The Egypt Monocle
One day before he took the official oath of office under two months ago, Egypt’s first civilian president, Mohamed Morsi, addressed throngs of cheering Egyptians in Tahrir Square. In what appeared to be a spontaneous show of bravado, he gestured to his bodyguards to step aside and opened his jacket to show that he was not wearing a bulletproof vest. It was clearly the first and last time he would take this risk.
But bullets come in all shapes, sizes and formats. While Morsi’s spokesman Yasser Ali has attempted to dodge the bullets of hostile media campaigns, succeeding somehow to display some measure of transparency, no one would have imagined that real bullets which killed 16 Egyptian soldiers in an unprecedented terrorist act in Sinai, would become Morsi’s new battle front so soon.
The consequences were dire and immediate. Despite repeated official statements that Morsi was to lead the group funeral procession at Cairo’s Unknown Soldier Memorial, the president made a last minute no-show, issuing a statement claiming that he did not want to obstruct public attendance with his security detail. Between the lines, the president was really saying that his life was under threat and that even a bulletproof vest would not protect him.
Morsi’s detractors were quick to assign blame to his eased, ideologically inspired border policy allowing Egypt’s “enemies” in Gaza [also known as Hamas] to spill Egyptian blood, in a theory that defies all logic. The Israeli narrative of what precisely took place on that fateful Sunday evening as the border guards were preparing to break their fast in the Holy month and were shot down by 35 automatic machinegun-toting, balaclava-donning “Palestinian terrorists,” was never questioned. That, despite the fact that there is no shred of evidence to prove this version of the story, especially that the bodies of the six alleged perpetrators who were gunned down by Israeli Defense Forces on Egyptian soil, and were sent to Egypt, are completely charred. How accurate will any attempt be to identify them?
The fact is, no one knows what really happened in Sinai; why 16 innocent lives were massacred in cold blood and why this attack was staged in this particular timing. The most plausible explanation is that extremist cells in the restive Northern Sinai region may have had a hand, but since the circumstances of IDF’s targeting of the alleged stolen army vehicle that was attempting to storm the border to enter Israel remain unknown, no conclusions can be drawn. What we all know, however, is that the security vacuum in the most vulnerable of Egypt’s borders has left the area prey to 15 attacks on gas pipelines to Israel and Jordan since the January 2011 uprising, and that nothing was done about it. Months ago, armed conflict flared in the area when a police station was targeted, but again there was no inquiry and security was not stepped up.
Is it possible that Egypt’s valiant Armed Forces and its patriotic Supreme Council is incapable of protecting our borders? Have the Generals been too busy engaged in a futile power struggle that they neglected their essential defense role to protect our national sovereignty? Or is it possible that they allowed this to happen in order to settle political scores with their internal Islamist enemies? Didn’t Egypt’s then general intelligence chief Mourad Mowafi say that his agency had confirmed intelligence that an attack was to take place and that he had forewarned the concerned executive authority? Why were his warnings ignored?
When Morsi took office, pundits and analysts dedicated hundreds of column inches to list aspects of the hornet’s nest he was about to step into. Topping the list was a constitutional decree announced by SCAF hours before preliminary results showed that Morsi had won, practically stripping him of power. Then came the challenge of dealing with holdovers from the former regime infusing the state bureaucracy and hence unlikely to cooperate; hostile state institutions and a deep state controlled by the interior ministry, businessmen and Mubarak’s judiciary system.
The regional challenge aside, there was a general concern that Morsi will be a figurehead with the trappings of power but no real authority and so will be blamed for any failure to alleviate immediate problems in the economy, deal with the time bomb of unemployment and navigate a web of political rivalries, having inherited a deeply polarized nation, much of it openly antagonistic to the Muslim Brotherhood to which he is affiliated.
With the recent Sinai massacre opening a front that was expected to emerge later in the game, many have opined that this will be the litmus test of Morsi’s leadership; how will his handling of the growing militancy in that historically neglected region differ from his predecessor’s? No longer faced with a “threat” but with a reality on the ground, of Israel violating Egypt’s territorial sovereignty allegedly to stop extremists from infiltrating the border and executing attacks against Israeli civilians, how will Morsi reassert Egypt’s regional leadership as a powerful front against Israel’s siege of Gaza and challenge its status as the regional bully?
The Sinai effect, however, was not only external. Indeed the crisis has served to justify a much overdue shuffle in sensitive strategic political positions, just as “Operation Eagle” promising to quash Sinai militants threatens to further embroil Morsi in a more inflamed internal conflict; one that may in fact require a bulletproof vest.
At one fell swoop, Morsi named a former Azhar spokesman and assistant foreign minister Refaa Al-Tahtawi as his new chief of staff, replacing a SCAF appointed army general; intelligence chief Mowafi was replaced by Abdel Wahab Shehata, who liaised between Cairo and Jerusalem in negotiations last year for the release of Gilad Shalit.
Major General Hamed Zaky was appointed the new head of the Republican Guard, replacing Major General Sami Diab, who had advised him not to attend the Sinai soldiers’ funeral in a clear admission that he is unable to protect him while the military can protect Defense Minister Tantawi, who led the procession in his place.
Major General Maged Mostafa Kamel became the head of Egypt’s Central Security Forces, the Governor of North Sinai was dismissed and Tantawi fired the notorious General Hamdy Badin, head of military police, whose replacement has yet to be announced.
This overhaul may well prove to be Morsi’s silver lining in the aftermath of the Sinai crisis; also creating the right conditions for another long-overdue move to review the terms of the Camp David peace treaty with Israel, which has practically emasculated Egypt’s most volatile border through inadequate military presence and gross underdevelopment.
Rania Al-Malky is Co-founder and Chief Editor of The Egypt Monocle.