The killing of 16 Egyptian border guards in the Aug. 5 attack on an army outpost near Rafah in the northern Sinai by 35 militants – global jihadists and radical Bedouin among them – sent shock waves through Egyptian society.
“Israel has been warning for years now that terrorists from global jihad groups based throughout the Middle East, alongside Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, are using Sinai as a launch pad for attacks into Israel,” wrote Yaakov Katz in the Jerusalem Post. “Until now, likely because the attacks were aimed only against Israel, the Egyptians have done hardly anything about this. Now, that might begin to change.” Still, Katz assumed that it could take weeks if not months to see evidence of such change.
Yet just three days later, in apparent co-ordination with Israel, Egypt acted decisively, sending Apache helicopters against suspected militants, and, according to Egyptian officials, killing 20.
This was far from the first time that Bedouin and others in the Sinai had attacked Egyptian security personnel there. But there had never before been such a concerted, brazen assault and one that resulted in so many Egyptian fatalities.
The international media, preoccupied with the ongoing carnage and chaos in Syria, were forced by the scale and significance of the attack and Egyptian response to pay attention to what was transpiring in the Sinai.
Even though the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in Gaza immediately charged that Israel’s Mossad was behind the murder of the Egyptian soldiers, most Egyptians just didn’t buy it. In a society where anti-Israel conspiracy theories are rife and readily believed, this was quite a departure. But in this case, the evidence that Bedouins and jihadists were the perpetrators was simply overwhelming.
On Aug. 6, Egypt’s state-run news agency, MENA, reported that according to a security official “Islamist elements who infiltrated Egypt from the Gaza Strip through tunnels are behind the attacks, along with other Islamists situated in the areas of [northeastern] Sinai.”
The following day, according to another Egyptian news agency, Morad Mowafi, head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Service, said the terrorist group behind the attack is spread between Egypt’s Sinai and Gaza. Reacting to the accusation that Egyptian authorities had information of a pending attack, but failed to act on it, imperiling its own soldiers, Mowafi reportedly admitted, “Yes we had detailed information about the attack, but we never imagined that a Muslim would kill a Muslim on the hour of breaking the fasting in Ramadan.” What he didn’t say was that the intelligence had come from the Israelis, who had also warned their own citizens vacationing along the Red Sea about the threat of terrorist attacks.
The failure of the Egyptian authorities to act on the intelligence led President Mohamed Morsi to replace Mowafi and the governor of the lawless northern Sinai region. But Morsi himself was feeling the heat from angry Egyptians. After all, just days before the Sinai attack, he had embraced Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in Cairo and promised to ease the passage of more Palestinians from Gaza into Egypt through the Rafah border crossing.
As the governing authority in Gaza, Hamas bears responsibility for security and was left in an embarrassing position when it was revealed that Palestinians and others from Gaza, although from more radical salafist groups, had been involved in the assault on the Egyptians. For his part, Morsi did not attend the funeral for the slain soldiers when his security services warned that, given the outrage of ordinary Egyptians, his safety could not be guaranteed.
It was not lost on the media, especially in Israel, that, as bad a turn of events as this was for Morsi, as well as for the Muslim Brotherhood and its Gaza-based offshoot Hamas, at least Israel benefited, if only in the short term, from enhanced security co-operation from Egyptian military forces, which are finally reacting to the threat jihadists pose to their own country.
Paul Michaels is director of research and senior media relations with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.
This column appears in the August 16 print issue of The CJN