CAIRO — Deploying its air force for the first time in nearly 40 years, the Egyptian military launched an air offensive in the unruly Sinai Peninsula on Wednesday, three days after Islamists killed 16 Egyptian soldiers in an attack that threatened both the Egyptian-Israeli border and the political standing of Egypt’s new president.
Hours after the air force reportedly struck Islamic extremists near the border with Israel, the Egyptian government announced that three high-ranking officials had been dismissed for their handling of the Sunday attack, the deadliest against Egyptian soldiers since the 1979 Camp David peace agreement with Israel.
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi said that he had forced his director of general intelligence services, Murad Muwafi, into retirement and dismissed the governor of North Sinai, Abdel-Wahab Mabrouk, in an apparent bid to assert his authority over the increasingly volatile situation. Since Morsi has no say constitutionally over military matters, the head of the military council that shares power with Morsi, Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi, fired Hamdy Badeen, the head of Egypt’s military police.
The days’ events suggested the Egyptian military was taking the attack and the threat of domestic extremists seriously after a series of skirmishes over the past year. The air force last launched attacks over the Sinai during the 1973 war with Israel.
At the same time, Morsi sought to reassert his role as president with the firings after a tepid initial response to the attacks and limited say constitutionally over security matters. Morsi did not attend the soldiers’ funeral Monday and made only a 25-minute appearance at the attack site earlier this week, amid security concerns.
Tantawi was the most senior figure at the funeral; Morsi’s prime minister, Hesham Kandil, was attacked by angry spectators as he approached the funeral and did not attend.
The firings “are Morsi’s way of looking authoritative even though he has very limited influence over the Sinai and the security situation more generally,” said Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Washington-based think tank.
Since taking office in June, Morsi has stressed domestic issues over international affairs. He’s vowed to abide by the 1979 peace agreement with Israel and has left the defense and finance ministries in the hands of holdovers from the administration of deposed President Hosni Mubarak, while placing members of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, under whose banner he ran for the presidency, in service ministries such as education and youth.
But the attacks exposed the sharp divide between Morsi and the Brotherhood, where he built his political career. The Brotherhood blamed Israelis for the attacks and demanded a re-examination of the 1979 peace treaty, while Morsi sought to strike a more moderate tone.
“What is most politically explosive about this is that the Muslim Brotherhood does not want to touch foreign policy, but instability will force them to do so and particularly force them to deal with Israel,” Trager said.
Islamists of various groups, including al Qaida, have dominated the Sinai since the fall of Mubarak’s regime 20 months ago and have vowed a more aggressive campaign against Israel, while Egypt’s security forces have appeared hapless to deal with the issue. Attacks on a natural gas pipeline to Israel and reports of weapons sales have soared.
According to a Reuters report from a correspondent in the Sinai, the air force struck targets in Sheikh Zuwaid, a town six miles from the Gaza Strip. According to state media, the air strikes killed 20 militants.
But Ahmed Abu Deraa, a local journalist in Sinai, told McClatchy there were no signs of an aerial attack.
“It’s all lies,” Deraa said. “Nothing is happening.”
Israeli officials appeared to welcome the offensive.
"The only one responsible for Sinai is Egypt, and Egypt will do everything in its power to deal with terror. Its success will prevent a bigger attack," said Israeli Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad during an interview with Israel’s army radio. "These extremist organizations can harm the entire Middle East, it is not just against Egypt.”
He said the weekend attack had compelled Egypt to deal with a situation that has been festering for months. “The penny has dropped in Egypt, their level of awareness has been heightened,” he said. “They are moving to action.”
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak called the attack a “wakeup call for the Egyptians to take matters into their own hands.”
Barak, who spoke during a parliamentary committee meting Monday, said that Israel and Egypt successfully communicated throughout the incident, avoiding a far more deadly attack. But he added, “there must be determined Egyptian action” to “prevent terror in Sinai.”
Officials still have not said which Islamist group launched Sunday’s attack. An Israeli military official who gave reporters a background briefing earlier this week said the attack began when several dozen militants attacked a checkpoint in the northern Sinai city of Rafah at sundown, as Egyptian soldiers sat down to break the daylight-hours fast that Muslims observe during the holy month of Ramadan.
The official said that militants in Gaza shelled the Egypt-Israeli border with mortars to create confusion as the attack was taking place.
The 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed before the attackers commandeered two military vehicles. One of those vehicles was exploded to create a hole in the barrier Israel had constructed along the border.
Israeli aircraft destroyed the second vehicle, which entered Israel not far from the Kerem Shalom crossing with Gaza.
Mowafi, the intelligence director, reportedly said that his officers knew about the impending attack but dismissed it because they did not believe Muslims would kill each other during Ramadan. That comment appeared to contribute to his dismissal.
Frenkel, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Jerusalem. McClatchy special correspondent Hassan el Naggar in Cairo contributed.