Cairo facing calls to increase Sinai military presence

'Egypt needs to walk a long way until it declares the peninsula totally free of the terrorists,' Samir Badawi, a retired army general

A long way to go. Army trucks carry Egyptian tanks in a military convoy in El Arish, Egypt’s northern Sinai Peninsula. (AP)

2017/09/17 Issue: 123 Page: 9

The Arab Weekly
Ibrahim Ouf

Cairo- Following the recent killing of 18 soldiers in North Si­nai by Islamic State (ISIS) fighters, Cairo is facing rising calls to deploy more military forces against the group. They come despite legal restric­tions limiting the number and type of forces that Egypt can maintain on the restive Sinai Peninsula as part of the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

“True, the army has managed to reduce the capabilities of the Sinai terrorists… but Egypt needs to walk a long way until it declares the peninsula totally free of the terrorists,” said Samir Badawi, a retired army general. “This makes it necessary for the army to deploy heavy military equipment and more troops into Sinai, something currently prohibited by the secu­rity arrangements included in the peace treaty.”

The calls come after 18 Egyptian soldiers were killed in an ambush by ISIS fighters in North Sinai on September 11. A bomb targeted an Egyptian armoured convoy trav­elling 30km west of El Arish, the capital of North Sinai, followed by a gun battle with ISIS militants. Just a few days later, two Egyptian soldiers were killed in a suicide at­tack on a North Sinai checkpoint.

Following the incident, Prime Minister Sherif Ismail said Egypt was committed to fighting ISIS with its “full force.” Egyptian secu­rity experts have called for Cairo to deploy heavy equipment and more troops to the Sinai Peninsula to combat ISIS, particularly in north­ern Sinai despite the Egyptian- Israeli peace treaty that explicitly enshrines the demilitarisation of the area.

“This is becoming an imperative as the army and police face this tough war from the ISIS terrorists,” said Ahmed Abdel Halim, a mem­ber of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, a union of Egypt’s strategists and former diplomats.

The 1979 peace treaty between Cairo and Tel Aviv — the first between an Arab country and Israel — enshrined a demilitarised zone on the joint Egyptian-Israeli border. The treaty also divides Si­nai into three distinct zones and places limitations on the types of forces that Egypt can deploy into each area.

ISIS is primarily concentrated in central and northern Sinai, Zone B. According to the treaty, “Egyp­tian border units of four battalions equipped with light weapons and wheeled vehicles will provide se­curity and supplement the civil police” in Zone B. Many Egyptian security experts have said ISIS would never have been able to gain a foothold in the peninsula were it not for the military restrictions.

Currently, security coordination between Egypt and Israel in Sinai is said to be at its highest in three years, allowing Cairo to deploy more troops in Sinai than strictly permitted by the treaty.

In January, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced the deployment of 20 army bat­talions in Sinai to fight ISIS. This amounts to between 20,000 and 25,000 troops. Tel Aviv has also permitted Cairo to deploy troops and heavy equipment in Zone C, the area closest to the border with Israel. According to the treaty, no Egyptian military presence should be permitted in this area, with only Egyptian civil police armed with light weapons allowed to operate there.

Many in Egypt have called for an amendment to the peace treaty to formally allow Cairo to deploy more troops and heavy equipment to the Sinai Peninsula. This would have a positive effect on the na­tional security of both Israel and Egypt, analysts said.

“This is why it is necessary for the army to have the necessary means to defend the security of the peninsula,” Badawi said.

Nonetheless, legal experts say there are limits to what Egypt can demand as far as the peace treaty with Israel is concerned. Bilateral agreements cannot be amended or changed unilaterally.

“This means that Egypt must get Israel to approve an amendment of the treaty if Cairo wants that,” said Nabil Helmy, the former dean of the College of Law at Zagazig Uni­versity in the Nile Delta. “Under­standings between Cairo and Tel Aviv in the past months led to the presence of more troops in areas banned by the treaty.”

Ibrahim Ouf is an Egyptian journalist based in Cairo.

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