A clear strategic context explains the recent flare-up between Israel and the Palestinian extremist organizations in the Gaza Strip, which was sparked by the armed incursion into Israel, across the Egyptian border, of more than twenty Palestinian terrorists from the Popular Resistance Committees. This assault, which left eight Israelis dead, set off the latest round of fighting in southern Israel. It would not have been possible without the growing weakness of the Egyptian regime’s grip on Egypt as a whole and the Sinai Peninsula in particular, especially since the collapse of the police state maintained by ousted president Hosni Mubarak.
Israeli spokesmen as well as politicians repeatedly stressed the fact that Egypt had almost lost control in Sinai. Israelis noted that Egypt’s gas pipeline to Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon had been sabotaged five times since the inception of the post-Mubarak military regime. Israel also issued warnings to its citizens not to stay in Sinai since it had become a haven for terrorists, smugglers, and arms trafficking. Intelligence sources said there were about ten thousand Muslim extremists in Sinai, training and getting logistical support from local Bedouins.
Oddly enough, the Egyptians were ready to admit privately their own limitations in halting the massive smuggling from Sinai into Gaza. According to Wikileaks documents, it was the same Field Marshal Tantawi, today head of the Supreme Military Council and then defense minister under Mubarak, who negotiated with the U.S. administration ways to prevent the influx of weapons from Egypt to Gaza. At that time the Egyptians were contemplating building a steel wall to seal the border with Gaza hermetically (on April 12 the Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm reported that Egypt had ceased building this wall). Tantawi was also considering an American suggestion to use new technologies meant to destroy underground tunnels, which were used to channel the weapons into Gaza.
The same intelligence sources reported that since Mubarak’s resignation and a more sympathetic Egyptian policy toward the Palestinian cause coupled with a tougher approach to Israel, thousands of rockets along with ammunition and equipment had been smuggled into Gaza from Egypt. Israel was no longer in control of the border. The weapons were transported by Palestinian activists assisted by Bedouins living in Sinai, sometimes with the tacit acquiescence of the Egyptian authorities in the areas and usually without Egypt’s prior knowledge.
To stop the loosening of the Egyptian grip on Sinai, Israel agreed twice to significant Egyptian troop increases to their force deployment in the peninsula, thus changing the parameters set in the military annex of the Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty. The latest deployment of more than a thousand troops was made only a few days before the terrorist incursion into Israel and was meant to boost Egypt’s efforts to regain its hold on Sinai. Assessing that the main threat to Egypt’s authority was in northern Sinai, where the gas pipeline splits toward the neighboring countries, Egypt decided to deploy its forces in that area, thus leaving the southern part diluted of forces and open to infiltrations.
However, from day one of the operations against the extremist organizations in northern Sinai, the Egyptian authorities realized to their dismay that the phenomenon is not limited to Sinai but engulfs the whole of Egypt. Islamist cells have been created all over Egypt so as to topple the regime by force. The network of Palestinian organizations in Gaza has already proved to be a threat to Egypt itself. In January 2011 Egypt’s former interior minister, Habib el-Adly, charged that the Gaza-based Palestinian Islamist group Jaish al-Islam was responsible for a New Year’s Eve attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria that left twenty-three Egyptian Christians dead. Jaish al-Islam is an Al-Qaeda affiliate and was formed by members of the Popular Resistance Committees, the organization responsible for last week’s attack within Israel.
Indeed, only two days before that event on Road 12 to Eilat, the Egyptian security forces mounted an attack east of the town of El-Arish in northern Sinai. This revealed yet another spillover of radical Islamic groups from Gaza into Sinai, which threatened Egypt and not just Israel. In the aftermath the following details were released:
The members of the group were part of a Takfiri organization, that is, the same organization of Muslim zealots that assassinated President Sadat in 1981, some of whom subsequently joined the Al-Qaeda militants.
The group was trained militarily in Gaza and in the region of Jabal Hilal in central Sinai, which is now the area where most of the fundamentalists fleeing the Egyptian security forces have found refuge. Jabal Hilal has been a notorious base for Al-Qaeda in the recent past and the location of difficult battles between Al-Qaeda and the Egyptian army, in which, in one case, an Egyptian general was killed.
Those militants were part of the groups that sabotaged the gas pipeline to Israel.
