Islamists in Sinai killed at least 50 members of Egypt’s security forces and the army deployed F16 fighters and Apache helicopters to pursue them, as authorities struggle to suppress a growing militant insurgency.
A group affiliated with Islamic State claimed responsibility for the wave of attacks with rockets and car bombs, which came a day after President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi vowed to step up efforts to suppress the militants. About 50 soldiers and police and a similar number of jihadists have been killed, a security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.
“We’re in a real state of war,” Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab said at the weekly cabinet meeting.
The strikes, mostly in or around the town of Sheikh Zuwayid, coincide with the second anniversary of mass protests against Islamist President Mohamed Morsi and his subsequent overthrow by the army. Al-Sisi, the ex-general who led that intervention, has been battling to quell militant violence ever since, and the latest escalation suggests he isn’t succeeding.
“Everything that the army has been doing in Sinai, destroying tunnels and creating a buffer zone with the Gaza Strip, has been proven ineffective,” Mustafa Kamel El Sayed, a Cairo University political science professor, said by phone. “They need a change of strategy.”
‘Hand of Justice’
The Sinai assaults came hours after al-Sisi, angered by the assassination a day earlier of the country’s top prosecutor, vowed to exact swifter justice against Islamists and complained that current laws tie the “hand of justice.” Egypt’s cabinet said it would submit new terror-related laws to al-Sisi later on Wednesday for review.
Since the removal of Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected civilian president, al-Sisi has presided over a bloody crackdown on Islamists, including Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. Hundreds of its supporters have been killed and thousands arrested. Courts have handed down mass death sentences, including against Morsi.
“It’s clear that the Egyptian government is going to pursue a repressive political strategy to try to deal with the challenge of extremism and terrorism,” Steven Cook, Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in an e-mailed response to questions.
‘Into the Abyss’
While Al-Sisi may have public support for a crackdown, “Egyptian leaders need to be careful,” he said. “Repression can produce a larger pool of people willing to take up arms against the state.”
The Brotherhood has denied any role in the upsurge of militant violence since the army takeover, saying it’s committed to peaceful protest.
Al-Sisi “is pushing Egypt into the abyss. The removal of this regime is needed before it’s too late,” Amr Darrag, a Brotherhood official in exile, said on Twitter.
Also on Wednesday, security forces killed nine members of the Brotherhood in a shootout at an apartment west of Cairo, according to local police official Mahmoud Farouk.
The persistent violence threatens to undercut efforts by al-Sisi to persuade investors that Egypt is stabilizing after years of unrest, and revive an economy that has stagnated since Hosni Mubarak’s 2011 ouster.
Financial markets in Egypt are closed for a public holiday. The global depository receipts of Commercial International Bank, the country’s biggest publicly traded lender, fell 2 percent to $7.25 at 3:15 p.m. in London, where they’re traded.
Northern Sinai has been the center of the fight against insurgents since Morsi’s ouster, though the unrest there stretches back more than a decade, with sporadic attacks targeting tourist areas along its Red Sea coastline, or military and police positions.
The last militant offensive on a comparable scale to Wednesday’s was in January, when at least 30 troops were killed and the local Islamic State affiliate, known as Sinai Province, claimed responsibility.
A state of emergency and a night-time curfew in parts of the region have been in effect since October, when a similar strike left 31 dead.
“The attack today proves that all the talk about making laws stricter will not be effective,” Cairo University’s El Sayed said. “Those who carry out these attacks are waging a religious war; no legislation will stop them.”