Egypt’s military deployed additional armored units to Sinai and closed smuggling tunnels into Gaza as it stepped up efforts to rout militants following a bloody border attack that afforded President Mohamed Mursi a chance to revamp the country’s security apparatus.
The military sent several dozen more tanks and armored vehicles into north Sinai, the state-run Ahram Gate reported, citing witnesses in the area. The operation, now in its third day, is the largest offensive by Egypt in the Sinai in decades. The military also used Apache attack helicopters during operations, state media reported.
Mursi, who had been struggling with myriad domestic challenges and a continuing power struggle with the military, used the Aug. 5 attack that left 16 soldiers dead to remove the acting intelligence chief. The governor of the area and the commander of the presidential guard were also fired. The decrees, issued yesterday, were hailed by groups that had grown disillusioned with the Islamist president, as secular parties and others were concerned that he would cater to the Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda.
The decision to replace the acting chief of the general intelligence service was “revolutionary,” Ahmed Maher, co-founder of the April 6 youth movement that played a key role in last year’s uprising, said in an e-mailed statement. His group is awaiting similar decisions to fire “incompetent officials and purge state institutions,” he said.
Egyptian officials have not indicated if the militants responsible for the border-post attack were affiliated with any group and no one has yet claimed responsibility.
The attack emphasized how far security had lapsed in the 18 months since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, bringing unrest prevalent elsewhere in the country to an area hosting some of Egypt’s most-popular tourism destinations. Kidnappings of tourists have picked up, while security forces have come under attack.
The trouble in Sinai comes at a difficult time for Egypt, still seeking to revive its economy after the uprising. International reserves resumed their drop in July after several months of nominal gains, bringing its cash-cushion to $14.4 billion. Egypt’s benchmark EGX 30 Index of stocks, which had gained in seven consecutive days before the attack, is down 1.6 since Aug. 5, retreating in three out of four sessions since then.
Compounding Mursi’s challenges were a litany of domestic issues, including daily power outages that have left Egyptians sweltering while they fast during the holy month of Ramadan.
The move to shake-up the security posts drew praise, softening slightly the criticism that had come after the president decided not to attend the funerals of the soldiers. His office said he didn’t want to distract from public mourning.
Mursi also ordered Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi to appoint a new head of the military police. The head of the Interior Ministry’s central security force -- a paramilitary unit used for riot control -- was also dismissed.
The shakeup came amid the army’s efforts to purge north Sinai of militants using attack helicopters, tanks and ground troops. Citing an unidentified army official, the independent Al-Shorouk newspaper said today that 20 militants were killed, dozens more wounded and 15 captured in the security operation.
Khalil al-Anani, a political analyst at Durham University in England, say it was probably carried out by jihadis or extremist Salafis.
‘New Radical’ Groups
“We can’t make a link between Islamist radicals who committed violent actions in the past and those conducting them now,” he said. “These are totally new radical Islamist groups that have nothing to do with the old Jihadists.” These included groups aiming to embarrass Mursi and wound Israel, al-Anani said.
The attack also left Mursi under pressure to examine Egypt’s peace accord with Israel, which he has pledged to uphold, as well as its relationship with the Islamic Hamas movement that rules the Gaza Strip.
Prime Minister Hisham Qandil told reporters yesterday that Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh had called him and voiced his support for the crackdown in the Sinai. Hamas condemned the attack on the border post, the worst in the region in years.
Amid concerns that the attacks would affect tourism, the governor of south Sinai, home to the Red Sea resorts, declared a state of emergency to secure tourists and cut off the road to north Sinai.
Mursi’s recent meetings with top Hamas officials had signaled a shift in Egypt’s position toward the Islamist movement labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S., Israel and the European Union. Egypt appeared to be easing some restrictions on Gazans in tandem with the meetings, a shift that may be stymied after the Sinai attack. Authorities began closing tunnels used to smuggle goods into Gaza, state media reported.
“Because of the reported Gaza connection, Mursi will likely face internal pressure to distance himself from the Hamas government in Gaza which, ironically, has faced its own battle against Salafi militants,” Haim Malka, deputy director of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said in an e-mailed response to questions.