It still is not completely clear just what transpired in the firefights on July 1, 2015 in the Sheikh Zuweid area of northeastern Sinai, between Ansar Beit al-Maqdis terrorists who have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State on one side, and the Egyptian army on the other. The Egyptians report that they killed 123 terrorists in their counterattack and suffered only 17 losses. Other sources report 60 to 70 soldiers killed. In any case, this was undoubtedly the largest terror offensive so far.
Egyptian security sources say 300 terrorists in dozens of vehicles attacked 15 Egyptian army outposts and roadblocks near the town of Sheikh Zuweid, and, struck with heavy fire and at least three suicide bombers, completely surprising the army. The terrorists’ objectives were to take over the town, set up an Islamic emirate, and create a separation between El-Arish and Rafah, major towns in this area near the Israeli border. What is most worrisome is that the Egyptian army had no intelligence of an attack of such magnitude; an attack of this size required long days of preparing the necessary weapons, ammunition, and vehicles, surveilling the vicinity, and coordinating communications. It all happened under the radar of the Egyptian army, which stations thousands of soldiers in the area and maintains dozens of checkpoints, along with continuous surveillance by Apache helicopters. Moreover, it does not appear that the soldiers regained their composure for a quick counterattack, instead striking back only after they had already sustained painful losses.
Thus, Egypt stands before a complex problem of terror which it is not managing to solve. Although Israel permits Egypt to bring in all the forces it wants to fight the terror, the Egyptian army apparently lacks capable special forces trained to operate in a mountainous desert area where the terrorists are presumably concentrated. Moreover, the terrorists receive aid from Bedouin communities that the central government had already abandoned in the Mubarak era, making it easier for radical Islamic groups to infiltrate Sinai and lure the Bedouins into joining their ranks. This process apparently began when Hamas started digging tunnels into Sinai early in the 2000s. Through these tunnels Hamas received explosives and missiles from Iran, and the Bedouins helped with the smuggling.
Mubarak did not see himself as responsible for safeguarding the border with Israel, and, even though Israel warned about the danger to Egypt itself, ignored what was happening. After Mubarak was ejected from rule, the Egyptian security organizations collapsed, particularly in Sinai, and they have still not recovered.
During his short reign in 2012 and 2013, President Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood allowed radical organizations to entrench themselves in Sinai and barred the Egyptian army under the leadership of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, whom he had appointed defense minister, from operating there. Sisi’s removal of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood from power created a sense of urgency among the Islamic organizations operating in Sinai, leading them to join ranks under the name Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and affiliating themselves with the Islamic State. By now they are a consolidated, experienced force, familiar with the local terrain. They are assisted by the local Bedouins, different elements in the Gaza Strip, and from Libya, from which Islamic militias infiltrate Egypt and smuggle terrorists and weapons into Sinai.
The Muslim Brotherhood Supports Terror Attacks
The Muslim Brotherhood is helping Ansar Beit al-Maqdis identify targets for attacks, such as police stations and infrastructure facilities like utility poles and railroad tracks, and also helps it operate in Egypt proper where it sows fear and a sense of instability.
Sisi has tried to devote his tenure to improving the Egyptian economy and putting Egypt on a course of sustainable growth, and he has achieved considerable successes. He ordered the building of a second Suez Canal that will shorten the passage through the canal from 22 to 11 hours and triple its revenues from the fees charged for passage. He has managed to increase electricity production by 10 percent and has canceled 80 percent of the subsidies for energy products. The International Monetary Fund recently announced a small increase in Egypt’s growth rate to about three percent. Sisi has many more plans, but the terror problem keeps him from devoting most of his energy to the economic sphere.
Sisi has also launched a reform of Islam. In an address to religious scholars at Al-Azhar University, he requested that they remove texts that call for jihad and the worldwide imposition of Islam. He has also ordered the Education Ministry to delete passages calling for jihad from elementary and high school textbooks. In terms of Islamic education in a Muslim country such as Egypt, this is a revolution.
In many ways, Egypt is the mainstay of the Middle East. It has existed within its present borders for 6,000 years. It is the only Arab country whose people are united on a historical, geographical, and religious basis, though there is a good deal of animosity toward the Copts. The radical Islamic organizations such as Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, and others view Sisi’s overthrow and the establishment of an Islamic regime in Egypt as a cardinal objective that will complement the destruction they are now carrying out in Arab nation-states such as Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. These radicals aspire to strike Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Lebanon, and Jordan as well.
The Failure to View Morsi for What He Was
Egypt’s endurance, then, is vital to the continued existence of a sane Middle East that opposes the establishment of a caliphate based on sharia law. The West, however, appears to be ignoring what is happening. Some view Sisi as a military dictator who overthrew an elected president while they turn a blind eye to the fact that his predecessor, Muhammad Morsi, aimed to turn Egypt into an Islamic dictatorship. This pertains especially to U.S. foreign policy, which supported Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood — Sisi’s resolute enemies – and failed to understand Egypt’s key role as a country fighting radical Islam. Instead of helping Egypt economically and militarily, the United States suspended military aid for two years and only recently resumed it.
Israel is closely following the developments in Sinai and raised its alert level along the Gaza border after it emerged that Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has armored vehicles that could breach the security fence. Israel is trying to help Egypt as much as possible, pressing Egypt’s case in Washington and pursuing security and intelligence cooperation far from the eyes of the media. It is clear at this stage, however, that the Egyptian army is having trouble defeating the terror in Sinai and that the Ansar Beit al-Maqdis terrorists along the border constitute a tangible danger to the area’s residents. The situation will require the full attention of the Israeli government and the Israel Defense Forces in the near future.