Critical situation developing in the Sinai

Following the assassination of Prosecutor-General Hisham Barakat on Monday, a double car bomb in the Cairo neighborhood of 6 October City killed 3 people yesterday. Then, today, a wave of attacks on military facilities in the northern Sinai resulted in over a hundred militants killed against 15 Egyptian soldiers, according to government reports. By the end of the day the Egyptian government was saying that the situation in northern Sinai was “100% under control,” which is the kind of thing you only say when things weren’t “100% under control” at some point.

The insurgent movement in the Sinai has been a problem for Cairo since the Tahrir Square protests started in 2011, but really picked up steam when the Morsi government was overthrown in 2013; in fact, Morsi’s alleged leniency toward Sinai militants was part of the justification for the coup that removed him from office. Once he was out, the new government started cracking down in Sinai and the violence really took off. Today’s attacks were claimed by Wilayat Sinai (“Sinai Province”), which used to be Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (“Supporters of the Holy House,” i.e., Jerusalem) until that group pledged itself to ISIS late last year and took their current name. It’s entirely possible that Wilayat Sinai is responsible for the two Cairo attacks also, but as far as I know they haven’t claimed those and there are other candidates to consider there.

Sinai’s location makes it a problem both for Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Cairo and for Israel and Hamas (and the PA, for that matter), who would really rather ISIS not get a foothold in Gaza or along the Israel-Egypt border. Israel closed its border crossings into Gaza and into Egypt in response to today’s attacks. The Sinai insurgency is also steadily displacing the area’s Coptic Christian population, who are frequently targeted, as you might expect, by the ISIS-affiliated militants. This is a situation to watch, both for what happens in Sinai and for whether Sisi uses these attacks as a pretext to impose more authoritarianism on the Egyptian people.

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