Saturday, September 08, 2012

8-Sep-12: Ongoing riddles in Sinai

The original caption says this picture shows
Egyptian soldiers arresting suspects in Sinai,
August 12, 2012 [Source]  
The Sinai desert is not what it used to be and probably never will be again. As it has gone from bad to catastrophic, including uncontrolled attacks on the Egypt to Israel gas pipeline which highlighted the Egyptian impotence in the area, we have posted here about the changes several times.

For instance, in a blog post called "17-Jul-12: Sinai used to be seen as a paradise" we noted that 
Egyptian officials routinely blame Israel for "trying to spread panic with rumors and irresponsible statements" and making efforts "to impede the area's booming tourism industry" [source] But sober observers know it's far from being an Israelis-only concern. 
Then came the huge August 5, 2012 attack on Egyptian security officers in Rafah. They were partaking of the post-Ramadan evening breakfast meal when unknown gunmen killed 16 soldiers and police, and Egyptian public opinion became enraged. The New York Times called it "the deadliest assault on Egyptian soldiers in recent memory" and added that, perhaps surprisingly, "there were no immediate claims of responsibility". The new Moslem Brotherhood-led government of Mohamed Morsi came under tremendous pressure to act, and they did in the traditional way: almost immediately, both Hamas and the Moslem Brotherhood publicly [source] blamed Israel for the killings.

So what's happened since then? We raised some questions last month about what is actually going on in Egypt's Sinai. See "10-Aug-12: Egypt is pouring forces into Sinai but does anyone know for sure what they are actually doing there?" and "28-Aug-12: About that major Egyptian armed offensive against Sinai terrorists: has it been called off?" It's clear that questions still need to be asked. Much of what is known tends to be confused and contradictory.

Today an Egyptian source, The Daily News Egypt, an English language independent publication, offers an Egyptian status report. It's based on an interview given by Armed Forces spokesperson Colonel Ahmed Mohamed Ali at a press conference today:
  • Who carried out the August 5 attack? The Egyptian army says it still does not know. But "investigations are continuing".
  • Egyptian efforts to restore security to Sinai continue. So far, 32 “criminal elements” have been killed. One is injured. 38 suspects were arrested and currently being interrogated while 22 more were released "as there was no evidence of their involvement in the events". 
  • 31 cross-border tunnels running between Sinai and Gaza were destroyed. 20 vehicles and a large quantity of arms - including automatic rifles, antiaircraft mortars, anti-tank mines and machine guns - were confiscated.
  • Quote: "The number of outlaws in the peninsula is estimated to range between 400 and 600".
  • The army says its campaign is now in a second phase. Originally called “Operation Eagle” in the news media, the campaign is now renamed and the news media were today politely asked to refer to it henceforth by its new official name: “Operation Sinai”.
  • The goal of Operation Sinai is to "completely eradicate criminal activity in Sinai" and a little more grandiosely "to prepare it for a comprehensive development process". The report says 1.65 Billion Egyptian Pounds have been allocated to the Sinai development process. 
  • As for Israeli concerns about the build up of forces so close to Israel's border, Ali "stressed Egypt’s commitment to international treaties without compromising its national security." Unfortunately no further interpretation appears in the news report.
  • As for the confusing and contradictory reports that have come out of Operation Eagle/Sinai till now, that's all changed. "The armed forces had decided there should be an official source of accurate and credible information to avoid presenting conflicting or inaccurate reports to the public opinion."
So things should be better and clearer any time now. And forget about terrorists - whatever we might have thought earlier, it's actually all about "criminal elements" and "outlaws."

We would like to offer a few of our own observations.

Though the Egyptians say they don't know the identity of the villains who carried out the cold-blooded killings on August 5, they do acknowledge - as Al-Arabiya reports today - that
"the deterioration of security conditions that culminated in the deadly August ambush in Sinai raised concerns that the tunnels [between Egyptian Sinai and Hamas-controlled Gaza] were likely used to smuggle weapons and to facilitate the movement of armed groups..." 
The Egypt Independent wrote immediately after the killings that "Islamic militants are believed to be behind the 5 August assault". But that view is being heard less and less in Arab circles. Not that anyone is actually blaming Hamas, of course. But the fact is those tunnels, or at least 31 of them, have now been destroyed. How effective is that? Ali - quoted by an Australian source - acknowledged today "there are 225 main tunnels and each has two to three openings". So the Egyptians probably understand the troubles are not entirely behind them.

The Al-Arabiya report reveals that among those arrested are several “non-Egyptians” - no further details are given. But for its part, Al-Jazeera says "many" non-Egyptians are among the arrested.

And while both Al-Jazeera and  Al-Arabiya quote Ehud Barak, Israel's Defense Minister, saying last week that Israel expects the Egyptian army to withdraw its reinforcements from Sinai at the end of the operation, no one on the Egyptian side appears to be hurrying to make commitments of any sort on that aspect. From over here, we're aware that there is a treaty between Israel and Egypt that covers just this kind of situation, and there are quite disparate views on the two sides [see this Haaretz report from mid-August] as to how that's playing out.

Things in Sinai meanwhile remain quite dangerous and active. Yesterday (Friday), unidentified gunmen attacked the Rayesa checkpoint outside El-Arish, according to this Egyptian report. Despite fierce gunfire, there were no injuries. The paper says the checkpoint, manned by joint forces of the police and Armed Forces, has come under attack "34 times since the beginning of the 25 January revolution, most recently on 31 August". This time, it's not Hamas, outlaws, criminal elements or Israelis but "radical groups [that] are behind these attacks".

And just this morning, according to an AFP report, unidentified gunmen, riding in two vehicles, opened fire at the Sheikh Zuwayyid police station near Egypt's border with the Gaza Strip at dawn. The police fired back and the exchange of fire continued until the gunmen fled: no injuries are reported.

Stay tuned. Sinai's terrorism saga has not yet run its course.

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