The militant ambush on a police patrol in North Sinai bears the hallmarks of the Al-Qaeda terror group. Not only did the gunmen who carried out the attack raise black flags bearing the Muslim declaration of faith on them “There is no God but Allah and Mohammad is his Prophet,” but they also chanted Allahu Akbar, the cry of Jihadists waging holy war.
Three policemen were killed and three others were injured in Saturday’s terrorist attack; the latest in a series of violent attacks on security forces in the Sinai Peninsula since the January 2011 uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.
In August , 16 border guards were brutally killed in a militant ambush on a security checkpoint in what has been described by analysts as “the deadliest attack” on Egyptian troops since the October 1973 War. The militants then tried to launch a cross-border raid on Israel but were killed by the Israeli Air Force as an armored vehicle they had seized rammed through a border fence.
Since August, militants have stepped up their attacks on security forces in the vast desert territory bordering Gaza and Israel. The violence has prompted a security crackdown in the lawless area aimed at ridding Sinai of terrorist cells. The military operation launched by the army in the wake of the August attack involves raiding militant hideouts, arresting suspects and seizing weapons.
It remains unclear who these militants (often described as Islamists) are or why they are carrying out such attacks. Security experts have been quoted by the BBC’s Jon Leyne as saying they believe these are Egyptian militants who have joined forces with other Islamists from Gaza and elsewhere, and are taking advantage of the absence of law and order in the peninsula to achieve their goals. According to Leyne, it is highly likely that they were aided by local Bedouins, who themselves harbour longstanding grievances against the government.
Sinai’s Bedouins have suffered neglect and deprivation for decades. The peninsula is underdeveloped and they have often complained of marginalisation . With scant alternatives of earning a livelihood, many of the Bedouins have had to resort to cross-border smuggling between Gaza and Israel. Kidnapping tourists for ransom has also increased in recent months.
The recent security crackdown has further fuelled the hostilities between Egyptian authorities and the Bedouins, who staged protests over the weekend demanding the release of detained fellow tribesmen and an end to the crippling fuel shortage in the Sinai.
Sinai’s militants are clearly seeking to implement Al-Qaeda’s agenda: The leader of the terror group, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, has recently called on fellow Muslims to “kidnap westerners and to ensure that Egypt implements Islamic Shari’a Law.” In a video released recently on Islamist websites , Al-Zawahiri said “The Egyptian Revolution must continue until Shari’a Law is fully implemented.”
Seeking to implement Shari’a Law in the country, Egypt’s ultra-conservative Salafis have been at loggerheads with liberals and Christians over the wording of the draft constitution. The Salafis want Article 2 amended to state that “the rules of Shari’a [rather than the principles of Shari’a] are the main source of legislation in Egypt.” They also want to add provisions to other articles to ensure that Shari’a law is not violated.
Liberals fear that the proposed amendments would bring theocratic rule and setback civil liberties. A provision added to Article 36 on gender equality stipulates that women’s rights cannot violate Shari’a Law. The Constituent Assembly (the 100 member panel tasked with drafting the Constitution) is dominated by Islamists (60 per cent) including Salafis and members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Members of the Salafist Al-Nour Party have been quoted by state owned Al-Ahram as saying Shari’a is a red line that cannot be crossed. The Salafists have called for a rally next Friday to express demands for an Islamic Constitution.
Differences have also emerged between Salafists and the moderate Muslim Brotherhood after it became clear that the ultraconservative Salafis want a stricter implementation of Islamic Shari’a law than the Brotherhood.
Since his appointment , President Morsy has freed several prominent Salafi figures who were imprisoned under Mubarak. Last month Mostafa Hamza, a member of the Gamia Al-Islamiya who had formerly been a leader of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, was granted amnesty. Hamza was in jail for plotting to assassinate former President Hosni Mubarak during a visit to Ethiopia in 1995.
He also masterminded the 1997 terror attack on foreign tourists in Luxor that left 62 people dead. Morsy’s critics in the US said that the timing of the pardon – just weeks after the attack on the US embassy in Cairo sent a clear message that the new Egypt was on the side of the perpetrators of the Luxor Massacre.
The recent developments in the Sinai, the release of Salafi terrorists imprisoned under the former regime, the Salafi uprising next Friday to press for an Islamic constitution (one that would enforce conservative values on Egyptian society) are all worrying signs of what’s to come in the new Egypt . Add to these, the mass exodus of Coptic families under threat from extremists in Rafah – the latest in a series of assaults on Egypt’s minority Coptic population since the January 2011 uprising.
President Morsy needs to act fast to allay the concerns of liberals and Christians who had hoped the new Egypt would be a secular, civil state. His response to the latest terrorist attack in Sinai will be the litmus test that tells the world whether he is really serious about rooting out terror and preserving Egypt’s moderate identity. Only by showing he is truly determined to put an end to the tide of conservatism sweeping Egypt, can he prove that he is the “leader of all Egyptians” that he promised to be.