Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 October 2012
Issue No. 1119
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Military messages on Sinai

Ahmed Eleiba decodes the messages on Sinai sent by Egypt's president and minister of defence during the Nasr-8 exercises

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Battleship exercises in the Suez Canal; Morsi addressing the third army troops in Suez

A series of messages were sent this week by the president and commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces and the minister of defence through military exercises staged by the second and third armies. The intended recipients were the network of jihadist groups and weapons smuggling mafia that use the Sinai tunnels and Israel.

In his address to the third army, President Mohamed Morsi praised the historic role and combat performance of the Egyptian army and paid tribute to the officers and soldiers who forged victory in the October 1973 War. He said that "our enemy is known and our preparation for him is clear. Those who are unaware or fail to appreciate this, or entertain doubts, should not worry. God is vigilant and our eyes are open. We will let no evil-doers harm our country."

One expert in national security affairs observed that this message was directed at Israel. Tel Aviv "has altered its policy towards Egypt and started to refer to it again as the 'southern front', a term that Israel used in wartime," the expert said. "Meanwhile, various scenarios have come to light concerning Sinai, which is why the president and the minister of defence issued statements to the effect that Egypt opposes any Israeli attempts in this direction."

The military source also pointed out that although the current exercises regularly coincide with the 6 October victory celebrations, this year there was the added coincidence that Israel was also holding joint manoeuvres with the US.

For his part, the minister of defence delivered his message during the Nasr-8 drills in which tactical exercises were carried out using live ammunition. "We will deliver the Sinai peninsula intact to the next generations, just as we received it from the great October War generation," he said.

The purpose of the manoeuvres was "to show that we are ready with our troops, our equipment and our high morale, and that we are capable of confronting any danger or threat, not just to Sinai but to any part of Egyptian territory, and from wherever the threat may originate, for this is the role and mission of the Armed Forces."

"The Egyptian army is the only strong and capable army in the Arab region. The general command will enhance and strengthen its capacities as quickly as possible, not just with equipment but throughout the entire system, the basic component of which is the individual combat soldier. We are determined to exert all possible efforts to improve our army's capacities and combat readiness, to protect and develop its equipment, and to preserve the efficacy and morale of the troops. We possess a powerful asset which lifts our morale to the sky," he said.

Sinai was the chief theatre of operations for the Nasr-8 exercises and also the scene in which major domestic and regional developments have unfolded. Perhaps the most notable was the reaction to the unmanned aircraft that Hizbullah sent into Israel, which Brigadier-General Safwat Al-Zayat described as an "important sign of where we are standing in Egypt today, and how we take decisions with respect to developments of this sort."

Al-Zayat said that the region had recently entered the era of cyber-warfare and that the incident of the drone plane, which led to the dismissal of Israeli air defence commander Brigadier-General Doron Gabish after three decades of service, merited attention in Egypt.

"We have to take a close look and prepare ourselves for this newcomer in the region, but we must not be precipitous. There are some who are stirring up trouble in order to incite us to annul the Camp David Agreement, which we cannot afford to do at this juncture. There are others who are seeking to ruin our relations with Washington, the costs of which we cannot sustain at this time. The direction we must work toward is to build and develop our country and to enhance its capacities in ways that are consistent with the needs of the present."

Another recent development and one even closer to home relates to an unpublicised confrontation between Israeli forces and jihadist groups in Sinai, according to a statement released by the latter via the Internet.

The statement said that Israeli planes had penetrated Egyptian airspace over Sinai and accused the Mossad of violating Egypt's territorial sovereignty. The targets of these violations were "persons and vehicles using missiles", referring obliquely to groups the statement referred to as "mujahideen" but who others might refer to as groups suspected of the Ramadan attack against Egyptian border-patrol soldiers in September.

The Israeli response to the statement came two days later when Israeli army radio said that security authorities in North Sinai had received a warning that jihadist groups were about to carry out major attacks against Egyptian security posts using booby-trapped vehicles.

The report cited Egyptian security sources as saying that all security forces were on high alert in anticipation of any retaliatory attacks against the Israeli borders by jihadist groups. According to the jihadist groups' statement, four Israeli soldiers had infiltrated Egyptian territory in Sinai on Saturday and killed Sheikh Hisham Al-Saidni, leader of the Tawhid and Jihad Group.

Military affairs expert General Mamdouh Moussa told Al-Ahram Weekly that "we have a 24-hour line open between Arish and Bir Sabaa. I believe that developments in the field are being monitored through this line. In addition, any violations committed by either side are being dealt with immediately through the same mechanism."

It appears certain that Israel has assassinated a jihadist leader and is anticipating a response. But is Israeli intervention in Sinai on a scale the jihadist groups' statement suggests?

Ali Bakr, an expert on the affairs of groups ranging from Salafis to jihadists and takfiri, who condemn state and society as heretical, maintains that these groups are trying to trigger a conflict between Egypt and Israel because they do not have the capacity to fight Israel on their own.

"They believe they can force the Egyptian army in this direction by launching missiles into Israel and waiting for the Israeli response so that they can cry out for 'intervention'. They are spreading rumours that Israelis are intervening in Sinai in order to create a public outcry and win over public opinion," Bakr said.

"However, they don't have the equipment to track aircraft of that sort and even if they did it wouldn't mean much because the takfiris lack the necessary education while the jihadists, some of whom have been recently released from prison, wouldn't know how to use that type of equipment."

"It takes time and an appropriate training environment to become familiar with such equipment. This alone refutes the statement they released. In addition, no one knows the identity of the person whom they claim Israel assassinated."

The jihadist groups' statement leaves no doubt that they are trying to turn the attention of the Egyptian army away from them and towards Israel. On the question of Israeli penetration into Sinai, Ashraf Al-Hifni, a Sinai activist, told the Weekly that while it was uncertain how many such penetrations there had been, there were indications that they had occurred several times.

He also said that many people in Sinai did not take the messages delivered by the president and his minister of defence seriously, regarding them as words rather than action.

Al-Hifni further said that for Israel "the peace treaty has become a war treaty." He explained that, "the borders are not secure enough to ensure confidence, and their insecurity has meant that the area has become a playground for all. To the people of Sinai, this is evident. They can see it with their own eyes."

The Israeli army has raised its level of alert along the Egyptian border and is in the process of deploying a new detection and alarm system along the border fence. According to the newspaper Yediot Aharanot, this measure aims to strengthen security along 40 kilometres of the border, especially in areas of shifting sand dunes, which it described as some of the most dangerous areas on the border.

Citing observers, the newspaper said that the new system was directly linked to army command centres and resembled similar systems that have been put in place along the Israeli borders with Gaza, Lebanon and Syria. Warning signals are transmitted immediately to the command centres if anyone touches the border fence.

According to sources observing the security situation in Sinai, Egyptian security has reinforced its forces on the Egyptian side of the borders. Although security officials have denied this, eyewitnesses have confirmed the presence of reinforcements and what they describe as "unusual activity", the purpose of which is to accomplish security-related objectives.

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