Latest Sinai attack whips up nationalist fervour in Egypt
CAIRO // In what has become a familiar scene, a visibly angry and emotional Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El Sisi spoke to the nation while some two dozen top generals stood at attention behind him.
Vowing to avenge the death of at least 30 service members killed by ISIL’s Egypt branch, the general-turned-politician warned that the fight against terrorism would take years and require many sacrifices by Egyptians.
Mr El Sisi spoke on Saturday, two days after the complex and highly coordinated attack targeted army positions in northern Sinai, prompting the Egyptian leader to cut short a visit to Addis Ababa and fly home to preside over an emergency meeting of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
Following his meeting with the military’s top brass, Mr El Sisi issued a presidential order unifying all military forces in the Sinai Peninsula under one command. This move suggests that a stepped-up campaign against the militants will begin soon, raising the prospect of major clashes and further casualties.
Thursday’s attack in the coastal city of Al Arish was the second high-profile operation by the militants since October, when an elaborate ambush also in northern Sinai killed 30 army soldiers. It was also the latest chapter in an extremist insurgency in Sinai that has dramatically escalated since the July 2013 removal of president Mohammed Morsi by then military chief Mr El Sissi. It has since spread to the mainland, targeting army soldiers and members of the security forces around much of the country.
Mr El Sisi, in office since June, suggested on Saturday that Mr Morsi’s now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood was behind Thursday’s attack, saying he was told by unnamed leaders of the group in June 2013 that removing the former president would lead to an insurgency in which extremists from across the world would participate.
“I knew that this would happen and I believe that you (Egyptians) do know that we will face a massive wave of terror because we destroyed an organisation at the peak of its strength,” he said in televised comments that alluded to the Brotherhood.
He also hinted that the insurgency involved elements from abroad, a thinly veiled reference to the militant Hamas group that rules the Gaza Strip, on Egypt’s eastern border. “We will not abandon Sinai,” he said.
Coincidentally, an Egyptian court issued a verdict on Saturday that declared Hamas’ military wing – the Ezzedeen Al Qasam Brigades – a terrorist organisation, for what it said was the group’s involvement in anti-state activities in the country.
Despite being dealt this blow, however, Hamas cannot afford to sever ties with Egypt because of Cairo’s special relationship with Israel, as well as its control of the Rafah border crossing.
The latest Sinai attack, while underlining the formidable challenges faced by Mr El Sisi, has also laid bare what some critics see as glaring failings by the military and security forces, particularly the scarcity of actionable intelligence and a lack of better defensive tactics in a hostile region.
Significantly, Thursday’s attack came as a major military operation against the insurgents has been underway since October and followed harsh security measures in the area, including the evacuation of hundreds of families and the demolition of homes close to the Gaza border, as well as a night-time curfew.
Now, state media is speaking of an even bigger operation to be launched in the area as pro-government commentators urge Mr El Sisi to mercilessly strike at the militants.
“No voice must be louder than the voice of the battle,” a slogan dating back to the years after Egypt’s 1967 defeat by Israel, has been revived in the media.
The latest attack has also unleashed a new wave of nationalism and energised opposition by government supporters to pro-democracy activists seeking greater respect for human rights and more freedoms.
Among the most obvious losers of this growing patriotic fervour is the case of Shaimaa El Sabbagh, a 32-year-old mother of a small child who was shot dead during a peaceful protest on January 24. The incident touched a nerve in Egypt, and once again brought to the forefront the perceived excessive use of force by police against protesters.
Activists, and the leftist party to which El Sabbagh belonged, accuse the police of killing her. Authorities have ordered a high-level investigation into her death but the case may well be overshadowed by this new wave of patriotism that’s gripping the country.
“The case of Shaimaa El Sabbagh is a glaring example of the violation of moral values, as if the bullet she was shot with paved the way for the shells of El Arish,” prominent columnist Abdullah El Sennawi wrote on Saturday about how the pro-government media is handling the news.
“To be silent on the murderer (of El Sabbagh) or whoever is behind him is an affront to the pure blood that was profusely shed in the latest terrorist operation.”