28 October- On Saturday, Egyptian President Abdul Fatah El Sisi declared a three month state of emergency in north and central Sinai Peninsula. The state of emergency which began on Saturday at 0300 GMT will last for three months. A curfew will be enforced from 1700 to 0500. In addition, the Egyptian government has closed the Rafah crossing into the Gaza Strip. Sisi’s presidential decree stated, “The army and police will take all necessary measures to tackle the dangers of terrorism and its financing, to preserve the security of the region… and protect the lives of citizens.”
The decision came after a militant fighter rammed an explosives-laden vehicle into a security checkpoint northwest of El-Arish in North Sinai on Friday, killing at least 30 soldiers and leaving 29 others injured. One senior army official and five officers were among the wounded. Earlier on Friday, gunmen shot and killed an officer and wounded two soldiers at a checkpoint south of El-Arish. On Saturday, the body of a soldier who disappeared after Friday’s attack was found riddled with bullets. Immediately following the incidents, Sisi called for three days of national morning and called for a meeting of the National Defence Council.
The attacks are the worst the country has experienced against security forces since the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. In August 2013, 25 soldiers were killed in the Sinai when gunmen opened fire at two buses transporting troops. In July 2014, 22 border guards were killed in the western desert near the border with Libya. Later in July, militants conducted two bombings in the Sinai, killing 17 police officers. Each of these attacks has been claimed by Ansar Beit al Maqdis, a Sinai-based terror group that as targeted security forces in the Sinai Peninsula and Nile Valley Egypt since Morsi’s removal from office.
The latest bombings followed the sentencing of seven members of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis to death on Tuesday for conducting deadly attacks on the army. Sisi said Friday’s attack was carried out with “external support” in order to “break the will of the Egyptian people and army.” A spokesman for Ansar Beit al Maqdis has recently stated that they have been receiving assistance from ISIS in the form of advice and guidance, although he underscored that there was no transfer of weapons or personnel.
Sisi has stated that the militants posed an “existential threat” to Egypt, and has authorised a new law that expands military control over state facilities, including power plants, main roads and bridges for the next two years. The law calls for state infrastructure to be defined as “military facilities” and allows the army to work with police to protect these sites, and to arrest and present for trial anyone suspected of launching attacks on those sights. Trials would be held in a military court.
Critics caution that the law allows the army to return to the streets, and will result in the return of military trials for civilians, one of the major reasons for the Egyptian uprising in 2011. Activists believe the law is too broad, and may be reinterpreted to cover universities, where clashes between and protesters have become a regular occurrence. The increased capacity for military power has been perceived as an attempt to quell dissidents against the Sisi administration. A large number of anti-military activists have been arrested in October, and at least 17 newspapers across the nation have refrained from publishing criticism of the army or the state.
Yet Sisi’s presidential spokesman, Alaa Youssef, said the decree is a limited and proportional response aimed at tackling terrorism, not protesters. The Egyptian foreign ministry has also contacted ambassadors of several nations to ask for additional security support and to “and supply information for Egypt that meets its security needs.” Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry has called for the international community to provide support in order to “carry out a strong and decisive” operation. The EU, US and UK have condemned the two attacks and pledged to support Egypt.
The Egyptian government has taken extensive ground and air efforts to eradicate the terrorist threat in the Sinai Peninsula. Despite the number of targeted killings, arrests, tunnel closures, and confiscations of militant held homes and weapons the militant threat does not appear to be diminishing. The military launched fresh air strikes Saturday in northern Sinai, killing eight suspected militants.
Clashes are expected on Friday, 26 July following an unusual statement by Egyptian General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
On 24 July, al-Sisi, gave a speech at a military graduation ceremony. In the televised speech, he said, “I urge the people to take to the streets this coming Friday to prove their will and give me, the army and police, a mandate to confront possible violence and terrorism. So that in case there was a resort to violence and terrorism, the army would have a mandate to confront this.”
Millions of Egyptians are expected to take to the streets tomorrow in support of the government mandate, as the Muslim brotherhood has been protesting daily, with escalating violence and negative economic impact since the removal of President Mohamed Morsi on 4 July.
While the call for civilian mobilisation is unusual, the reasons behind it may be two-fold. First, it is important for the Egyptian government to prove to Western authorities that they acted legitimately on behalf of the broad majority of Egyptians. The mobilisation of the Egyptians could prove, in a sense, that what the army did on 4 July was not a military-directed coup, but a civilian revolution with assistance from the military. The difference in this language means the difference between deliveries or withdrawals of vital financial aid packages, particularly from the US.
Second, the call for civilian mobilisation follows a bombing conducted in Mansoura on 24 July, which resulted in the death of 1 office, and the injury of 19 officers and civilians. This is the first time a bomb has been detonated in Nile Valley Egypt since 3 July, and is an alarming escalation. While the military has been tolerant of peaceful and even semi-violent protests, the use of gunfire has instigated reaction. The detonation of a bomb, unusual for the region, signals an impact from outside influence, and directly threatens civil order. Intelligence from the region has indicated that weapons have been sent through the Sinai Peninsula in to Egypt, from Gaza.
Meanwhile, Interim President Adly Monsour has taken a step back from the proceedings. He must walk a fine line between providing hopes of re-establishing dialog with the Muslim Brotherhood in order to create an inclusive new government, and reassuring the West that Egypt is on a path to stability and economic improvement.
In his speech, Al-Sisi again urged against public unrest, and called for national reconciliation. However, it is likely that a large turnout of Egyptians on Friday will give the military the “permission” they need to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood. If reconciliation is not a conceivable option for the Brotherhood, who have rejected several opportunities to work with what they term “the false government”, then it is possible that the Egyptian military could consider, once again, driving the group underground as they had done in the 1950s.
As such, clashes and mass arrests are expected on Friday. Those travelling in the region would be advised to refrain from participation in rallies, as violence is expected. Foreigners should also be wary of unscheduled changes to protest destinations or marches between sites.