In Sinai everything is possible: Egyptian army's Operation Eagle is open-ended

Ahmed Eleiba , Friday 26 Aug 2011

Ahram Online travels through Sinai tracking Al-Qaeda's footprints in the sands, and finds the Egyptian army battling on two fronts

Bedouins test their weapons in a mountainous region of central Sinai October 24, 2010. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih

The trip to Sinai seems long and exhausting for visitors these days, unlike at any other time. As soon as you arrive at Al-Salam Bridge security procedures by the army and police intensify for the next 220km. They work separately and the majority is army troops who under Operation Eagle are constructing trenches and fortifications on the hills above the remains of weak fortifications at check points at Al-Nasr, Al-Baluza, and all the entrances and exits at Areesh. More checkpoints were added there, enforced with armoured vehicles, bomb detection units and special forces.

Starting at Al-Reesa checkpoint, past Al-Sheikh Zoweid and until the Rafah border crossing, all vehicles are stopped, except for local residents after close inspection of their IDs. Private vehicles traveling to Sinai are also closely scrutinized as licenses and passenger IDs are inspected with forensic tests. All these intensive procedures make for very long lines at every checkpoint.

In Areesh, some government buildings fly banners announcing ‘The Armed Forces have taken over this building’, including large structures such as the new court building where roadblocks declare ‘No Entry’. Even after being searched, entry is still denied. The same happens outside the new Police Station 3 which was not handed over to the police – whose presence is noticeably absent from all residential areas in Areesh.

Some 1,000 Egyptian soldiers have been deployed in Sinai after an Ok from both the US and Israel, in accordance with the stipulations of the US guaranteed Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty. They are there to take part in Operation Eagle aimed at cleansing the Sinai Peninsula of all outlaws, including what some believe to be Al-Qaeda elements and members of militant Islamist groups which view society as heretic. Operation Eagle began after Shari’a Friday two weeks ago when Salafi supporters and leaders organised protest demonstrations in various parts of the country, including in Sinai; some of the Salafi protesters destroyed a statue of former President Anwar Al-Sadat and blanketed the area with flyers stamped with Al-Qaeda seal.

Many sources in Sinai, including Governor Abdel-Wahhab Mabruk, insist that Al-Qaeda does not have a branch in Sinai – which was echoed by all official sources interviewed by Ahram Online. The chief prosecutor in Areesh stated vehemently during an interview: “There is nothing more to be said other than the declared official position, which is that there is no presence of Al-Qaeda affiliates in Sinai; there are only takfiriya (groups branding society as infidel) that are present in the region because of the nature of Sinai.”

At one Bedouin tent, Sheikh Salem Al-Swerki and his sons gather around, as their father complains about what has happened to Sinai. Al-Swerki, a prominent leader of northern tribes, said that the problem in Sinai was not at all as the national media tries to portray it, soleley an issue of development, pointing out that the region suffered from serious security problems.

Sheikh Al-Swerki elaborates: “During Mubarak’s era, unfortunately, there was an iron fist by security forces especially by the State Security Agency; after the revolution, they have completely vanished. Our concern about security investigations is that some of the thugs spreading violence and chaos operate at the behest of members of the former regime, including drug and arms trading that was prevalent in the past.”

Ahmed Abu Deraa, a journalist who witnessed Shari’a Friday in Sinai, has more details. “Until now we cannot ascertain the identities of those who handed out the flyers signed by Al-Qaeda, or those who destroyed the statue,” Abu Deraa said. “They are not members of any of the known tribes because we know each other very well, and we cannot confirm even if they were Sinai Bedouins.”

About 60 km from Areesh at Be’r Al-Abd we meet with Sheikh Ibrahim Hammad, a tribal chief in the area, who said that the unstable security situation is caused by the vacuum resulting from the withdrawal of security forces from Sinai. There is bad blood between tribe members and these security agencies, Hammad revealed, and it will not be settled by any reconciliations or agreements between the two sides. He believes that it is best if the same police agencies do not return at all, “because they will settle scores with the tribes”.

