The Sinai Tightrope
Mohammed Morsi walks a fine line in response to Sinai disorder
The brazen attack has thrust Egypt’s president, Mohamed Morsi, once again into the midst of a crisis. But unlike the earlier constitutional crisis in July, which pitted Egypt’s military and courts against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, this time around Morsi and the military appear to be on the same side.
The problem boils down to the lack of official control in the Sinai Peninsula since the fall of Mubarak in February 2011. Since then, government control of the Sinai has been limited, which has allowed militant groups to flourish, making a reassertion of government control over the region a very difficult task. Indeed, as the New York Times points out, “Since Mr. Mubarak was toppled in 2011, the Sinai has experienced a growing lawlessness as Bedouin criminals, Palestinian militants from neighboring Gaza and other extremists operated at will. Weapons are plentiful and state institutions few.”
The border attack has finally given the Egyptian government—or more specifically the Egyptian military—an excuse to take control of this strategically significant region, but Morsi appeared reluctant to act, at least at first. Following the attack, there were reports that Morsi had come under tremendous pressure from the military to crush the militants. This makes sense, since Morsi, as President of Egypt, is required to defend the sovereignty of the Egyptian state from aggression, both foreign and domestic. However, Morsi’s reluctance seems to stem from the fact that his core political constituency is the Muslim Brotherhood, which, along with Hamas, has blamed the Sunday attack on Israel’s intelligence service, Mossad.
But as Morsi came under fire from all sides for his rather tepid initial response to the crisis, he was spurned into action on the evening of 7 August, when militants launched another series of six coordinated attacks against Egyptian forces in the Sinai, wounding five security officers and a civilian. The targets included five security checkpoints and a military cement factory. At this point, the neither the military, nor Morsi, could continue to ignore the crisis that was brewing, and so the Egyptian Air Force (EAF), for the first time since 1973, launched a series of air-strikes against militant positions, killing between 20-23, though the New York Times notes that these figures have not been verified.
Morsi’s approval of the military action against the militants shows that he actually has political teeth, but his action places him in a difficult position with the Muslim Brotherhood, since he appears to be catering more to the legitimate national security concerns of the military than the dogmatic interests of his supporters. However, Morsi also appears to be taking steps to alleviate the Brotherhood’s concerns. On the evening of 8 August, Morsi moved to purge the Egyptian security apparatus by sacking both his intelligence chief and the Sinai provincial governor, along with several mid-level Interior Ministry officials and the head of the presidential guard. Many of these officials were either closely associated with the old guard or were tied directly to security lapses that resulted in the deaths of the soldiers on Sunday. At the same time, he has ordered Egyptian intelligence to demand the extradition from Gaza of three Palestinians tied to Sunday’s attacks. In the end, this shows that Morsi is walking a thin line between the national interests of the Egyptian state and the political interests of the Muslim Brotherhood. This is a very dangerous game and, if not done carefully, could lead to the alienation of both.