The attack that took place yesterday on a checkpoint on Egypt's border with Gaza and Israel is a serious escalation of armed activity in the Sinai Peninsula, with a wide range of consequences on the young presidency of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's relationship with both Israel and the Hamas government in Gaza, as well as the question of who controls Egypt's foreign and national security policy: the president, the intelligence services, the military, the ministry of foreign affairs, or all of the above (up till now, on diplomacy at least, Egypt had a dual foreign policy: one run by the presidency, another by SCAF/Intelligence — it was not going to last without some confrontation.)
This post serves as my initial notes on the incident.
Just around sunset on Sunday, as soldiers prepared to sit for iftar, three 4x4 vehicles (Toyota Land Cruisers, commonly used in the area) raided two checkpoints manned by Border Guards and Central Security Forces at Massoura, just south of the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula. Sixteen officers and conscripts were killed in the ensuing firefight and five more wounded, while an unconfirmed eight assailants were killed. The firefight took place using automatic weapons, mortars and RPGs. Two lightly armored personnel carriers were stolen by the attackers, which then headed to the Karm Abu Salem crossing (a tripartite crossing between Egypt, Israel and Gaza through which most humanitarian goods go through under Israeli supervision). According to the Israelis, the first vehicle was made to explode as a diversion while the second vehicle headed into Israel. It was destroyed by an Israeli Apache helicopter after opening fire on Israeli border patrols. Egyptian troops also followed the attackers to the border and engaged with them there, reportedly arresting some of them.
- North Sinai has been placed in a state of emergency, with the military reinforcing its positions at the border. The Rafah crossing has been closed indefinitely, with angry residents of Egyptian Rafah also taking part in sealing the border. Attack helicopters have been dispatched to the border area (I'm not sure about this, but this may be the first time Egypt takes full advantage of a 2011 agreement with the Israelis to increase deployment along the border — previously, the Egyptian military did not use the full options they had under the agreement.)
- The checkpoints along the Suez Canal have been reinforced and are subject to extra controls, as are those inside the two Sinai governorates. There are ongoing searches in both Israel and Egypt for accomplices, Egyptian Rafah is encircled by the army, and reports that Israel has also shelled Gaza soon after the attack.
- SCAF and President Morsi, meeting last night after the attack, have both vowed to find the culprits and avenge the fallen, with Morsi adding that there is "no room in Egypt for this type of aggression and criminality." The Armed Forces say they will pursue the attackers "inside Egypt and abroad." Morsi also visited Rafah on Monday night.
- Security sources have leaked to the press that the perpetrators came from Sinai-based groups as well as well as Gaza-based groups.
- Political parties and revolutionary movements from across the political spectrum have denounced the attacks and expressed their solidarity with the army.
- Israel is said to have warned of attacks in the last few days, while jihadist videos of military exercises in Sinai had circulated online. Minister of Defense Ehud Barak addressed the Knesset today, the NYT reports:
“I think that the risk of a very large terrorist attack was averted,” Mr. Barak told Parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday morning, “and this was a very important operational success in the battle that is raging there and maybe a proper wake-up call for the Egyptians to take matters into their own hands on their side in a stronger manner.”
- Hamas has strongly condemned the attack as a "heinous crime" while some Hamas figures suggested it was carried out by Israel to sow discord between Egypt and Palestinians. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's own website has expressed suspicion that Mossad is behind the attack, according to Reuters. Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren has blamed Iran, even though his own government said al-Qaeda was responsible (and since Oren retracted his comments.)
This deadly Sinai attack in many respects makes no sense: what exactly were the perpetrators trying to accomplish? Attacking a checkpoint, stealing Egyptian army and security vehicles and making a run for Israel to attack border guards there? If this was their plan, while it may have been deadly it would have hardly achieved any substantial objective — either as a terrorist attack (there have been reports of much more damaging attacks on Israeli civilians by persons going through Sinai in the past) or as an act of defiance. But one cannot know what those people think, especially when we don't know who they are or what they represent (to my knowledge, no group has taken credit.) Terrorists are not necessarily smart.
But let us consider the context:
- A Muslim Brotherhood president in Egypt has vowed to further open the Rafah border and tighten relations with Hamas-controlled Gaza. Morsi is also reported to be considering a trip to Iran at the end of the month, a first for an Egyptian president in 30 years. There is a desire to end the blockade in Gaza and normalize Hamas' status. Hamas has given Egypt — or its allies there, the Muslim Brothers — peace and quiet on the eastern front for over a year to ensure that their positions are not weakened.
- Palestinian reconciliation is not really making any progress, and the Palestinian Authority is worried about the new Egyptian president. Radical groups in Gaza that are being held back by Hamas, which does not want to upset the Egyptians, are angry about Hamas' pressure on them and its hegemonic control of the Gaza Strip. They may have ties with nascent radical groups in Sinai (masquerading as "al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula" and see Muslim Brotherhood type groups as traitors. In the meantime there have been reports that Hamas is considering officially abandoning violence in its conflict with Israel.
- Inside Egypt, a nascent tug-of-war over who controls policy towards the Palestinians and Israel is starting between the presidency and the intelligence services. The question of national security is still in the army's hands, and attacks such as these can be very effective wedge issues against an Egyptian-Hamas rapprochement (see for instance the 2009 raid by Gazans on the Rafah border.) The attack has effectively ended efforts to open up the Rafah crossing (eventually towards trade of goods, not just people traffic) for some time to come.
- And then there are the micro-local politics: the economy of the border area has been criminalized by the blockade of Gaza, with smuggling gangs bringing massive disruption and wealth to the Bedouin tribes that dominate the region in the context of a depressed economy. The tunnels they control are necessary as long as the blockade lasts, and no doubt those who run them are worried that a more open official border will make them irrelevant.
No wonder all sorts of conspiracy theories are afloat. To me, they are beside the point.
What is most worrying is the lack of law and order, and presence of the state, in Sinai since the January 2011 uprising — and the continuing absence of policies to deal with the neglect of this region for the last 30 years. I wrote about this last September and continue to believe that Egypt needs to act to reimpose itself strongly in the area: through a zero-tolerance for criminal gangs and armed groups, Bedouin or foreign, and through a genuine policy of development, job-creation and integration of Sinai into the national economy. It's not easy, it's long-overdue, and it needs to start sooner than later even if strong-arm tactics that will probably be involved may cause more trouble in the short-term. What there should not be is more tolerance for tribal custom, forgiving the recent increase in crimes such as kidnappings (not only is kidnapping a serious crime, but one of these will inevitably turn ugly sooner or later), and more meetings with tribal elders that have led to very little tangible progress.
Yes, the inhabitants of Sinai have suffered from being relegated to second-class citizens and a policy of what can only be termed deliberate under-development for years. For this they should be compensated, as for the terrible abuse by police of the last decade in particular. But the approach cannot be one of finding some compromise with local actors. It has to be that they are Egyptians like any other Egyptians, and do not get dispensation on certain things (smuggling, owning weapons without a license, etc.) because they are Bedouin.
I agree with the tweets put out by Ezzedine Fishere earlier today — he's very much an expert on the issue. Egypt needs a comprehensive Sinai policy alongside a clear policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that makes clear its commitment to justice for Palestinians, Palestinian reconciliation, and refusal to be dragged into a confrontation with Israel or Hamas.
Ending the blockade of Gaza, pushing for Palestinian reconciliation, restoring order in Sinai and addressing its inhabitants' grievances: this is what has to be done to avoid a repeat of this. One fears that Egypt, being so politically divided, is hardly in a position to take up this challenge.