Hammad asserts that the problem of the central region between Nakhl and Jabal Al-Halal connecting Egypt and Israel “is the real problem threatening the security of that entire region”. But Khaled Said, a young member of the National Association for Change in Areesh who monitors investigations there, counters: “I have confirmations that Al-Qaeda is not present, but in light of developments and after investigating the matter we have found out that there are some people who are trying to establish a branch of Al-Qaeda in Sinai. So far, they have been unsuccessful because they have recruited some elements of the Takfir wal Hijra group. Meanwhile, prisoners arrested by State Security without cause are now seeking revenge from the state, and are being recruited to form the nucleus of the organisation. It is difficult to know how far along they are in this endeavour.”

A military expert who is familiar with Sinai and its people adds: “Our trusted sources confirm that Al-Qaeda does not exist there [Sinai], but the problem is that some people will believe they established an affiliate if they are not tracked down early.” The source added that the acts during Shari’a Friday sought to secure the support of the mother organisation, but this did not happen.

According to security reports, there has been a proliferation of weapons over the past few months, mostly coming from Libya and Sudan after passing through Egypt’s southern region and onto the Red Sea area then up to northern Sinai. Weapons also arrived through the tunnels connecting Egyptian and Palestinian Rafah, as well as smuggled weapons via Israel. This influx of weapons has resulted in limited skirmishes mostly with the police, such as an incident that occurred at a checkpoint in Areesh last week that was quickly brought under control. Surprisingly large volumes and types of weapons were also confiscated.

There are some incidents, however, that are inexplicable such as the suicide bomber who killed himself and three Central Security soldiers last week on the border. The commander of the military zone said there was no explanation for the attack, and most sources could not fathom the reasons behind this isolated incident. The severed head of the suicide bomber and the bodies of the victims were taken to Al-Areesh Hospital without explanation or report on the attack.

After an attack in Eilat, Israel, the Tel Aviv launched a military attack behind the Egyptian border – an act which military experts describe as a two-fold mistake. First, the aim of the strike, as stated in the report by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, and striking inside Egypt’s border.

The military explanation states that Israel disapproves of what the Egyptian armed forces are doing in Sinai and feels it is exaggerated, even though the Israeli media machine is the one that exaggerated conditions in Sinai. According to several military sources, however, Israel knows there is a desire to amend the security clauses in Camp David. One source confirmed that the Egyptian military present in Sinai and the barricades confirm that Egypt has no intention of ending operations mid-mission, and that Operation Eagle is open-ended.

A source close to ongoing negotiations between Egypt and Israel on developments in Sinai revealed that these talks have yet to reach agreement, and that a difficult path of negotiations still lies ahead for both sides. Major General Amir Eshel, the head the Israeli army’s Strategic Planning Directorate, is still in Cairo on a visit which the Egyptian side is keeping under wraps. Cairo is unaccustomed to Eshel visiting in his military capacity. He arrived on a private jet that landed at Cairo Airport and did not go through the VIP lounge; this was the same procedure for the chief of Hamas’s Political Bureau Khaled Mishaal who also visited Cairo without the visit being documented in any official records, implying it was a secret visit except for his going to a meeting at the Muslim Brotherhood Guidance Office.

At one office at National Security, Mishaal and his delegation which included his deputy Moussa Abu Marzouq were meeting in very close proximit to where Israeli security official Amos Gilad was also holding meetings. He was on a mission unrelated to the issue of prisoners of war, as was reported, but instead his talks with Egyptian national security officials concerned the escalation of missile launches into Israel. Hamas was asked to intercede to end operations by Saraya Al-Quds, which were launching the missiles. In fact negotiations between Egyptian officials and Hamas, on one hand, and Israel's Gilad, on the other, were taking place in the same building – according to an informed source accompanying the delegation – under the supervision of Egypt’s National Security.

