July 1, 2015 | Policy Brief

Egypt’s Bloody Wednesday

July 1, 2015 | Policy Brief

Egypt’s Bloody Wednesday

The Sinai Peninsula experienced its bloodiest attack in a decade on Wednesday, as the Islamic State affiliate Sinai Province launched a massive assault on some 15 police and military targets. The latest attack is unprecedented not just in its death toll – as many as 70 servicemen, police, and civilians – but in that it marks the first time the group appears to have seized territory, albeit briefly, in the restive peninsula.

The attack involved three suicide bombers and dozens of fighters attacking targets in the peninsula’s two largest towns – el-Arish and Sheikh Zuweid – and reportedly taking a number of soldiers captive. It came just 48 hours after the assassination in Cairo of Egypt’s top public prosecutor (an attack for which Sinai Province also claimed responsibility) and a week after the Islamic State called on followers to escalate their attacks to mark the holy month of Ramadan.

On Wednesday, a significant portion of Sheikh Zuweid – a town of 45,000 just miles from the border with Israel and the Gaza Strip – seems to have come briefly under Sinai Province control. The assailants blocked off the town’s entry routes, seized checkpoints, buildings, and a police station, and may have intentionally sabotaged cellular communication lines. The Egyptian Air Force responded with Apache helicopters and F-16 jets, and claims to have ended the police-station siege and begun reasserting control over the town itself.

It was the deadliest day for Egyptian uniformed forces and police in the Sinai since the 1973 war with Israel, and may have been the bloodiest terror attack in the peninsula’s recorded history: the only comparable incident was the 2005 twin bombings in the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, which killed between 64 and 88 people, many of them Western tourists.

The day’s violence was not, however, limited to Sinai. A counterterror raid in Cairo killed nine Muslim Brotherhood members, including a former member of parliament. One police station in an upscale neighborhood of the capital found a box on its doorstep holding a severed human skull.

For its part, the government has wasted no time in responding. On Monday, President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi vowed “swift justice” over the prosecutor’s death (which Cairo pinned on the Brotherhood, despite Sinai Province’s claim of responsibility) and promised unspecified legal “amendments” to combat terror. On Wednesday, those amendments were hurriedly passed by the cabinet for Sisi’s signature.

Egypt’s neighbors have taken measures of their own. Following the assault, Israel closed its crossing to Gaza that is closest to the Egyptian border, with one Israeli official describing the incident as a “game-changer.” Even the Islamist Hamas rulers of Gaza reinforced their own frontier with Egypt.

If the prosecutor’s assassination marked a new page in Egypt’s Islamist-government confrontation, Wednesday’s mega-attack represents an entirely new chapter. With Cairo determined to vanquish both the Muslim Brotherhood and a resurgent Islamic State, it is one that looks increasingly like civil war.

Oren Kessler is deputy director for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @OrenKessler