EL-ARISH, Egypt – More than three weeks after the military coup that ousted this nation’s first democratically elected – and Islamist – president from power, the roots of a violent insurgency are burrowing fast into the sands of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
The rapid thud of machine-gun fire and the explosions of rocket-propelled grenades have begun to shatter the silence of the desert days and nights with startling regularity, as militants assault the military and police forces stationed across this volatile territory that borders Israel and the Gaza Strip.
The emerging Sinai crisis gives Egypt’s military a pretext to crack down on Islamist opponents across the country, including in Cairo, where at least 72 people were killed over the weekend when security forces opened fire on demonstrators rallying in support of ousted president Mohammed Morsi.
Egypt’s interim government issued a decree Sunday that granted the military the power to detain civilians, state media reported. Analysts and rights activists said the decree suggested that a state of emergency, a tool that the regime of now-deposed autocrat Hosni Mubarak had used for decades to silence opponents, might soon follow.
But in the Sinai, where the reaction to Morsi’s ouster turned deadly within days of the coup, such state-sponsored violence and repression is likely to only feed the conviction of militants, who see themselves as waging a war against a despotic and irreligious military regime.
In the Sinai, long Egypt’s most elusive and neglected region, a familiar cycle of repression has already taken hold.
The military has clamped down hard on all routes in and out. And Saturday, the armed forces launched Operation Desert Storm in the peninsula, according to the state-run al-Ahram newspaper. The operation got underway after millions of Egyptians took to the streets Friday to heed the military’s call to give it the popular mandate to crack down on violence and terrorism.
Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim said Egypt’s security forces have been given permission to confront those who threaten the state’s stability.
The people have given the army and the police a popular mandate to stand firmly against anyone who shakes the stability of the nation with terrorist or criminal acts, Ibrahim said Sunday at a graduation ceremony for police recruits.
Bedouin leaders and Islamists in the Sinai say locals have been angered by the coup because it brought an end to Egypt’s nascent democracy – a concept that was slow to catch on in this deeply conservative territory that has long been suspicious of Cairo.
Many others, particularly Bedouin smugglers, in a population long accustomed to sweeping arrests, state-sanctioned discrimination and torture under Mubarak, say that they tasted freedom in the anarchy that prevailed under Morsi and that they are determined to avoid a return to the past even if it costs them their lives.
Sinai residents say operations under Morsi were more propaganda than action. But local leaders and rights groups fear that the military’s ongoing operation could target the Bedouin as a whole, rather than the 100 or so militants residing among them.
Since Egypt’s armed forces ousted Morsi on July 3, militants have launched dozens of attacks on military and police checkpoints and bases across North Sinai, killing dozens, according to state health officials, and underscoring the potential for widening violence across the country as Islamist anger grows.
Lawlessness, smuggling and militancy have thrived on the peninsula since the 2011 fall of Mubarak’s regime.
Bedouin arms dealers who are sympathetic to the militants said in recent days that fighters have launched shoulder-fired antiaircraft Stinger missiles (known to the U.S. intelligence community as MANPADs) at military aircraft, laid improvised bombs along roads traversed heavily by troops, and fired barrages of bullets and RPGs at security personnel stationed here.
On Sunday, a police commander who spoke on the condition of anonymity said police had located a fourth bomb outside the Sheik Zweid village police station in less than 48 hours. The first three exploded, injuring several police officers.
Both police commanders and Bedouin leaders say the militants are a minority in the desert peninsula; the latter group says the militants consist mostly of locals who operate in small cells, with little to no command structure. But Bedouin leaders fear that the territory’s population may soon get swept up in the military’s crackdown, escalating the conflict into a wider war.