Egypt’s defense minister Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi is seething over what he sees as Hosni Mubarak government’s colossal mishandling of burning Sinai issues.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report that the veteran field marshal (70 and suffering from cancer) is bitterly scathing over his government’s failure to root out al Qaeda’s networks in the peninsula and over Cairo’s involvement in the wild Palestinian rampage in northern Sinai and the Gaza Strip.
His fault-finding centers on intelligence minister Omar Suleiman’s management of both issues.
At a recent informal meeting of Egyptian top brass, Tantawi focused his critique on three points:
1. Egyptian intelligence had fallen down badly in evaluating and overcoming al Qaeda’s activities in Sinai before and after the Sharm al Sheikh bombing attacks on July 23. Most of the data presented to the president after the assaults were wrong. Two months after the Sharm el Sheikh bombings and a year after the attacks on Taba and three more Red Sea resorts, Egyptian intelligence was still flying blind as to the masterminds behind the attacks.
Al Qaeda had been allowed to invest the last year in building and expanding its Sinai networks, some of whose members had come from overseas. Today they controlled large areas of the central Sinai mountains, and Egyptian security forces were helpless to dislodge them and regain control. The angry general said that instead of disseminating a false picture, Cairo would do better to offer some plain talk, admit al Qaeda had established an operational base in Egypt and work on an effective plan to root them out.
2. The Egyptian minister is convinced that intelligence minister Suleiman’s ineptness in tackling al Qaeda fathered his mishandling of the project to replace withdrawn Israeli troops on the Philadelphi border route between Sinai and Gaza with Egyptian border police.
“The Egyptian army was against this deployment from the outset,” Tantawi declared. “And look what has come of it. The Israelis handed us responsibility for the Egyptian frontier with Gaza allowing us an army battalion with a few helicopters. But it turns out that the only way to control that border is to open fire on lawless Palestinians transiting back and forth at will. I do not know a single Egyptian commander or military unit willing to open fire on Palestinians. That is not the army’s job.”
3. The Egyptian defense minister belittled the performance of the Egyptian intelligence officers, led by Suleiman’s deputy General Mustafa Bukeri, who were stationed in the Gaza Strip for the duration of Israel’s pull-out. Their task was to prevent the terrorists, especially Hamas, from grabbing evacuated territory before it was claimed by the Palestinian Authority. They failed completely. Terrorist chiefs kept the Egyptian generals engaged in dialogue as a decoy for their complete takeover.
4. The Egyptian forces along the Gaza-Sinai border and in northern Sinai are in the grip of an untenable situation. On one side, they are caught in the toils of Palestinian terrorists who sneak through their ranks to and from northern Sinai, making a mockery of any attempt to restrict passage. To their rear, lurk al Qaeda cells which threaten to cut off their transport and supply lines to Egypt.