Ambassador Yasser Othman told Ahram Online in a telephone interview from Ramallah that there were intensive contacts by Egypt in all directions to end attacks from inside the Gaza Strip, and Hamas was responsible for making the factions halt operations and bringing the situation under control. Indeed, a truce was reached to end bloodshed on the Palestinian and Egyptian sides.

At a checkpoint near Al-Areesh, Ahram Onlined asked one Egyptian army officer – who preferred to remain anonymous – about their response if attacks continue. His response was immediate and firm: “We will respond immediately to any gunfire but we will not initiate hostilities”. Strangely, there are sources in Al-Areesh who insist that despite statements by Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak not to provoke Egypt and its army and an apology for the mistake, as he described it, skirmishes continue.

Brigadier General Safwat Al-Zayyat, a military expert, feels is Israel is manipulating the security situtation in Sinai for ends of its own. “Before the attack on Eilat, Israel knew that an attack was going to take place within two hours in this region,” Al-Zayyat asserted. “They have in place an emergency plan for evacuation, so why did they not activate it and or take the necessary steps which they train for all the time?” He admitted that “there are development problems in Sinai and the previous regime undermined all the plans for Sinai after it returned to Egyptian control. In fact, former President Mubarak played a major role in making the region barren, he added, except for the second capital Sharm El-Sheikh.

“Why do we continue this policy?” Al-Zayyat demanded. “How can one hold talks with the US and Israel in order to protect one’s land, and ask for permission after which I will be asked to leave? We must realise that there is a need to cleanse Sinai from the inside; there are problems pertaining to those [Gama'a Islamiya members] who were released from prison and who can guarantee that the ideological revisions they declared [renouncing violence] are real. Other obstacles include extremist armed groups on the Palestinian side, in the form of the Islamic Liberation Army, which must to be reined in, to prevent it from sending elements into Egyptian territories."

He went on to add, “There are also sympathisers among the Bedouin tribes, because no one has paid attention to them. We must realise that the farther away you get from the centre towards the perifphery the more tenious are ties based on national loyalty and patriotism. This is happening in Sinai, which was marginalised before and after liberation. Unfortunately, the peace agreement limits our control over our own territories, at a time when we are dealing with the border as a security issue, forgetting that Camp David restricts our ability to exercise sovereignty while it places no restrains on Israel.”

Another military expert stated that Egypt has so far not accepted Israel’s official apology because it falls well short of what the incident deserves. The source revealed that while Egypt wants to calm matters it also wants to reach a consensual agreement on Zone C, and that there are written proposals under discussion by military experts in Egypt. There are written ideas about the possibility of “an additional protocol to Camp David that does not alter the fundamentals of the treaty”, which is likely to be discussed during the bi-annual meeting of the joint security committee that convenes alternately in Al-Areesh and Beersheba.

Al-Zayyat said he has information that a heated debate surrounds this issue in each of the Egyptian and Israeli armed forces, but in the end Washington will have the final word on the matter, since it is the main sponsor and guarantor of the treaty. There is a precedent, namely the Salah El-Din Passage agreement, and it will play a role in any new missions by UN troops.

“The visit by US Middle East Envoy Jeffrey Feltman emphasised that what is needed now is calm on both sides and nothing more,” he continued. “The meetings that took place in Egypt regarding ongoing escalation included Arab parties to support calm through diplomatic channels, and reviving the peace process. But in the end, Egypt has other issues of contention with Washington regarding armament that could postpone this request or result in excessive pressure.”

According to Tareq Fahmy, the head of the Israeli affairs unit at the National Centre for Middle East Studies, another problem that compelled Israel to escalate tensions is the domestic crisis and demonstrations there. In response, and expectedly, Tel Aviv is diverting attention and relying on Israel’s Defence Ministry testing the waters on the Egyptian front.

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