Leaving a Black Hole of Terror in Sinai and Gaza

Two significant state visits are on the line: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak‘s White House trip in the second half of April and US President George W. Bush‘s visit to Cairo in May. These visits are scheduled to take place in the twilight of both their presidencies, depending on Cairo’s delivery of a security package for lawless Sinai, terror-ridden Gaza and Israel-Palestinian peace talks.

Cairo is bidding for US help and Israeli compliance for lifting its ambitious scheme off the ground and keeping it alive in the coming three weeks. That is a tall order for an extremely tricky package enclosing a delicate set of interlocking informal deals which are still in negotiation.

Given so many uncertainties, Egyptian defense minister Gen. Hussein Tantawi has just spent an unusually long seven days in Washington, about which both hosts and guests kept mum. He was later joined by his colleague, intelligence minister Gen. Omar Suleiman.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report their errand as being to prepare the way for Mubarak to visit the White House in the second half of April as guest of President Bush.

Mubarak will be the first Arab ruler to take leave of the US president in person.

Seen from Cairo, Egyptian president’s American trip will also initiate international events marking his own impending farewell from the presidential palace after 28 years’ occupancy, during which he maintained friendly ties with four US presidents.

He has not fixed a public date for stepping down. Some of his advisers guess it will take place soon after Bush’s successor is sworn in next January. Also kept officially vague is the name of Mubarak’s successor and the way the transition is to be implemented. But it is common knowledge that the baton will be passed to his son, Gemal (Jimmy) Mubarak, whose appointment will be ratified by popular referendum.

The exchanged state visits are meanwhile hedged round with a thicket of thorns.


Purging Sinai of terrorists


Their tight schedules hinge on several pre-conditions, one being that Egypt’s military, security and intelligence services succeed in a few short weeks in cleansing Sinai’s rugged mountains and deserts of the terrorist and paramilitary forces roaming at large there.

They include al Qaeda cells, Palestinian Hamas and Jihad Islami bands and smuggling rings using the largely uninhabited peninsula as a thoroughfare for the transfer of weapons and other war materiel to Middle Eastern, East African and Persian Gulf destinations.

Some rings are run by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards intelligence, some by al Qaeda, others by Muslim crime rings based in Europe.

The Gaza Strip is integral to this problem and part of the package Mubarak hopes to wrap up.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington sources report that if he can deliver, he will be able to receive Bush, when he is in the Middle East for Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations in May, for a state visit to Egypt. It will have to take place at the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh since both American and Egyptian intelligence warn that Cairo is too dangerous.

After failing in this task in the four years since al Qaeda’s first attack on Sinai’s holiday resorts killed 32 tourists, Mubarak will need a conjuring trick to pull it off now.

This was the main issue tossed back and forth between the Egyptian ministers and US officials led by National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley in Washington.

The fact that Gen. Tantawi led these talks signaled that failure and the end of the eight-year reign of Gen. Suleiman and his intelligence services as the security bulwark of the Mubarak regime. The reins have passed to the army and its chief, who has long maintained that Suleiman was not up on military matters. Tantawi also argued that the intelligence minister’s handling of Sinai was misconceived and lax, impairing not only Egypt’s strategic grip on Sinai but also its ability to keep the Suez Canal safe.

Monday, March 24, a rare shooting incident on the vital waterway very nearly got out of hand.


Safeguarding Suez shipping


The US Navy's chartered ship Global Patriot was preparing to enter the Suez Canal after dark on its way to the Mediterranean, when it was approached by a small Egyptian motorboat. The Fifth Fleet, which did not mention casualties, said “The ship warned the small boats – via bridge to bridge radio and a series of warning steps – to turn away. One small boat continued to approach and shots were fired.

Cairo reported an Egyptian trader on the motorboat, one of a swarm trying to sell goods to passing ships, was killed and two others wounded.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terror sources report that security in and around Suez has deteriorated so sharply that American ships navigating the canal are constantly on guard for attacks by explosive boats piloted by suicide bombers. Aware that al Qaeda cells are scattered through the towns on Suez shores, US craft have standing orders to shoot any small boats coming too close after warning them to move off.

Tantawi brought with him to Washington a new plan for Sinai-Suez security, drawn up by the Egyptian military command.

He proposed marking the peninsula off into 10 squares. In each, an Egyptian military, police and intelligence team would be posted to crack down on local terrorist networks.

