Egyptian army’s challenge is not only to destroy ISIS’ forces, but to prevent it from establishing strongholds in Sheikh Zuweid and El Arish, which would allow it to conduct a prolonged war of attrition.“We’re tired of the slogans telling us, ‘This attack will increase our resolve to fight terror,’ or that the rules chain the hands of justice. You, Mr. President, have been holding the legislation and executive authorities for the past 14 months. We want a government that can beat terror,” Al-Masry Al-Youm’s chief editor Mahmoud Musallam wrote after the assassination of Egypt’s public prosecutor Hisham Barakat on Monday.
Indeed, the fighting raging in Sinai since Wednesday has crossed the line between combating “terror cells” and turned into a full-fledged war. This is a war on many fronts – similar to the war waged in Iraq against Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL). Some of this war is taking place in the big cities like Cairo, Faiyum, El Arish and Rafah; and some in open areas. It’s like a war against a foreign enemy, although most of the enemy consists of Egyptian citizens.
Egypt has not seen such a coordinated, simultaneous attack on so many targets – in the city of Sheikh Zuweid and its surroundings – for many years. It’s the kind of war that Wilayat Sinai (Islamic State’s branch in Sinai), copied from ISIS’ war model in Syria and Iraq. It consists mainly of an effort to take over an entire city, establish an ISIS regime in it, and expand the control in a short time over additional regions and villages.
According to reports from Egypt, Sheikh Zuweid has been conquered by the organizations, whose men have deployed in its streets and laid mines on roads into it to prevent Egyptian forces from approaching. They are now fighting persistently against the Egyptian troops.
Islamic State forces are now expected to take over the city of El Arish or its surroundings, and perhaps even enter the Gaza Strip.
In a video released by ISIS this week in Syria, it threatens to destroy Hamas’ government and establish a religious, Islamic regime in Gaza, like it has in cities it’s conquered in Syria and Iraq.
An Egyptian source familiar with Egypt’s decision-making process told Haaretz that if Islamic State comes near Gaza, President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi may “invite” the Israel Defense Forces to act against it. This will not be seen as an Israeli breach of Egypt’s sovereignty, because Gaza falls under Israel’s responsibility.
“The two armies may already be coordinating in preparation for such a possibility,” the source said. “The Egyptian problem is that a military campaign inside Gaza could lead to breaking down the fences and a mass flight of civilians from Gaza to Sinai.”
However, there are a number of differences between Islamic State in Syria and Islamic State in Sinai. The organization’s force in Sinai is significantly smaller than in Syria. It will have difficulty receiving regular support and supplies from neighboring states like Sudan or Libya, who have been effective suppliers over the years. ISIS’ ability to reinforce its ranks with combatants from without is nothing like the ability of ISIS in Syria, which borders on Turkey and Lebanon. Also, the Egyptian army is not the Syrian or Iraqi army (which fled the scene of battle last June).
The Egyptian forces have been deployed for two years and are engaged in an intensive war against the Sinai organizations. At the same time, the extent of Islamic State’s attack shows planning and an impressive fighting ability. One may speculate on the quality of Egypt’s intelligence regarding the activity of Wilayat Sinai, which surprised the army.
One of the main questions now concerns the civilian population’s endurance and its readiness to cooperate with Islamic State. The triangular area stretching from Sheikh Zuweid, El Arish and Rafah is predominantly populated with Bedouin tribes, who for years have been excluded from Egyptian society and government. Sissi’s promises to develop the northern Sinai region and create new workplaces have not been kept, so far. Some of the Bedouin tribes promised to cooperate with the Egyptian army. However, quite a few oppose this vow, especially after the brutal evacuation of more than 2,000 homes on the Gaza Strip border – without any compensation or alternative housing for the evacuees.
Many of these evacuees, who moved to El Arish and Sheikh Zuweid, may be tempted to cooperate with Islamic State, which pays generous wages to those who volunteer to join its ranks.After taking over Sheikh Zuweid and parts of El Arish, ISIS is expected to exercise the terror strategy that served it well to prevent civilian opposition in Iraq and Syria, including horrific beheadings and executions.
The Egyptian army’s challenge is not only to destroy ISIS’ forces, but to prevent it from establishing strongholds in Sheikh Zuweid and El Arish, which would allow it to conduct a prolonged war of attrition. This could increase public pressure in Egypt and erode the regime and president’s legitimacy.