Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, the first senior US official to visit Cairo since the military coup of July 3, exchanged tough talk with the coup leader, Defense minister Gen. Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, Monday, after he met interim President Adly Mansour and Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi.
The general frankly advised Washington to be more realistic about the situation in Egypt. Accordingly to debkafile’s Middle East sources, El-Sisi asked Burns bluntly why the Obama administration backed the Muslim Brotherhood and appeared to accept an Egypt plunged in chaos and economic meltdown during Mohamed Morsi’s one-year presidency.
Burns said the US remained committed to an Egypt that is "stable, democratic, inclusive and tolerant," stressing Washington understood that "only Egyptians can determine their future.” To this, Gen. El-Sisi replied that in ousting Morsi, the military had obeyed the authentic will of the Egyptian people. He said the army’s role is national not political.
On the question of US military assistance, the general remarked that the “US is more keen than Egypt on keeping up military aid as an assurance of the continuation of military ties between the two countries.” debkafile: Implicit in this comment was a hint that military ties with Washington would suffer if the administration tried to push the Egyptian army around.
Present at the two-hour meeting were Egypt’s chief of staff Sobhi Sidki and US Ambassador Anne Patterson, a known supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood who tried hard to bridge the differences between the Brotherhood and the general and avert the coup.
Secretary Burns faces an uphill task in his mission to mend fences between the Obama administration and the caretaker rulers of Egypt – especially when the Egyptian street’s two halves – anti and pro-Morsi – are united on little else but anti-American sentiment.
Earlier Monday, debkafile carried this report:
The last ten days have seen dozens killed and hundreds wounded in battles between Egyptian security forces and a coalition of increasingly aggressive Islamist Salafists and Palestinian Hamas and Jihad Islami fighters, debkafile’s military and intelligence sources report. The Egyptian military has clamped a news blackout on the Sinai battlefield.
In the latest incident Monday, July 15, rocket-propelled grenades blew up a bus carrying workmen to the Multinational Force-MFO based at Al Gora near the North Sinai town of El Arish. According to official sources, three of the passengers were killed and 17 injured. Unofficial estimates were as high as 13-20 dead. The attackers shouted Allahu Akbar when the bus blew up.
debkafile reports that further, unknown numbers of Egyptian soldiers and Islamist assailants were killed in a gunfight nearby. The Salafists were trying to plant explosives along the road connecting the town of Sheih Zweid to the MFO encampment. Many of them died when gunshots detonated the explosives they were holding.
Our sources disclose that since the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo on July 3, Egyptian troops confront surging Islamist violence at four current flashpoints in Sinai, two near the Israeli border.
One is the Rafah area south of the Gaza Strip where the Salafists are tackling Egyptian forces engaged in blocking the smuggling tunnels running contraband into the Palestinian enclave.
The commander of Egypt’s Second Army, Gen. Ahmed Wasfi, is convinced by incoming intelligence that the Muslim Brotherhood unseated two weeks ago in Cairo and its Libyan allies are conniving with the Salafist Bedouin of Sinai and the Palestinian Hamas and Jihad Islami of the Gaza Strip to stage a violent uprising against the Egyptian army and security forces in Sinai.
The events of the past 24 hours confirm him in this conviction. Saturday, July 13, the Egyptian army intercepted and destroyed three arms convoys crossing from Libya into Egypt on their way to the Gaza Strip. The next day, armed Salafists conducted a multiple onslaught on Egyptian Border Police camps, checkpoints and patrols opposite the Israel region of Halutza.
The residents of Bnei Netzarim, Naveh, Yevul, Dekel, Avshalom and Sdeh Avraham were told to stay in protected areas and local security squads placed on alert, in case the Salafist assailants stormed across the border to attack Israeli targets.
Overnight, the IDF bolstered military units in the area. In the process, an Israeli Hermes 450 drone crashed while on surveillance duty over the embattled area. The Israeli Air Force reported that a technical fault caused the drone to fly out of control.
All Sunday, the Egyptian army sent extra forces to bolster the engineering units engaged in destroying the smuggling tunnels carrying arms, fighters and consumer goods into the Gaza Strip for more than a decade, which provided the Hamas-ruled regime with a major source of revenue. Orders from the high command in Cairo were to step up the pressure on Hamas and Jihad Islami. And so, the Egyptian army targeted a number of tunnels on the Rafah border used to smuggle fuel to Gaza. Without gas, their combat mobility will be sharply reduced.
Bulldozers were used to remove several machines pumping fuel into the Gaza Strip through the tunnels.
Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh tried appealing to Egyptian intelligence chiefs in Cairo to stop the operation. He was fobbed off with junior officers who said they were not competent to make decisions in the matter and would pass his request to higher authority.
The El Arish area has become the most dangerous of all the four flashpoints: There, the heavily concentrated Egyptian force is battered by constant assaults. They are hemmed in by thousands of Salafist gunmen. Any officer, soldier or vehicle trying to exit their fortified compound runs the gauntlet of roadside bombs, anti-tank weapons, hand grenades and heavy machine gun fire.
Fighting is raging at two more locations: the central mountains of Jabel Halal and along the Egyptian-Israeli border opposite Israel’s southern air base of Ovda.