(MENAFN - Arab News) Egypt is going to war in a bid to reclaim sovereignty over Sinai.
Its armed forces will fight to stop arms dealing, overcome rebellious bedouin tribes and chase out foreign jihadist infiltrators. Sunday's terrorist attack on a checkpoint along the Sinai-Israel border in which 16 Egyptian soldiers and officers were killed has triggered the biggest security operation by the Cairo government in years to end the state of lawlessness in the peninsula.
It is not known where the attackers came from, but Egyptian and Israeli sources blamed Sinai bedouins and foreign groups belonging to jihadist groups as well as infiltrators from the nearby Gaza Strip. Nine attackers were killed but not before they commandeered two armored vehicles and crashed into Israel.
One vehicle blew up and the other was hit by an Israeli helicopter after crossing the border. It was a daring operation whose purpose, it appears, was to kidnap or kill Israeli soldiers. A top Israeli commander said a major disaster was averted.
The attack underscored the fact that Sinai had become something of an Achilles' heel for Egypt. Since the Jan. 25 uprising that unseated President Hosni Mubarak a state of lawlessness had prevailed in the Sinai with many reports speaking of huge arms cache reaching jihadists who had established presence in the desert peninsula. These groups were blamed for the repeated blowing up of the gas pipeline extending from Al Arish to Israel and Jordan. They were also thought to be responsible for missile attacks against southern Israel originating from Sinai.
Israel Defence Minister Ehud Barak said this week that Sunday's attack should act as a "wake-up" call for Egyptian authorities. Israel had called on Egypt to take measures to crack down on terrorist cells in Sinai, which it said were associated with Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran.
Egypt's newly elected President Muhammad Mursi ordered the army to take control of the Sinai and said those responsible will pay dearly. Egypt closed the Rafah border point into Gaza for an indefinite period, while Egyptian commentators called on Hamas to shut down illegal tunnels and cooperate in the investigation. Hamas has rejected claims that Islamic Jihad members had infiltrated from Gaza and said it was bound to protect Egypt's national security.
The repercussions of this attack will be felt for weeks. Egyptian troops have been bolstered in Sinai and by Monday had encircled the Egyptian border town of Rafah. The closing of the only border access point into Egypt from Gaza will add pressure on the Hamas government and is likely to electrify relations with Cairo. Hamas had hoped that Mursi's election will reflect positively on the besieged Gaza Strip.
On Monday Egyptian commentators were showing hostility toward Hamas, which they blame for failing to control its side of the borders. But others warned of an Israeli plot to isolate Gaza from the Egyptian side and sour relations between Hamas and the new government in Cairo.
But the fact remains that Egypt needs to find ways to reassert it authority in Sinai. Members of Al Gama'a Al Islamiya in Cairo had accused Israel of standing behind the Rafah attack. Other military experts argued that Israel will use the attack to amend the Camp David peace treaty, which limits the presence of the Egyptian Army in Sinai, so that it allows Tel Aviv to establish a security corridor along its joint border with Egypt. Hamas senior official Dr. Musa Abu Marzouq said Israel had prior knowledge of the terror attack and that its intelligence had penetrated the group behind it.
But this does not preclude the fact that Sinai has become a security risk for both Israel and Egypt. For the former the possibility of fundamentalist groups establishing bases in the peninsula and threatening Israel's southern borders, along with Palestinian groups in Gaza, is real. Along with South Lebanon and the Golan, if the Assad regime loses control there or allows fighters to move into this strategic area, a lawless Sinai will present Israel with an unprecedented challenge.
The choices for President Mursi are tough. He will be forced to coordinate with Israel if the Egyptian Army is to have a free hand in Sinai. But closing the Rafah border crossing for too long will be seen as unpopular and un-Islamic. It will put him in a tight spot as someone who had promised to offer unlimited backing to the people of Gaza and end collective punishment of its inhabitants.
Strategically, Egypt cannot afford to lose control of Sinai. It has to move now to end arms dealing and confront the global jihadist groups, including Al-Qaeda, who are now active there. These arms may find their way to the Nile Valley and threaten the stability of Egypt in these troubled times.
President Mursi has now asked the army to launch a wide ranging operation to end the mutiny in Sinai and spread its control over its territory. The military council had promised a quick reaction. It has sealed off Sinai and dispatched huge reinforcements. Israel will have to yield but it will be watching nervously as the Egyptian military bolsters its presence close to its borders.
There are no easy choices. For Hamas it will have to prove that no fighters will be crossing from its end. It will have to shut all illegal tunnels to prove its good will. There is a heavy political price tag to anything it does now, but Egypt's battle for Sinai will change the geopolitical balance in that region.
n Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and commentator based in Amman