CAIRO — The Egyptian government on Monday vowed to act swiftly to restore security in north Sinai as a brazen attack near the Israeli border that killed 16 Egyptian security personnel dealt the country’s new president a vexing first crisis.
The ambush and the gunmen’s attempt to storm across the border Sunday night brought into sharp focus challenges that could define or undo the presidency of the nation’s first Islamist statesman. The assailants are believed to be Islamist extremists who have secured a foothold near the Israeli border as the area has descended into lawlessness in recent years. No assertion of responsibility has emerged.
The incident is likely to become the first real test of the power struggle between Egypt’s military chiefs and President Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader who was among the thousands of Islamists persecuted by the state under the reign of ousted leader Hosni Mubarak. Although a crackdown on Islamists might be the military’s preferred tactic, it could cost Morsi politically.
“This is the first time something of this magnitude has happened since the Egypt-Israel peace deal was signed” in 1979, said Hassan Haridy, a former Egyptian diplomat who oversaw the Israel portfolio at the Foreign Ministry. “It was very, very, very organized. The people who did it know the land well and know the routine of the border checkpoint.”
Under enormous pressure from Israel and fellow Egyptians, Morsi and the military will be challenged to find a way to reassert state control over the increasingly lawless Sinai Peninsula. Carrying out the type of sweeping crackdown his predecessor would have launched could spark a bloody confrontation between Islamists and security forces — a particularly dangerous prospect because militants and Bedouin tribes in the area have stockpiled weapons during the past couple of years.
The attack will also test Egypt’s thorny alliance with Israel — the cornerstone of U.S. policy in the region.
Israeli officials demanded a crushing response by Egypt to a growing threat that, if left unaddressed, could prompt Israel to launch its own attack on militant cells that have taken root just miles from its border.
The Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement on its Arabic Web site Monday saying the attack had likely been the work of Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad. It said the vulnerability of Egyptian security forces along the border “made it imperative” to review the peace treaty between the two countries.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Monday that the incident ought to be a “wake-up call” for Egypt, in a statement issued after he toured the border crossing that was stormed by a team of militants using a commandeered Egyptian military armored vehicle. The Israeli military launched an airstrike that killed at least eight assailants, Israeli officials said.
“I appreciate that this will not be the last time that we come across attempts to harm us,” Barak said, urging the Egyptian government to be “sharp and effective.”