The leader of the Palestinians who allied with the Egyptian members of the El-Arish group was a member of Islamic Jihad in Gaza. He managed to reach El-Arish by using one of the underground tunnels. He had been in prison in Egypt but was able to escape to Gaza in the wake of the Egyptian revolution.
The Egyptians associated with the Palestinians were highly educated (one a mechanical engineer, another with a BA in administration) and came from Suez, Alexandria, Qalyoubiah, and Suhaj. The Egyptian security forces were surprised, since this was the first time a Sinai terrorist cell included members from outside of Sinai.
The interrogations revealed that there was a Takfiri presence almost throughout Egypt. El-Arish was a convenient location because it is close to Gaza and Israel, making it easier to obtain weapons.
The group clearly had a theological, jihadist outlook. Basically they wanted to replace the regime by force according to the tenets of Takfir (in which one Muslim declares another an unbeliever) and of the Egyptian Salafist movement.
Most of the Egyptian detainees had been members of fundamentalist organizations for years.
Their main targets were Egyptian security forces (which they viewed as heretic) and strategic installations such as the gas pipeline.
Undoubtedly Mubarak’s fall and the military regime’s commitment to political openness have created a new reality that makes it difficult for the military to control the country as it would wish. One consequence is the weakening of the police structure and the strengthening of illegal opposition forces. On July 14 the new regime dismissed 4000 police officers, of whom 669 were high-ranking and 505 were police generals, while eighteen other generals and 19 brigadier generals also were released from duty but were deferred to justice so as to investigate their responsibility for the killings during the demonstrations. This dramatic move was but another aspect of the new regime’s efforts to “clean the stables.”
The process had begun in the aftermath of Mubarak’s fall with the elimination, in response to popular demand, of the entire repressive apparatus. Egypt’s removal of the police state and subsequent political reforms have made it difficult to maintain domestic security and keep militants under control. Indeed, militants are already taking advantage of the political openness. Moreover, the shakiness of the regime (Egypt has had three cabinet reshuffles since the revolution), which has been more permissive toward criticism of Israel and lax toward anti-Israeli demonstrations, has fostered an environment in which opposition groups feel encouraged not only to attack the regime and demand more freedom, but believe they can maneuver the regime into a hostile stance toward Israel.
Just as the political groups are “asking for the heads” of the former regime, the most extreme of them advocate a radical posture toward Israel that entails declaring the peace treaty null and void. The new era of openness has allowed Islamist actors to emerge as legitimate political entities. The rise of various Islamist factions (the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists, Sufists, and others) that are striving for power makes it difficult for jihadists to directly threaten the regime’s stability. Realizing that they cannot (despite the broader Arab unrest) confront the Egyptian state head-on, the jihadists are trying to undermine the regime indirectly by exploiting the situation regarding Gaza and Israel and through renewed militancy in Sinai, and also by reviving religious tensions between Copts and Muslims, which reached an unprecedented level in the months after the revolution including the burning of churches, attacks on individuals, and so on.
Field Marshal Tantawi is under much stress both on the domestic and regional levels. Egypt is in the early stages of trying to manage both political and militant opposition in a tense climate, and it is unable to maintain internal security as effectively as it once did. Nevertheless, it seems the regime is realizing that the political openness is not so much to its advantage but rather to its detriment. That is why Tantawi decided to announce only in September the schedule for the constitutional reform, and also to take a tougher hand against demonstrators in Tahrir Square and Alexandria.
Particularly significant is that the cell captured in El-Arish shows that the Takfiri and jihadist movement in Egypt is very much alive and even gaining more terrain. It can be assessed that the Takfiri militants are either part of Al-Qaeda or working hand in hand with their Al-Qaeda operators. Indeed, for decades Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has wanted to undermine his home country, Egypt, and the Arab unrest now offers an opportunity. His rise to the top of the jihadist hierarchy could also herald an increasing role for Egyptians within the global jihadist network, which would make it easier for Egyptian Takfiri militants to work with Al-Qaeda.
The result is that Al-Qaeda can be expected to make its presence felt in the Egyptian-Gazan-Israeli border area. If so, it will not only complicate matters for Israel and its efforts to deal with Gaza, but could seriously damage the Egyptian-Israeli relationship that has existed since the 1978 Camp David Accords. Only a tight, effective, but mostly tacit partnership between Israel and Egypt can help both parties, each for its own reasons, cooperate in eradicating the fundamentalist cells in Sinai and beyond.