Egypt deployed helicopter gunships and an anti-terror team in north Sinai as President Mohamed Mursi ordered the military to take “complete control” of the region after unidentified militants killed 16 Egyptian soldiers.
Mursi, drawn from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood, described yesterday’s attack on the troops as they broke their Ramadan fast as a “cowardly” act and vowed the assailants would “pay a high price, as would those who cooperate with them,” the state-run Middle East News Agency reported.
The attack on the border post near the Rafah crossing with the Gaza Strip comes a month after Mursi was sworn in as Egypt’s first democratically elected civilian president. Security nationwide has deteriorated since Hosni Mubarak’s 2011 ouster, while Sinai has seen an increase in kidnappings of tourists and attacks on security forces that have alternately been blamed on al-Qaeda-affiliated militants and Bedouins.
Sinai has “become a kind of lawless no-man’s land, and it seems to be getting worse,” Shadi Hamid, director of research at Brookings Doha Center, said by phone. It’s also “probably the one area where Egypt and Israel share some common ground. The Muslim Brotherhood and Israel have an interest in stabilizing the Sinai.”
Security forces and troops were moving into the region hours after Mursi ordered them to hunt down the attackers. Several gunships were sent in to patrol the area, Mohamed Saeed, head of criminal investigation in north Sinai, said by phone, to prevent other attackers from moving into the territory.
“The group that carried out yesterday’s attack, and those standing behind them, are regarded by the armed forces as enemies and must be met with force,” Egypt’s military council said in a statement read on state television. It said 35 people carried out the attack.
At Cairo International Airport, authorities turned away Palestinians arriving by airplane because the Rafah crossing into the Gaza Strip had been closed, the state-run Ahram Gate reported, citing security officials.
The military said seven other soldiers were injured, including three critically, in the attack. The assailants seized two vehicles and tried to smash through the Israel frontier gate before they were stopped by aircraft and Israeli gunfire, officials said. At least seven militants were killed after crossing the border, Israel’s Haaretz newspaper said.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in an e-mailed statement by his ministry that the attackers had suicide-bomber vests and that, along with the amount of explosives brought in a small truck at the start of the incursion, “could have caused very serious damage.”
“I appreciate that this will not be the last time we come across attempts to harm us,” he said while touring the border region. “I hope this will be a wakeup call for Egypt regarding the necessity to be sharp and efficient on their side.”
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said “we need to understand this war is continuing daily and it is clear today also to Egypt that it is an interest of Egypt to stop this.”
Liberman said a barrage of rockets fired from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip fell on southern Israel around the time of yesterday’s attacks. While he didn’t connect the two, he repeated his position that “there must be an end to the terrorist regime in Gaza. Everyone knows what needs to be done and decisions need to be made.”
Mursi’s election raised concerns in Israel, which enjoyed peace with Egypt under Mubarak. The ousted president was seen as the Israel’s greatest ally in the region, cooperating on security and the blockade of the Gaza Strip. Mursi and the Brotherhood have repeatedly said Egypt will honor its international agreements -- a reference to the Camp David peace accords.
“In theory, Israel and Egypt share an interest in stabilizing the Sinai,” Hamid said. “In practice, it looks very different.”
Mursi must deal with a neighboring government that views the Brotherhood with suspicion and secure a largely desolate peninsula whose southern half and coast are tourist attractions. Last August, gunmen operating out of Sinai attacked near the southern Israeli city of Eilat, killing eight Israelis and injuring about 40 people. A natural gas pipeline feeding into Israel and Jordan has been attacked 15 times since Mubarak’s fall.
“What is really needed now is close cooperation between the Egyptian and Israeli militaries, but I’m skeptical that will happen given the political atmosphere in Cairo,” Zvi Mazel, Israel’s ambassador to Egypt from 1996 to 2001, said by phone.
Mursi has been locked in a power struggle with the generals who ruled Egypt after Mubarak’s ouster. The military council handed power to Mursi in June after stripping his office of some of its authority while assuming new powers for itself.
“It’s a huge challenge for Mursi,” said Khalil al-Anani, political analyst at the U.K.’s Durham University. Mursi is still engaged in a political tug-of-war with Egypt’s military council and “such an attack will put him in a bad situation if he asks for more powers.”