Sunday's extraordinary raid by gunmen on an Egyptian military checkpoint near the Rafah crossing which killed 16 Egyptian soldiers was shocking news. For the past year there has been growing lawlessness in the vast desert expanse, as Bedouin bandits and Jihadists from next-door Gaza fill the vacuum, but just how uncontrollable was the situation was not made clear until this attack which was unprecedented in its brutality.
It was imperative that in response Cairo quickly close the Rafah border, the Gazans' only gateway to the outside world. It will be argued that the blockage will strangle Gaza, that it abruptly cuts off a lifeline for Gaza which has been subjected to an Israeli blockade since 2006. Merchandise and foodstuffs come through the tunnels; they will completely stop, as will building construction material, putting as many as 15,000 workers in the building sector out of work. Delays in fuel which comes in every day will worsen the Gaza electricity crisis and will stop work at bakeries, in factories and in transportation. But in the wake of the massacre, the closing, at least until further notice, is a must because it blocks access to the hundreds of cross-border smuggling tunnels. The guns and rocket-propelled grenades that the masked gunmen, dressed as Bedouin nomads, used on the border post more than likely came from this illicit conduit.
The attack presents a challenge to Egypt's new Islamist President Mohamed Mursi, whose Muslim Brotherhood has good relations with the Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip. Mursi has sought to reverse ousted leader Hosni Mubarak's hardline policy towards Hamas, promising to ease the hardship endured by Gaza's 1.6 million residents as a result of years of siege by Mubarak and Israel, both of whom viewed Hamas as a common enemy. The brazen alliance reached unprecedented heights when Mubarak refused to open Rafah during the 2008-9 genocidal Israeli onslaught on the Gaza Strip.
Mursi had just last week met Hamas's de facto Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and as part of the courting process, promised to open Rafah round the clock and allow goods to move in and out of the coastal territory. With their shared enmity for Israel, Mursi and Gaza's rulers had appeared ready to strike an enduring alliance. But Sunday's attack may already have undermined that prospect. If Mursi maintains close ties with Hamas now, he could come under criticism for putting the Brotherhood's agenda over the nation's interests.
Mursi's ties with Hamas will also alarm many in Israel already concerned with the rise of Islamists in Egypt. The attack, in which the perpetrators commandeered two armoured vehicles, and tried to break through the border before being shelled by Israeli troops, will tear at already frayed relations between Egypt and Israel which wants Cairo to tighten security in the Sinai but only under terms agreed with Israel under the 1979 peace treaty between the two countries. As such, Egypt must perform this balancing act: maintain tighter security in the Sinai but without increasing its number of troops near Israel's border.
Aside from closing Rafah, the Egyptian military has started to raid homes in search of suspects. Out of the 35 gunmen who took part in the attack, dozens are still at large.
Sunday's attack was unparalleled in its ferocity and highlighted the government's tenuous grip on the Sinai Peninsula. Jihadists have apparently gained a foothold in the thinly populated area, notably among the tribesmen of the northern Sinai. Islamist insurgency, which is allied with Al-Qaeda-inspired groups of militants in both Gaza and Sinai, has been active in Sinai for a decade at a low-level. On Sunday the activity turned seismic.