Joint US-Egyptian naval and air forces would secure Sinai’s Suez, Red Sea and Mediterranean coastlines. They would cooperate in operations to purge the smuggling racketeers, missile and firearms gunrunners and the bands of terrorists entering and exiting Sinai at will.

The picturesque and apparently serene sea and diving resorts would be fenced in and armed with surveillance sensors for tracking illicit traffic.

Since this plan called for adjustments in the Egyptian-Israeli 1979 peace treaty which stipulated Sinai’s demilitarization, Israel input was called for. The Egyptian ministers reported that Ret. Gen. Amos Gilead, political adviser at the defense ministry, had paid several visits to Cairo with a group of Israeli officers to inspect the plan. They received the impression that the Olmert government, to give Egypt a chance to finish its clean-up of Sinai, was quietly willing to allow a troop build-up beyond the quota stipulated in the peace treaty. It had also consented to suspending Sinai’s demarcation of A, B and C areas – and their various limitations on the number and movements of Egyptian security personnel – up until the end of 2008.


Dealing with Hamas without recognition


Israel’s condition for these concessions was a deal with Cairo to contain Palestinian missile and terror aggression from the Gaza Strip.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Jerusalem and Washington sources, all the parties concerned concur that Gaza is the spanner in the works, not least because the definition of its status varies from one party to the other.

American circles close to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and a number of Egyptian officers define the situation thus:

With no breakthrough in sight in Israel’s peace talks with the Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas, the US administration might be advised to review its negative attitude toward the Palestinian fundamentalist terrorists and, working through Egypt, seek an accommodation that would satisfy Israel.

The difficulty here is that indirect US recognition of a terrorist group, a problematic world precedent, would be implicit in this arrangement.

According to the circle around Rice, the Israeli officials involved in the Cairo dialogue are dead set against any sort of recognition – but not averse to a long-term ceasefire and the partial lifting of the blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza, so long as the arrangement is not formalized.

Israeli circles confirmed that prime minister Ehud Olmert and defense minister Ehud Barak regard an unwritten, unacknowledged truce with Hamas preferable to Israel’s reoccupation of the main part of the Gaza Strip to halt Palestinian attacks.

This new Israeli openness accounts for the three weeks of virtual truce between Israel and Hamas and the IDF’s abrupt interruption of its Hot Winter operation in mid-course on March 3.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terror sources stress that if this arrangement was confirmed, it would be the first time the United States or Israel had agreed to participate in a deal under fire with a terrorist group, without requiring the dismantlement of its infrastructure.


Completing three Herculean tasks


Time for these chancy moves is running out fast.

The Hamas imbroglio is further complicated by Egypt’s local elections on April 8.

Once again the regime is contending with the chronic threat by the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is the Palestinian armed wing, to sweep an election.

Mubarak had special committees set up to whittle down the 5,200 Brotherhood candidates to 483, so pre-empting an almost certain landslide. To prevent protesters rioting in the streets, which are already restless over the rising price of bread, the president ordered his security services to impose order with an iron fist.

The usual method to achieve this in Egypt is by mass arrests. Our Cairo sources report that thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members have been thrown into jail including 1,000 disqualified election candidates. Their leader, Muhammad Mahdi Akef has warned that an explosion is imminent.

Cairo believes that one way to placate the Muslim Brotherhood might be to ease restraints on Hamas, which it needs to do anyway in the negotiations for an indirect deal with Israel. Earlier this week, Egypt released the last batch of Hamas gunmen rounded up in Sinai. More concessions to Hamas may be in store. If the Brotherhood refuses to be pacified, Mubarak may postpone the elections.

But for now, he needs to get a deal on Sinai and Gaza, however tenuous, in the bag in time for his White House trip, i.e. within two weeks, to be hailed by the administration as the world leader who cracked three Herculean problems, the Black Hole of Sinai, the Gaza impediment and the status of Hamas.

To be heralded as a hero by the Arab world, the Egyptian president must do more: Hamas must be brought into a security accord leading to the patching up of its quarrel with Abbas’ Fatah and accord on a Palestinian unity government.

Mubarak believes the Israelis may be persuaded to go along with this, as long as its concurrence is not formalized in documents.

But what if one of the elements drops out and the package falls apart, what then?

Mubarak’s Washington visit depends on his not arriving empty-handed, and so does the Bush trip to the Middle East.

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