Arab world: Egypt’s dangerous stalemate
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is fighting for his country’s survival – and his own. Islamic terrorism is not abating, hampering vital efforts to bring a better life to the people through a revitalized economy and political stability. Sisi knows he has to show results soon to prevent Egypt from slipping back into anarchy and chaos. Despite the army’s all-out effort to defeat Islamist insurgency in Sinai, there is no end in sight. F-16 fighter planes and Apache helicopters have joined the campaign, security forces have killed or wounded hundreds of terrorists, destroying their haunts and their training groups – but more keep coming. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis gunmen, who have pledged allegiance to Islamic State, continue making daring raids against police stations and other security targets, leading to loss of life and heavy damage.
In one instance on April 14, the commander of the central police station of El-Arish was wounded in a raid; the assailants were able to escape. For all intents and purposes the situation has reached a stalemate, though the army has managed to contain the terrorists in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula, preventing them from extending their activities to the south and to the Suez Canal – where they could have inflicted untold damage to economic and security infrastructure, and severely undermined public morale. However, there are still sporadic terrorist attacks in Cairo and other parts of the country.
Bombs explode, killing and maiming; power lines are blasted. A number of terrorist groups are involved, from Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis and the so-called Soldiers of Egypt to the ever-present Muslim Brotherhood; many of their members have been arrested, their leaders sentenced to death – though no one has been executed yet – but they keep on demonstrating against the regime (though in diminishing numbers).
In Yemen, Iranian-backed Houthi tribes are poised to take over the strategic Red Sea straits, threatening free passage to the Suez Canal – a reminder, if one was needed, of the fact that Islamic terrorism knows no border. Vainly did the Egyptian president try to convince the US-led coalition against Islamic State to extend its activities to the whole Middle East. But US President Barack Obama is unwilling to acknowledge that there is a regional and international dimension to the movement. The fact remains that Islamic State dispatches terrorists and weapons to Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in the Sinai Peninsula from Libya, where there is an unlimited supply of both. No matter how many guerrillas are intercepted or killed by the Egyptian army, more are coming through the vast mountainous and desert region, along the 1,200-km.
border between the two countries.
Then there is Gaza, where terrorists can find refuge, regroup and train, and where new weapons can be tested. Cairo is desperately trying to cut off the peninsula from the Strip. The Rafah crossing is closed most of the time, and when it opens it is under the strict supervision of Egyptian authorities. More than 2,000 contraband tunnels have been destroyed and a 1-km.-deep sanitized zone has been installed; thousands of families have been uprooted.
They have been compensated but resentment is high, and the move has prompted widespread condemnation by human rights associations. Against this backdrop, the regime is weighing extending the zone to 5 km. and making the digging of contraband tunnels punishable by life imprisonment. A court in Cairo has forbidden Hamas activities in Egypt, and another has declared Hamas a terrorist organization; however, the central government is appealing that decision for the sake of its ongoing dialogue with Gaza’s leaders on the Palestinian issue.
The Iranian-Houthi threat has led Sisi to call for the creation of a rapid-response Arab unit, as Saudi Arabia has rallied neighboring states to form a coalition against the rebels in Yemen – who are threatening its border in the south, and were about to take control of the strategic port of Aden. Though the creation of a united Arab unit was decided at a summit in Sharm e-Sheikh last month, implementation will not be easy. A number of states such as Lebanon and Iraq have warned they would not allow any infringement to their sovereignty; some Gulf states and Jordan have been more forthcoming, and meetings between army commanders are scheduled.
The problem is that these countries are not keen to risk their troops in a ground operation in neighboring states. Armies are the traditional bulwark of Arab regimes; a failed intervention outside their borders could cause their downfall. Nevertheless, since the West is largely indifferent to what is happening, Sisi and his Gulf allies have no choice but to unite against the common threat of Islamic terrorism, be it Sunni or Shi’ite.
On the home front, Sisi has launched a series of impressive projects – a new canal parallel to the old one to enable simultaneous crossing in both directions, thereby doubling receipts; an industrial, commercial and tourist zone between the two canals; 3,000 km. of modern roads. Perhaps his most ambitious project is the creation of a new administrative capital city east of Cairo, at an estimated cost of $45 billion. Arab states have rallied to his side, pledging billions of dollars at a special economic summit last month; international groups have indicated their interest in some of the projects – a significant victory for the embattled president.
But Egypt’s endemic problems – population explosion, illiteracy leading to widespread unemployment and enduring poverty, as well as corruption on an epic scale – are not making Sisi’s task easier. He is also calling to reform Islam by purging it of its extremist discourse, and has already instructed the Education Ministry to eliminate extremist content such as the call to jihad and attacks on other religions. Meanwhile, the political situation is still unclear and elections are repeatedly postponed, allegedly because of ambiguities in the election law.
The fact is that the president has not been able to secure a large enough block to ensure his electoral victory, while the Muslim Brotherhood – though banned – and other Islamic parties can still muster a sizable vote. Can Sisi win all his battles? How long will the Egyptian people wait for some much-needed economic results? Egypt is going it alone, still waiting for the West to understand that Cairo remains its best ally against the rising tide of terrorism now lapping at its shores.