Sisi Faces “the State of Sinai” with Force

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A handout picture released by the Middle East News Agency (MENA) shows Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi (C), surrounded by top military generals, as he addresses journalists following an emergency meeting of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in Cairo on January 31, 2015. AFP/MENA

Published Monday, February 2, 2015

The Egyptian military has realized the need to adopt a different approach in dealing with the [security situation] in Sinai. It has thus decided to work on achieving what they call “sustainable development” in the north of the peninsula, in which the eastern part is where the country’s soldiers are repeatedly dealt with painful blows. But this will not happen anytime soon. It appears that the military solution is the only option on the table.

The military option topped the speech given by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi after the bloody attacks on the army in the northern Sinai. For the first time, al-Sisi underlined the need to achieve “sustainable development” in areas historically marginalized by the state. However, he assigned the task to the new military commander, who had been appointed to command future military operations.

Sisi used the incident to present a review of the previous incidents. In his speech on Saturday, he said that the events in Sinai are the price the Egyptians are paying for their decision to end the rule of former President Mohammed Mursi. He used the same terms as in previous speeches that followed similar attacks, such as the Karm al-Qawadis incident a few months ago.

Sisi masterfully played his old game of manipulating the public sentiment. He renewed his call for the media to raise the people’s “morale” and comply with the “rules of military news coverage in the time of war” — meaning not to judge the military forces, or criticize their actions, whether constructively or negatively — especially given the public condemnation of the army’s cruelty in dealing with northern Sinai’s local population.

This reinforces the hypothesis that the state has two choices: either to evacuate these cities and gradually dispense of the northern region, or seek decisive solutions that would strain the military and economy. There is concern over the possible implementation of the first option, since similar solutions are underway in the Egyptian town of Rafah bordering the Gaza Strip.

However, this — at least thus far — did not prevent the continuation of strikes against the security forces, which have rather escalated and become more sophisticated. The announcement of the intention to achieve development in those areas is closer to the second option.

He stressed that Thursday’s attack won’t be the last, because “it’s a tough confrontation and will take a long time.”

In his “review,” he defended his decision to dismiss Mursi, holding the banned Muslim Brotherhood responsible for the “terrorist operations.” He referred to a past conversation he had with the former Muslim Brotherhood deputy guide Khairat al-Shater, saying that the latter threatened that “regiments would from across the country to fight the state” if Mursi is dismissed.

Cairo has now decided to form “a unified anti-terrorism command unit for the area east of the Suez Canal headed by Major General Osama Askar, who was promoted to Lieutenant General. Ashkar is commander of the Third Field Army in charge of South Sinai.

Although it is still unknown whether Askar will remain commander of the Third Army, in addition to his new role, it is certain that the decision to form this unit implies “the expansion of military operations in the Sinai, and giving it the right to use forces and military vehicles belonging to the second and third field armies.” The Second Field Army was in charge of the military operation in northern Sinai prior to these measures.

Sources told Al-Akhbar that Sisi’s decision to establish a unified command unit seeks to end the presence of intermediaries between the leadership in the Sinai and the headquarters of the General Command of the Armed Forces, where directives and movements were conveyed through the second and third armies, thus “the decision seeks to accelerate the process of taking key decisions and reporting events as they occur.”

The tasks of the new command unit include direct communication with the Central Command represented by the chief of staff and the defense minister, in addition to its broad powers in emergency situations, including the ability to take decisions on military engagement, announcing states of emergency, and attacking potential militant hideouts without approval from Cairo.

The same sources added that “the steps required by the new command will not interfere with the jurisdiction of the second and third armies in securing the Suez Canal waterway from the southern side, particularly in the governorates of Ismailia and Suez.”

What about the L.E. 10 billion allocated to Sinai?

Sisi announced the allocation of a budget worth 10 billion Egyptian pounds (about $1.3 billion) for development and combating terrorism, noting that Lieutenant General Askar will be put in charge of establishing security and stability in the Sinai, in addition to achieving development in “this precious region of the homeland.”

The time and prospects of achieving development in the Sinai remain unclear, especially since the step is overdue and comes at a time when the country is witnessing a major economic crisis. Sisi said that the armed forces “will be developed and advanced, and will fight and face terrorism.” Putting a military commander in charge of development means that future projects will be related to the army.”

On the results of the investigation into the recent attack, security sources told Al-Akhbar that “the Interior Ministry was able to identify the methods through which the simultaneous bombings that rocked al-Arish, where it was shown that “the terrorists used areas higher than police and military buildings to fire mortar shells at the military unit and security area” in the city.

The sources added that the raids during the past two days “led to the discovery of underground rooms and tunnels in areas near the targeted locations containing sophisticated and modern weapons assembled in rented houses.”

“It is the first time we find such sophisticated mortar shells, and rocket-propelled grenades able to hit the target with high accuracy.”

The security sources added that the fingers “are pointed to groups who have returned from Syria. These groups have acquired military experience, as well as media experience in video shooting and media promotion.”

Six army soldiers were wounded in attacks on three military checkpoints on Sheikh Zweid International Road-Rafah. It was also announced that the army troops foiled an attempt to blow up the Jura security checkpoint in the northern Sinai.

(Al-Akhbar)

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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