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Africa

Is Sisi's Sinai move an anti-terror crackdown or election ploy?

media A woman sips on a cup of tea as she sits behind a poster of Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who will run for a second term in an upcoming election, in Cairo, Egypt February 11, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

The battle for control of Egypt's Sinai province entered a decisive phase Monday, with security forces reporting the first signs of success in their latest operation to stamp out the Islamic State armed group. But is the crackdown due to electoral considerations, as Sisi’s critics argue?

"It’s too late," Sobhi Gress, the president of the association Coptic Solidarity in Europe, told RFI Monday.

He was speaking after Egyptian security forces launched a major anti-terror operation Friday, in the restive Sinai province, codenamed "Operation Sinai 2018."

The offensive to stamp out the Islamic State armed group already showed signs of succes Monday, with the military reporting it had killed at least 28 Islamic State fighters and arrested more than one hundred.

"Why did the army not do anything before?" questioned Gress, referring to the hundreds of Egyptian Christians that have been killed by ISIS, predominantly in the last two years.

"And why now? When [President Fatah al] Sisi is campaigning for his re-election?"

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is seeking a second term in office in the country's presidential elections late March, and has vowed to wipe out militants within three months, after an attack on a mosque that left nearly 300 people dead.

"This was an attack against a mosque, it wasn’t against a Church," points out Gress, accusing the government of double standards.

"Is the government carrying out this offensive because it was a mosque that was attacked or is it trying to show to voters that the army is now doing all it can against the terrorists?"

Remnants from Mohamed Morsi

A military spokesman said the anti-terror operation would cover large parts of Sinai plus parts of the Nile delta and the western desert, where other militants have waged attacks.

In more than three years, Egypt appears to have been unable to stop the local Islamic State affiliate, Wilayat Sinai, from spreading.

That may not be entirely Sisi's fault reckons Mitchell Belfer, Director of the Euro Gulf Information Centre in Rome.

"Sisi is doing quite well considering what he was left from [Mohamed] Morsi's government," he told RFI.

Militant attacks have increased dramatically in Egypt since the military's 2013 ouster of elected but divisive Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

For Belfer, the Muslim Brotherhood and more extremist jihadist groups fluorished under Morsi, "encouraging even further extremist groups in the Sinai peninsula to strengthen their military position there."

"Whether there was an election or not, he [Sisi] would have had to deal with ISIS and radicals inside the Sinai Peninsula anyway", says Belfer, dismissing the claim that the former military commander is vying for his reelection.

Fallout from Iraq, Syria

Khaled Ali, the last serious challenger to Sisi withdrew from the electoral race last month citing intimidation against his supporters, in an election largely seen as a foregone conclusion.

The presidential election aside, "Sisi has to take action now," continues Belfer. "We saw major attacks weeks ago and you can see just what the civilian consequences will be if a group like ISIS goes unchecked in the region."

Jihadists in Egypt's northern Sinai have been blamed for bombing attacks on churches in Cairo and other cities, killing dozens of Christians. In late 2015, they also brought down a Russian passenger jet, killing 224 people.

"It's reaching boiling point," adds Belfer, who says there's renewed pressure on Egyptian authorities to act now against Islamic militants who "are slipping through the cracks in Iraq and Syria and regrouping in the Sinai province."

Yet scepticism about the timing of the anti-terror operation remains.

It comes after a report in the New York Times last week, revealing a secret alliance between Israeli and Egyptian forces.

"The operation may be in response to that scoop," comments Umberto Profazio, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

According to the paper, Israeli forces carried out airstrikes between 2016-2017, a claim the Egyptian military has denied.

"Flashpoint waiting to happen"

"The offensive right now could be a way of reaffirming Egyptian supremacy and to confirm that Egypt is in control of the Sinai peninsula," says Profazio.

Reaffirming Egyptian supremacy may be a tough challenge, especially with the African Union estimating that as many as 6,000 foreign fighters could return to the African continent from Syria and Iraq and regroup in the Sinai region.

"The war against ISIS is not over," concludes Belfer. "It's not that the Sinai peninsula has become the eldoraldo of ISIS but it's another flashpoint waiting to happen", he said.

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