CAIRO/ARISH: High-level officials in North Sinia denied Friday that the forces deployed in the afternoon were intended to launch any security operations in the province recently subjected to a series of attacks by armed militants.
Hundreds of joint army and police forces were deployed across the province, around vital buildings in North Sinai and across the border with the blockaded Gaza Strip.
Witnesses said this was probably the first time such well-equipped forces have been deployed in the area where the presences of military forces is limited as per Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
North Sinai Governor El-Sayed Abdel-Wahab Mabrouk said the troops deployed are not combat units and that their job is to deter any attacks against individuals, private and public buildings and vital security sites.
"We will not fight our own people in Sinai ... and these forces will not head to the mountains," he said.
Mabrouk further denied earlier media reports about an alleged “Operation Eagle”.
"As we stressed, these units will not launch any operations. They are here to prevent any acts of sabotage or thuggery and to protect lives and possessions," he said.
North Sinai Police Directorate Chief Saleh El-Masry said the forces are fully authorized to deal with outlaws and those committing acts of thuggery.
The police forces have been given tasks that cannot be revealed for security reasons, he added.
Media reports claimed that local Islamist groups intended to form popular committees to resolve disputes, to establish customary courts run by their leading Salafi sheikhs — instead of the traditional Bedouin councils— and disperse about 6,000 armed men to enforce law and order in the province.
Mabrouk denied the news, saying the Salafi groups in the province are disciplined and do not deploy armed men.
Head of the local Salafi group Sheikh As'ad El-Beek said that the Salafis only preach Islam and have no armed activities.
"Our headquarters have been used to resolve religious issues over the past 10 years," El-Beek said.
Local residents welcomed the forces, while political parties and groups decided not to hold any protests due to the current security situation.
On July 29, dozens of armed men attacked a police station in Al-Arish and exchanged fire with security forces. The attack resulted in killing six people including an army officer and a police officer, and injuring 21.
Clashes continued till the early hours of July 30. On the same day, unidentified gunmen attacked, for the fifth time since February, a natural gas pipeline, located about 15 kilometers from Al-Arish which delivers gas to Israel and Jordan.
Egypt supplies about 40 percent of Israel's natural gas used to produce electricity. Egyptian political forces had frequently slammed the former regime for entering into a deal with Israel and selling the gas at below market prices.
Ousted president Hosni Mubarak is currently facing trial over several charges including corruption in the gas deal to Israel which led to losses of revenue worth over $700 million.
Masked men had earlier attempted to damage a statue of the late president Anwar Al-Sadat, who was assassinated by Islamist militants in 1981, a few years after he signed the peace treaty with Israel.
Others attacked the holy Shrine of Sheikh Zowayed in the town carrying the same name.
The July 29 attacks coincided with peaceful protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square and other parts of Egypt held by tens of thousands of Islamist to reiterate their call for establishing an Islamic state and rejecting the supra-constitutional principles proposed by secular political groups.
On Friday, a military source was quoted by the official Middle East News Agency (MENA) as saying that the military prosecution in Ismalia will receive within two days a report about those suspected of carrying out the attacks.
The report, the source added, will define how far the 11 suspects, including two Palestinians, were involved in the assault. The source did not rule out the possibility there were external elements behind the assaults aiming to destabilize Egypt.
Five suspects had earlier been detained pending investigations.
A few days after the July attacks, a group naming itself the Al-Qaeda Network in Sinai Peninsula, released a statement that demanded the province be turned into an Islamic Caliphate.
The group urged the Egyptian army to breach the Camp David Peace Accords and interfere to end the siege on Gaza.
Tribal leader sheikh Hassan Khalaf said that the situation in North Sinia is currently stable, after security was beefed up in the region and the military presence increased.
However, he expressed disappointment that the deployed tanks were unarmed in compliance with the peace treaty signed with Israel.
"They look stupid and are completely useless in facing Islamist groups who carry machine guns and heavy artillery," Khalaf said. "Israel has tied the [Egyptian] army's hands."
Khalaf said several members of the Islamic groups were detained, forcing the rest to flee. The locals in North Sinai, he continued, weren't afraid of the Islamists.
"The most they do is torch the pipeline that transfers gas to Israel and we couldn't care less about whether Israel has gas or not," he said.
He said he believed that if there was political stability in the government and in Cairo, the rest of the provinces will follow suit.
The risk of terrorism in Egypt is significantly higher in 2011 than it was last year as a result of the events following the overthrow of Mubarak, according to the recently released 2011 Terrorism Risk Index.
Produced by the UK-based risk analysis firm Maplecroft, the study indicates that Egypt climbed from a “Medium Risk” country to a “High Risk” country, regarding its level of terrorist threat