Middle East

Egypt army in major push to eradicate Sinai militants

A picture taken from the southern Gaza Strip shows an Egyptian soldier standing on a bulldozer used to flatten fields near the border between Egypt and the Palestinian territory on 12 September 2013.
Image caption The army has destroyed some border properties in Rafah to create a buffer zone between Egypt and Gaza

In recent days the Egyptian army has launched a major military campaign against militants in the northern Sinai Peninsula.

Government spokesmen have said they intend to "fully cleanse" the area of militants, and military sources say 22,000 soldiers have been deployed to help bring this about.

Egyptian military sources say the campaign will take at least six months.

The Egyptian army has cracked down on Sinai militants on occasions in the past, but experts say this time the operation is of a different order of magnitude.

In the last week the army has discovered and destroyed nearly every tunnel stretching from Gaza to Egypt, which have allegedly been used by militants to bring in men and material. The few tunnels remaining are reported to be under army surveillance.

Brotherhood ties to Sinai?

For the first time, steps have also been taken to establish a buffer zone on the Egypt-Gaza border. To facilitate this, several border properties in Rafah have recently been destroyed, despite protests from local tribes and residents.

In their place, military sources say the army is now planning to erect new barriers, possibly including a security wall and artificial lakes.

The Egyptian government says these tough measures are necessary to stop Hamas and other Palestinian militants sneaking into Sinai and fuelling the insurgency.

They warn there is a close connection between Sinai militants, Palestinian groups, al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Most ordinary Egyptians, as well as nearly the entire Egyptian media, accept these assertions uncritically and fully support what their government and army is doing in Sinai.

In their view, the war is an extension of the crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood and part of the 'war on terror' that currently features so prominently in the media.

Image caption The army is targeting tunnels between Egypt and Gaza, which are used to smuggle everything from weapons to cigarettes and fuel

Since the Sinai situation is so opaque and complex, with limited access for journalists, it is hard to tell to what extent groups like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood are really involved.

The principal evidence offered by the government to link the Muslim Brotherhood to the Sinai insurgency is a single ambiguous public statement made on Al Jazeera TV by Mohammed al-Beltagi, a senior figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, saying that if deposed President Mohammed Morsi were to be restored then the violence in Sinai would stop.

The government cites this as positive proof the Muslim Brotherhood has influence over the Sinai insurgency.

Al-Beltagi's supporters say the statement - which has been played over and over again on state TV alongside bloodcurdling images of violence - has been misinterpreted, and that the Brotherhood is a peaceful organisation with no influence on the war in Sinai.

Mission impossible

The Islamist camp are now hoping that the army will get bogged down in a difficult campaign which will in turn free up the political stage for them so they can make a comeback.

Given the deep roots of the Sinai problem - years of socio-economic deprivation, impenetrable terrain, a flood of weapons, more than 20 different militant groups operating there - they know that totally eradicating the militants is not likely to be possible.

Image caption Chocolates decorated with pictures of Egyptian army chief Gen al-Sisi, who has grown in popularity since ousting Mohammed Morsi

Off the record, even Egyptian military analysts say the army would be very satisfied if they could reduce militant groups' operations in Sinai by 80%.

But far from being bogged down, so far the opposite has happened: the war and associated media coverage has served to make the army and its generals ever more popular.

Many people are now calling for General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi to run in the forthcoming presidential elections - and if he does, even his enemies concede he will likely romp to victory.

But General al-Sisi knows that in order to win the political struggle he first has to win - or at least appear to win - the war in Sinai.

His main aims in this war are twofold: protecting Egypt from militancy while gaining political power for the army and perhaps himself in its ongoing confrontation with the Islamists.

Hugh Miles is a writer and journalist living in Cairo. His books include Al Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenged the World and Playing Cards in Cairo.