Sunday, July 07, 2013

My latest: Egypt's Military is Waiting for the Worst, the Prospects for Martial Law; Notes on the Sinai Tunnels and the El-Arish Massacre that Wasn't

The Daily Beast: Egypt's Military is Waiting for the Worst, 6 July 2013
The death toll is mounting. If violence continues between pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrators the army may see no choice but to impose martial law. Christopher Dickey and Mike Giglio report, with Sophia Jones

Plus: Notes on the Sinai Tunnels, 7 July 2013

We are keeping an eye on the Sinai amid Egypt’s upheaval. As noted earlier on this blog, the region is virtually lawless. A Coptic Christian priest was shot there yesterday and his car stolen. Army checkpoints and the El-Arish airport came under attack the day before, with at least one soldier killed. The same day, someone opened fire as Islamists were saying their prayers in El-Arish, causing panic.
Because the Sinai is next door to Gaza, most international attention has focused on Israel’s worries about the tunnels. Iranian funds for the Hamas leadership and components for the rockets frequently launched at Israel go through them.
But the problem for the Egyptian military is not what’s been going into Gaza, it’s what is coming out.
This morning we see reports that the Egyptian army has destroyed more than 40 smuggling tunnels in Sinai “in order to prevent infiltration of terrorists into the [Egyptian] peninsula [from Gaza].” Concerns are growing that Islamists and jihadists will take the ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi as reason to step up terrorist attacks against the Egyptian military and the civilians who worked with it to carry out his overthrow. (Arguably, that would make more than half the people in Egypt “legitimate” targets for murder in the terrorists’ eyes.) Hamas, which runs Gaza, is a branch of the international Muslim Brotherhood, the same organization that spawned Morsi.
The Egyptian government, even under Morsi, vowed to shut down the tunnels. But that seemed to be at the behest of Israel, there was little real commitment, and the tunnels continued to operate with virtual impunity. The people of Gaza got so blasé about these subterranean thoroughfares that, as The New York Times reported in May, they’ve been ordering deliveries of Kentucky Fried Chicken through them. “Nearly all of the animals at Gaza's South Forest zoo, including hyenas, wolves, ostriches, chimpanzees and its prize lion, came though the tunnels,” the Guardian reported recently. “Two months ago, 17-year-old Egyptian bride Manal Abu Shanar, veiled and dressed in flowing white, made the subterranean journey to her wedding in Gaza.”
This time, for its own reasons, the Egyptian military may be deadly serious about shutting the tunnels down. – Christopher Dickey

A massacre? Not really. This video posted by an Islamist group, and watched by more than 300,000 people so far, is worth looking at closely. The way it’s being excerpted on TV reports around the world may be very misleading. It shows people at afternoon prayers yesterday in the street in El-Arish, an Egyptian city in North Sinai near Gaza. In the background are the Egyptian military’s armored personnel carriers. Lawlessness has spread throughout the Sinai in the last couple of years, and earlier in the day groups reportedly identified as “Islamist gunmen” briefly attacked the El Arish airport and several military checkpoints with rocket propelled grenades and other weapons. At least one soldier was reported killed. So it’s likely that these soldiers were nervous.

Suddenly, shots ring out: automatic weapons fire that sounds like it is coming from two or more assault rifles. We cannot see who is shooting at whom, whether there was some provocation, or whether the shots are being fired in the air. But the men at prayer suddenly realize shots are being fired and run away from the military.

The scene of panic and the noise of the gunfire are such that you might well assume people are being mowed down in the street. And that is where the video clip usually ends when it is rebroadcast. But this raw footage does not show any casualties; in fact, quite the contrary. The crowd realizes that nobody is dying and within a minute or so of the shooting, men start to pour back into the square toward the military amid shouts of “God is great.” There are two men in white galabeyas lying on the pavement, but between 1:30 and 1:55 minutes into the video, you see them get up and dust themselves off. Toward the end of the video, you see the parked personnel carriers starting their engines and pulling back from the crowd. Then the video ends.

An ugly incident, to be sure. But a murky one. And not the massacre it appears to be.

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