As the military continues raiding shelters of Islamic fundamentalists in Sinai, an unexpected change at the top of the Armed Forces could be a turning point in the confrontation, Amirah Ibrahim reports
The aftershocks of last week's deadly Sinai attack in which 16 soldiers at an Egyptian border guards unit were killed are rattling the country. On Sunday, President Mohamed Mursi dismissed all high-ranking officers of the Armed Forces, including the powerful military leader Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who was defence minister and general commander for more than 15 years. Tantawi had also been de facto leader of the country from the time former president Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February last year to the election of Mursi as president last month.
Mursi promoted the military intelligence manager, Major General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi as new defence minister.
Mursi's revolutionary reshuffle also included the second man, Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Sami Anan and the top commanders of the Air Force, Navy and Air Defence.
Following the attack against the border guards in Rafah at the Israeli-Egyptian border line, Mursi dismissed the Northern Sinai governor, head of the intelligence body and the commander of the Presidential Guards.
As counterattacks were being launched by Egyptian military forces against armed Islamic groups in Sinai, Mursi paid a visit to the battle zone on Friday accompanied by Tantawi and Anan. He addressed the Armed Forces in Rafah, affirming they would get their revenge.
El-Sisi was granted a double promotion to upgrade his rank from major general to first lieutenant general to allow him to top senior commanders.
El-Sisi who has no field experience in war, joined the army in 1977 making him the first defence minister who has not participated in any of Egypt's four wars with Israel.
On Tuesday, violent confrontations broke out between police and military forces on one hand and unidentified armed groups, mostly belonging to Islamic extremists, at Sheikh Zuwaid and Rafah districts in Northern Sinai. The army launched a military operation code named Eagle against terrorists in Sinai, using Apache helicopters and surveillance planes for the first time since Egypt and Israel signed their peace treaty in 1979. Dozens of soldiers and some 30 tanks were deployed to the area.
Following the attack which killed 16 Egyptian soldiers, Egypt closed the Rafah crossing as intelligence reports suggested the assailants had help from Gaza. On Friday, President Mursi responded to a Hamas plea to allow Palestinian pilgrims to cross; the borders were opened from one side for 48 hours.
Hamas officially accused Mursi of acting like former president Hosni Mubarak by helping the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. "We suffered from the unjust regime of Mubarak that participated in the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Why should we suffer now, in the era of Egypt's revolution and democracy?" stated Palestinian Interior Minister Fathi Hamad.
Hamas was in fact complaining about the Egyptian troops who, backed by the Air Force, sealed more than 100 cross-border tunnels used for smuggling goods.
When Mursi dismissed the military leaders, Hamas repeated its request that the Rafah border crossing point be permanently opened. Mursi responded with a two-way traffic opening of the borders for three days, allowing Palestinians in and out of Egypt. The border was open to patients, Palestinians pilgrims returning from the omra and humanitarian cases.
Operation Eagle has thus far killed 32 extremists. It shut down smuggling tunnels, but as well it brought a new reality on the scene, which is that the Egyptian military should have a new formula within the peace treaty to help control the Sinai Peninsula in order to ensure its full sovereignty.
Under the Camp David accords, the deployment of Egyptian military planes and helicopters in Sinai must be coordinated with Israel but the Egyptian military is finding it difficult to accept this proposition: It must protect its soldiers as well as those of Israel but while using a limited number of troops. As such, the army seems unhappy with Mursi's previous declaration of an intent to preserve signed political agreements.