Ossie Makepeace writes from Cairo: The Egyptian military command has launched an airborne missile attack on what it sees as Islamist militant groups in the Sinai Peninsula. This is the first time Egypt has fired missiles in the Sinai since the 1973 Israeli-Egyptian war.
Up to thirty people in the Touma and Sheikh Zuwaid area have been reported killed. In Touma, an Egyptian ground force has cleaned up what it believes was a terrorist stronghold. Twenty alleged terrorists have been killed thus far.
On Sunday, 16 Egyptian border guards were killed by militants. The Egyptian Rafah border crossing into Gaza has been sealed off and the keys thrown away.
This is not a one off action by militants. Nor is it a knee-jerk response by the Egyptians. It is the expected and crucial test for the new Egyptian leader President Mursi, for the militants themselves, for the Israelis and above all, for the authority of the Egyptian military.
For more than a year of the Arab Spring, Sinai has been the regional bad lands. The border crossing between Israel, Egypt and Palestinian Gaza has seen increased smuggling and a camping out of militant groups with an eye to attacking not Egypt but Israel.
Because Sinai is such a desperately poor region it is a haven for jihadists and more of them have been arriving there during the past six months or so.
President Mursi’s promise to provide an efficient security cordon in the area has clearly failed to materialise. The Israelis claim that the problem is a joint one but that the onus is on Egypt to take out the jihadists. But the suggestion that it’s all up to Egypt is not true – it needs Israeli and US Intelligence co-operation – and is part of a bigger dilemma for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leadership.
The alleged terrorists have been helped as President Mursi has been hindered by the stifling of Egypt’s security operation in Sinai. This is partly due to the conflict between the ambitions of the Egyptian public and the Muslim Brotherhood since the fall of President Mubarak. The revolution in Tahrir Square demanded the removal of the military from the political system. The Egyptian military refused to go and even went as far as to ban the consequences of apparently democratic decisions.
However, since the direct elections and the arrival of President Mursi, the position of the military has been weakened. The state governance of national security is now subject, albeit uncertainly, to a very non-military cohort in Cairo.
So what do the events of the past six days suggest – apart from the conspiracy theory that the Israelis were behind the whole thing to boost the position of the Egyptian military?
Firstly, it has still to emerge how much warning of the militancy and pending activity was given by US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta when he visited President Mursi last week. Undoubted US satellite and electronic intelligence assets were aware of the increased operational positions of jihadists. Panetta could tell Mursi the capabilities of those groups, but not their intentions.
The very nature of jihadists means they take action by opportunity. Therefore although their capability is known through Intelligence gathering, it is hard to pick up what they intend to do until the last moment – to some extent because they work independently and don’t know themselves.
Secondly, we have to ask what has happened to the once regular two-way street of Intelligence passing between Israel and the Egypt. Could it very well be that since the reduction in military authority in Cairo, the Israelis have restricted the flow of Intelligence although it is immediately hard to see what could be gained by them for doing that.
The position in the Sinai bad lands remains so uncertain that the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement and understandings that followed the Yom Kippur war could go into cold storage. The Israelis could decide that they cannot rely on Egypt to run the Sinai security operation and so will have to do so themselves. Even if that means violating Egyptian air and ground space.
If there is a winner in any of this, it is the Egyptian military high command.
When the attacks came, President Mursi had to order his generals to take over the security detail. In other words, the President – an instinctively anti-military figure – had to accept that the military role in Egypt remains paramount to the nation’s future. The next test is to see if the veterans of Tahrir Square accept this logical, if temporary, conclusion.