were killed in a militant ambush on a security checkpoint in Rafah – the deadliest attack on Egyptian troops in Sinai for nearly forty years. The terrorists who carried out the attack also attempted to launch a cross-border raid on Israel, but were killed by the Israeli Air Force.
The August attack prompted Egypt’s army to launch a major security sweep aimed at “ridding Sinai of terrorist cells.” The military campaign, codenamed Operation Sinai, involved deploying additional troops and heavy artillery (including tanks and armored vehicles) to the peninsula.
This troop buildup followed pledges by President Mohamed Morsi to restore security and assert control over the lawless region.
In the wake of the attack, Morsi dismissed the country’s Intelligence Chief and the two top military generals. Analysts view this as an attempt to regain legitimate powers that the military council’s addendum stripped him of before he was appointed President. The governor of North Sinai and the region’s security chief were also replaced in the ensuing security reshuffle.
Nearly three months on, Sinai is still plagued by unrest, and analysts call the military operation launched just over two months earlier, a failure.
Egypt’s Interior Minister Ahmed Gamal el Din on Sunday ordered the dismissal of Northern Sinai’s Regional Security Chief but this did little to quell the rising anger among local Bedouin.
They staged protests in El Arish and Sheikh Zuweid over the weekend, demanding the release of fellow tribesmen arrested in recent security raids. They also called for a solution to the crippling fuel shortage in the Sinai, and demanded the right to elect their local governor rather than have him appointed by the President.
Sinai’s locals harbor longstanding grievances against the government, stemming from the region’s underdevelopment and fuelled by brutal security crackdowns that have seen thousands of Bedouin detained and tortured.
Decades of neglect, deprivation and marginalization have taken their toll on the people of this region, deepening the hostility between the Bedouin and the authorities. The human rights abuses that became such a feature of former-President Hosni Mubarak’s rule have continued in the wake of increased militant attacks, post-revolution.
A security source told state-owned Al Ahram on Sunday, that he believed this latest attack on the six policemen was carried out to avenge the killings of three Sinai residents by police earlier in the week.
Too Dangerous for Tourists
With scant alternatives for earning a livelihood, many residents in Northern Sinai have turned to illicit trade and weapons smuggling through underground tunnels into Gaza to feed their families. The kidnapping of foreigners for ransom a tactic used by the Bedouin to pile pressure on the government to release their detained relatives – has also increased since the beginning of the year, dealing another blow to the tourism industry, already suffering as a result of the broader lapse in security.
Several countries, including the UK, have issued warnings to tourists against “all travel” to the peninsula due to the imminent danger of kidnappings.
Meanwhile, the patience of Sinai’s local police force, which has borne the brunt of this uptick in violence, is wearing thin. Hundreds of policemen staged angry protests outside the municipal building in Al Arish on Saturday and Sunday demanding retribution for their slain colleagues.
They also demanded reinforcements, and a firm response from the government to curb future militant attacks. They blocked the main highway linking Al Arish with the border town of Rafah, bringing traffic there to a standstill.
In an effort to defuse these simmering tensions, the Defense and Interior Ministers paid a visit to El Arish on Sunday, to allay the concerns of troops and police stationed there.
The independent daily, Al Masry El Youm reported, however, that tribal chiefs had complained that the ministers failed to show up at a scheduled meeting with them, which further enraged the local residents and sparked fresh protests.
Under Israel’s Watchful Eye
A military spokesman was quoted by the State Information Service website as saying ‘No curfew has been imposed on Sinai,” and denied rumors that the area had been declared a military zone. However, he hinted however that the military operation currently underway may intensify in coming days.
The surge in border violence has heightened Israel’s concerns. The country remains deeply skeptical of the Islamist government’s commitment to peace agreements signed over thirty years ago (despite repeated assurances from President Morsi that he will respect all previously-signed international treaties).
In recent months, Israel has expressed alarm at Egypt’s deployment of helicopters, tanks and armored vehicles, which Egypt claim are intended to eliminate terrorist suspects. Israel called the deployment of additional troops ‘a serious breach’ of the Camp David Accords signed by the two countries (restricting the number of troops Egypt can station at the border). Israel has now placed its neighbor under close scrutiny. With elements of Al Qaeda believed to be lurking in the desert border territory, it is no surprise that Israel remains edgy and vigilant.