On the ground, checkpoints were emptied of all policemen, while military armored vehicles were stationed on the streets of the city of Arish. A seeming prevailing tranquility in the vast peninsula did not suggest the emergency condition spread by the news.
The news follows yet another tumultuous weekend in Sinai, where policemen protested recurring attacks against them at police stations and checkpoints. They demanded better protection and more arms.
Their demonstration took place after three policemen were killed Saturday by unknown gunmen in a shootout on a police patrol in Arish. The incident is just one in a series of repeated attacks on policemen; the last of which, as of press time, was an attack in which gunmen shot at a police leader’s car in Arish.
Policemen have further threatened to block all roads to North Sinai if their demands are not met. In response, the interior minister fired the head of the North Sinai Security Directorate Sunday and appointed his deputy in his place.
More significantly, the Armed Forces stepped up to try to fill the persistent security gap in Sinai. On Sunday, the Armed Forces’ commander, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, visited Brigade 101 stationed in North Sinai to perform border guarding duties.
For both analysts and the people of Sinai, the army’s involvement in the current security crisis there is a flagrant index of the police failure, but also an index of a deeper coordination problem between different law enforcement entities, including the army. And while the military advent to the rescue of the police in the peninsula made grandiose headlines, the army’s ability to fill the security gap in the shaken region is an area of doubt for many.
“The situation is dangerous. Both the police and the army are responsible for the current security crisis,” Mohamed Abdel Fadeel Shousha, a former military general and former governor of North Sinai, told Egypt Independent. He explained that the police and the army are responding to the security problem in North Sinai unilaterally, with no coordination, a novelty in the context of this contentious border area.
He expounded on previous pre-revolutionary experiences in which better coordination between the army and the police paid off. An example was the 2008 breach of the Gaza-Egypt border, when hundreds of Palestinians flocked into North Sinai.
Shousha, who was then commander of border guards, says he successfully coordinated the management of the situation with police, the Armed Forces and North Sinai Governorate.
“This is not happening now,” he says.
But bitter interaction between the police and the people of Sinai has rendered the former a dreaded form of authority for many Bedouin tribesmen. Many of them have repeatedly told Egypt Independent that military intelligence, which has a strong presence in the area, has maintained a better relationship with them, hence giving more legitimacy to the army as a form of state presence in Sinai, as opposed to the police.
Human rights watchdogs have slammed arbitrary security practices in Sinai, especially in the aftermath of a series of terrorist attacks in South Sinai between 2004 and 2006. The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights claimed that after the 2004 attack on tourist resorts in Sinai, there were between 1,500 and 3,000 random arrests in the peninsula.
“The military has been more respected by the children of Sinai because the police, and especially state security, used to abuse and torture people here,” says Sheikh Aref Abu Ekr, a leader from the Kor tribe. “This created a historic enmity between the police and the people of Sinai.”
Instead of letting Sinai residents live and build, “the police have incarcerated them or subjected them to rulings in absentia, which should be dropped by now,” Ekr adds.
But, even if military intelligence has arguably a positive history of presence, information gathering and negotiations with the people of Sinai, this is not equated with the current military presence in Sinai today.
A case in point is Operation Eagle. The second phase of the operation took place after the killing of 16 border guards on a checkpoint near Rafah by unknown assailants in August. The military spokesperson, Ahmed Mohamed Ali, claimed that the operation managed to kill 33 militant terrorists, confiscate plenty of arms and destroy 31 tunnels used to smuggle goods and arms to, and from, the Gaza Strip.
However, witnesses on the ground tell a different story.
“Operation Eagle ended days after the sacking of [Field Marshal Hussein] Tantawi and [Armed Forces Chief of Staff Sami] Anan,” says a police lieutenant stationed in Rafah who preferred to remain anonymous.
On 12 August — days after Operation Eagle was launched — President Mohamed Morsy sent both Tantawi and Anan into retirement and performed a surprise shuffle in the ranks of the military. The lieutenant says this sudden change in the military command was reflected in the destabilization of Operation Eagle on the ground.
“The only role the military is playing today in Sinai is to protect the security posts and not really to purge the area of terrorism,” the lieutenant adds, casting doubts over the claimed military prowess.
Meanwhile, a truthful military presence in Sinai does not only require better coordination with other security forces, but fewer limitations imposed by the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
“This is the right time to amend the peace treaty,” says Abdallah al-Sennawy, a columnist and recurrent commentator on the issue. “Israel will never change the treaty under normal circumstances. Only under the current crisis would Israel acquiesce to changing the treaty and allow the Egyptian military to have a permanent presence in Area C.”
The 1979 treaty divides the Sinai Peninsula into four geographical zones, A through D. Egypt is afforded varying rights to mobilize army personnel and materials in each zone.
Zone A, on the peninsula’s west coast, is the only zone in which Egypt is allowed to fly combat aircraft and conduct reconnaissance flights. In Zone C, which stretches from the southern tip of Sinai to Egypt’s border with Gaza, Egypt only has the right to station police, save for a designated area along the border in Rafah, where it may deploy Egyptian border guards pursuant to a 2005 agreement between the two countries.
While the Egyptian civil police is allowed to fly helicopters in this zone, they must be unarmed. In contrast, the Israeli army is permitted to station four infantry divisions and surface-to-air missiles in Zone D, which runs along the country’s border with Egypt.
Meanwhile, for Sennawy, the main issue at stake is political leadership and its failure to manage the crisis and provide for better coordination between different players, including the army and the police.
Additional reporting by Sarah Carr
This piece appears in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.