With the start of Ramadan, I began watching the third season of the Egyptian TV series Al-Ikhtiyar, or “The Choice,” a series that chronicles Egyptian political events over the last decade.
The leaks that appear at the end of each episode, and in fact the whole series, reminded me of an article that appeared in the newspaper Al-Watan in October 2013 headed “Sinai National Security Adviser: Morsi fled to Gaza and leaked Security Plans to Terrorists.”
In the article, journalist Osama Khaled conducted an interview with major-general Sherif Ismail, national security adviser for Sinai during former president Mohamed Morsi’s rule. Ismail’s position gave him access to confidential and classified information. At one point, Ismail had no other option but to resign after he realised that working under certain conditions was a betrayal of Egypt.
This is my take on the interview, which was conducted in Arabic. Some details have been omitted for brevity, but the translation maintains the integrity of the interview. Any bracketed information is mine and is there for clarification.
Ismail starts off by talking about the Muslim Brotherhood’s agreement with the Americans and the Israelis to liquidate the Palestinian cause by abandoning part of Sinai and annexing it to Gaza so as to facilitate Israel’s disposal of the Gaza crisis without giving up any of its land.
He comments on the war on terror in Sinai in 2013, saying that “the fallout in Sinai today is the upshot of the missteps of the previous regime. Today’s operations are corrective measures to fix these missteps.”
He then goes on to explain the moves Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood took in Sinai. Morsi released 580 prisoners who had served only half their time, even though they had all been sentenced in cases related to terrorism, insurgency, the arms trade, and drugs. Although Ismail and the security apparatus voiced their concerns over Morsi’s intention to release these convicts, Morsi went ahead with it anyway.
Morsi also culled the police’s ability to retaliate against those crossing into Egypt, something which according to Ismail gave Hamas and other extremist groups the freedom to manoeuvre in Sinai.
“On a weekly basis, about 350 Palestinians entered Sinai illegally via tunnels. The president’s instructions were to let them return to Gaza without pursuing any legal action against them. That’s what we did: we simply returned them to Gaza via the border crossings,” Ismail said.
He went on to explain the gravity of the situation. Allowing the Palestinians to cross into Sinai “was a national security issue – a direct violation of Egyptian authority”. Furthermore, Hamas had stored weapons in Sinai and conducted training exercises for Palestinians and Bedouin. Ismail also recorded joint training exercises with Islamist groups from Gaza such as Al-Jihad Al-Islami, Geish Al-Islam, and Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis.
All these groups forgot about their differences and agreed on one principle: to create a terrorist state in Sinai. This is why Hamas permitted them to travel through its territory on the condition that they did not conduct any operations from within Gaza against Israel.
The violence had stopped after Egypt brokered a deal between Israel and Hamas, allowing both to enjoy a long truce. But these groups began to train in Sinai, turning it into a ticking timebomb ready to explode at any moment.
However, the Egyptian presidency did not do much when they were told about these aberrations, Ismail said. Not only did it refuse to conduct any operations against these groups, but it also disclosed the information to the groups in Sinai so that they could correct their bearings.
When Khaled asked Ismail why the army or the police did not react to such events, Ismail said that the army did not act unless instructed to do so. Both the army and the police were subjected to a plot to diminish their capabilities at the time. The government had ignored requests for armaments and vehicles to be used to enforce security and pursue militants and to protect police units themselves. Restrained and unable to act, the army and police were incensed by such actions.
Ismail also confirmed that Safwat Hegazi, the then Muslim Brotherhood leader who visited Sinai often, had played a critical role in ground operations and in the bombing of pipelines (supplying Jordan and Israel with gas). Mohamed Al-Zawahiri, leader of a Salafi jihadist group and brother of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri, was captured in Al-Arish, only to be released the same day by a specific order.
Ismail resigned in protest because of two particular incidents. The first was when the presidency aborted the “Eagle Operation,” an Egyptian counterattack against the killers of 16 Egyptian soldiers in Rafah close to the border with Gaza. Then, Morsi sent a delegation to the area. “The fact that Magdi Salem, other Islamist group members, and ex-convicts were among the members of the delegation enraged the security apparatus in Sinai as a whole. They were not qualified to negotiate in the name of Egypt and excluded the army and police force,” he said.
The second incident was when Brotherhood leader Khairat Al-Shater established a company called “Palestinian Egyptian” in Cairo to oversee 70 tunnels crossing from Gaza into Egyptian territory and giving him monopoly control over illegal routes into and out of Gaza.
Ismail then realised that his reports to the presidency were being utilised against Egypt instead of protecting it. He could not continue to work for a regime that was working against his country.
In the interview, he goes on to explain why Morsi ousted field-marshal Tantawi and general Mourad Mowafi. The latter had provided a dossier on Islamist terror operations in Sinai that reported on the increase in the number of terrorist cells in Sinai and the spread of weapons, training camps, and Islamist courts. It also warned that Sinai had become a goal for terrorists from all the Arab countries.
Ismail said that after the Brotherhood took power in Egypt it tried to paralyse the security apparatus. It retired 600 major-generals from the police and shrank the role of state security, refusing to provide it with the necessary arms.
That is in addition to the meeting that took place at the Four Seasons Hotel in Cairo between Al-Shater and the leader of the Iranian National Guard with a view to creating a similar militia group in Egypt that would answer to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood was thus working towards destroying the nation in order to build another that fitted its ideology.
Ismail said that after Morsi escaped from the Wadi Al-Natroun Prison, he went to Al-Arish where he stayed with former deputy governor and Brotherhood member Adel Qatamesh. Then he headed to Gaza via the tunnels. When the dust settled, he returned to Egypt.
Morsi wasn’t alone on this trip to Gaza. “Morsi entered Gaza with Ayman Nofal [the leader of the Al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas], who coordinated with the Brotherhood office in Al-Arish. Bedouin and Salafi, those who had earlier stormed the prisons and the police stations, and assisted them in crossing into Gaza,” Ismail said.
My understanding of what Ismail says regarding events in Sinai is that they constitute acts of treason. When a man of Ismail’s standing uncovers the cataclysmic situation in Sinai at that time, there is no room for doubt or second-guessing.
* The writer is the author of Cairo Rewind on the First Two Years of Egypt’s Revolution, 2011-2013.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.