On February 9, Egypt’s military spokesman Colonel Tamer al-Rifai announced the launch of the “Comprehensive Military Operation,” which aims to eliminate the country’s growing insurgency. Even though the primary focus of the operation is the Sinai Peninsula, earning it the nickname “Operation Sinai,” it also includes extensive deployment of security forces to the Western Desert and parts of the Nile Delta, as well as naval and air force patrols of the border regions.
The operation was announced following a series of high-profile attacks. In October 2017, 54 members of the security forces were killed in an ambush when they attempted to raid a militant hideout as part of a botched counterterror operation in the Western Desert. This was followed in November 2017 by an attack by Wilayat Sinai, the local affiliate of the Islamic State (IS), on a Sufi mosque, killing 305 worshipers in the deadliest terror attack in Egyptian history. In a move that would presage the current operation, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi issued a directive on November 29 ordering the armed forces to restore order in Sinai within a period of three months.
While forces were readying deploy to Sinai in January 2018 as per the directive, Wilayat Sinai launched another high-profile attack on December 19 targeting Minister of Defense Sedky Sobhy and Minister of Interior Magdy Abdel Ghaffar, who were conducting an unannounced visit to Sinai. The assassination attempt, which killed one officer and injured two others and involved a mortar attack on the Arish military airport, marked a significant escalation in militant operations. The militants’ knowledge of the secret visit exhibited an ability to penetrate the highest levels of security protocols, and they targeted the Minister of Defense, the second-most powerful man in the country after Sisi. This attack caused considerable embarrassment to the regime, which derives legitimacy from its “War on Terror” and its claims to have improved security, compelling it to launch the Comprehensive Military Operation.
The new operation is retaliating with heavy artillery and the extensive use of airstrikes, in a continuation of heavy-handed tactics that incur large civilian causalities. What appears to be novel to this operation is the total isolation of Sinai from the rest of the country, the increased presence of troops and military equipment, and an informal curfew that has led to reported food shortages. Indeed, the military is expecting heavy casualties: all hospitals in the Sinai region were placed in a state of heightened alert before the operation in anticipation of an inflow of wounded, and surgeons from Cairo and other regions have been temporarily reassigned to Sinai to aid local doctors. Moreover, classes have been suspended in North Sinai until the end of the operation, and the military decided to create a security zone of 25 square kilometers (15 square miles) around the Arish military airport, which has been closed since the December 19 attack—involving the demolition of all surrounding buildings, including some farms and houses on the southern outskirts of the city.
Previous security operations, including Operation Eagle in 2011 and Operation Martyr’s Right in 2015, failed to completely defeat the insurgency. It has continued to evolve and adapt, fueled by outrage over civilian casualties. Although the current operation’s greater use of force is not likely to achieve the immediate military objective of eliminating insurgency, the operation does have a clear political purpose. It is aimed at bolstering the regime’s stability in the face of mounting domestic pressure, shifting the focus away from the economy and the regime’s recent security failures.
A number of possible candidates have been blocked from running or intimidated into withdrawing from the upcoming presidential election, scheduled for March. This includes former prime minister and air force general Ahmed Shafiq; former Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces Sami Anan; military colonel Ahmed Konsowa; and prominent human rights lawyer Khaled Ali, who withdrew over objections to the regime’s blatant interference in the electoral process. The only contender left is Moussa Mostafa Moussa, the head of the Ghad el-Thawra Party and a known supporter of Sisi. He was only able to hand in the needed paperwork seven minutes before the deadline. Eliminating all contenders has turned the election into a referendum on Sisi’s popularity. In doing so, the regime has placed itself in a surprisingly difficult position, suddenly needing to show progress on crucial domestic issues. Even though a Sisi win is inevitable, there is now pressure to bolster his position and shift the narrative away from the election and inter-elite struggles toward the war on terror.
This became more urgent on January 30, when the Civil Democratic Movement, a loose affiliation of opposition parties and independent political figures, called for a boycott of the election. The traction of the boycott call is difficult to gauge. However, considering the repressive electoral environment and what is perceived as an inevitable Sisi win, an instinctual boycott is expected. This could call the credibility of the election into question—which helps explain the furious response from Sisi, who insinuated the opposition was compromising national security and threatened to crack down on them further.
The new military operation’s media campaign aims to control the narrative and undermine the opposition. In a prime example, on February 13 military forces arrested Hisham Geneina, the vice presidential candidate in the Sami Anan campaign and the former head of Egypt’s anti-corruption Central Auditing Organization. This occurred after Geneina claimed that Anan held documents that proved the involvement of members of the security apparatus in crimes against protesters during and after the 2011 protests. In an official statement, the military cited the current operation in Sinai as a reason for taking legal action against Geneina, leading to his arrest.
Military leaders who announced their support for the current operation are comparing it to the 1973 war, which successive Egyptian regimes have touted as a major military victory against Israel. In addition, on February 10 parliament also announced its support. Likewise, the pro-Sisi Daam Masr (“Support Egypt”) Coalition issued a statement on February 9 endorsing the operation. Even a number of opposition parties such as the Tagammu Party, the Free Egyptians Party, the Conservative Party, the New Wafd Party, and the Conference Party, declared unanimous support for the military. Some of them, including the Conference Party, even started awareness campaigns to combat “misinformation” regarding the operation.
Religious leaders and institutions have also declared their support, with al-Azhar calling on Egyptians to support the military and the police, as did Abdel Hadi al-Qasabi, head of the Supreme Council of Sufi Orders and a member of parliament. Shawki Allam, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, has likewise praised the operation. Even academic institutions, including Cairo University and South Valley University, declared their support. While their endorsement is not surprising, it highlights the ongoing popularity of the military and underscores widespread fear that lack of full-throated support might become grounds for accusations of supporting terror.
In the longer term, the prospects of the military success of this operation are slight, not only because such heavy-handed approaches have fueled rather than stopped the insurgency, but also as there is no comprehensive political framework to solve the social and political issue of Sinai. However, in the short term, this operation allows Sisi and his allies to outmaneuver the opposition, shoring up the regime’s position. The ability of the regime to marshal such diverse support and the inability of the opposition to criticize the operation speaks to that effect.
Maged Mandour is a political analyst and writes the “Chronicles of the Arab Revolt” column for Open Democracy. Follow him on Twitter @MagedMandour.