Fighting extremism in Egypt's Sinai

A member of the Egyptian security forces takes position on a sand dune during an operation in the northern Sinai peninsula on August 08, 2012 Egyptian security forces have found that Islamic extremists have attracted many sympathisers in the neglected Sinai region

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At sunset in the North Sinai the sky blushes pink over the Mediterranean and the call to prayer blasts out from mosques on every main street.

It was at precisely this time last Sunday that a band of 35 or so heavily armed men moved in on a checkpoint near the town of Sheikh Zuweid.

They caught the border sentries off-guard, just as they were settling down to break their day of fasting for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Amateur video captured the aftermath as medics rushed to help: the blood-soaked blankets and the limp bodies of 16 young soldiers.

Meanwhile, the attackers rushed for the border with Israel in stolen vehicles. The Israeli military says one exploded and it successfully targeted another in an air strike.

This was the most deadly assault on Egyptian forces here for decades, but it was not an isolated incident.

'Old problem'

"Throughout this year, police stations and the army have been attacked by radical Islamic groups several times and the gas pipe to Israel has been hit many times," says Saleh al-Buluq, regional correspondent for al-Shorouk newspaper.

"Islamic groups here started with the people of Sinai only, but now they came from the other governorates of Egypt and also other countries."

Sheikh Khalaf al-Meneiy Tribal leader Sheikh Khalaf al-Meneiy says the Sinai became "lawless" after the revolution

After the evening's traditional iftar meal, I am served tea under a date palm tree with a leader of the Sawarka, one of the Sinai Bedouin tribes. He explains how local grievances have built up.

The Bedouin were treated like second-class citizens by Egypt's central government after the Sinai peninsula was occupied by Israel and then handed back under the terms of the 1979 peace treaty.

With few other economic opportunities, illegal activities like smuggling into the Gaza Strip and Israel, flourished in the border area.

"The problem is that the Bedouins are outside any economic or social considerations of the state. They have no importance in the political game," says Sheikh Khalaf al-Meneiy.

He thinks that Islamist extremists found it easy to attract sympathisers here.

"Some people have a religious belief, an ideology like al-Qaeda. They think it's OK for them to kill people without consideration," he tells me.

"This was an old problem, but after the revolution the Sinai became lawless, with no security, no monitoring. These groups restructured themselves and got stronger and more organised. We warned about it several times."

Now military action is finally being taken to fill the security vacuum.

In the past few days, I have seen dozens of armoured personnel carriers arriving in North Sinai. Military aircraft armed with missiles have also been used to target militant hideouts.

Call to arms

Figures have not been confirmed but it amounts to the biggest deployment in the region since the 1973 October war with Israel.

The armed forces say they are preparing for a decisive confrontation with the extremists.

Egyptian security forces stand by their Armoured Personnel Carriers ahead of a military operation in the northern Sinai peninsula on August 08, 2012 Egyptian security forces are pouring into the Sinai at the highest rate since the 1973 war with Israel

Yet this build-up by Egypt has only been possible with the agreement of Israel. Their peace deal dictated strict limits on troop numbers in the Sinai.

Many analysts and ordinary Egyptians think that must now change.

"The number of troops has been increased rapidly and we have a good number but not for long. It's only for this operation," says retired Gen Sameh Seif al-Yazel, director of al-Gomhouria Centre for Political and Security Studies.

"They have to come back to the West Bank of the Suez Canal as soon as they've finished.

"We want the peace treaty to be amended. The long-term plan is that we must have more troops in Sinai, to allow armed helicopters and unmanned reconnaissance planes to be there as well."

In recent days, the military has claimed many successes. Commanders said at least 20 militants had been killed, although with the absence of bodies, Bedouin chiefs have questioned that. Several men have been arrested.

Overnight in the largest North Sinai town, el-Arish, the new interior minister, Ahmed Gamal al-Din, came to discuss the latest developments with tribal leaders. They gave their backing to the offensive.

The ministerial gesture appeared to be recognition that the Sinai security threat cannot be solved with force alone: the support of locals is also desperately needed.

Residents of this long-troubled area, many of whom voted for Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in recent elections, are hoping that this was more than a photo opportunity.

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