Mass Sinai attacks show expanding Islamist challenge to Egyptian state authority

At least 50 Egyptian soldiers have been killed in a series of attacks on military posts in the Sinai Peninsula.

Army trucks carry Egyptian tanks in a military convoy in El Arish, Egypt's northern Sinai Peninsula, Aug. 9, 2012. Islamic militants on Wednesday, July 1, 2015 unleashed a wave of simultaneous attacks, including suicide car bombings, on Egyptian army checkpoints in the restive northern Sinai Peninsula, killing at least 50 soldiers, security and military officials said.

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An Egyptian militant group allied with the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the killing of at least 50 soldiers in the Sinai today in a coordinated series of attacks on six different military outposts in the lawless peninsula.

The Sinai has had an Islamist militancy problem for decades, but in recent years the militants have grown and focused intensely on the Egyptian military and police. Today's attacks, which continued through the afternoon, appear to be the most serious challenge to government authority in living memory and follow the assassination of Egypt’s chief prosecutor in Cairo.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has pledged to ratchet up an already strict two-year crackdown on Islamists.

Wednesday morning, militants targeted security forces in northern Sinai, which borders Israel and the Gaza Strip, striking army checkpoints and detonating suicide bombs, military officials said. Egypt’s Islamic State affiliate claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s violence, in which at least 50 soldiers died, The Associated Press reports. At least another 54 soldiers were wounded, officials said.

“The attack today proves that all the talk about making laws stricter will not be effective in facing such operations,” Mostafa Kamel El Sayed, a Cairo University political science professor, told Bloomberg News, referring to President Sisi’s clampdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups following the 2013 ousting of then-President Mohamed Morsi. “Those who carry out these attacks are waging a religious war; no legislation will stop them.”

This week marks the two-year anniversary since military-backed protests heated up against President Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, reports The Christian Science Monitor. These protests eventually pushed Morsi from office, and led to the election of President Sisi.

There has been growing extremism and violence since then, with Ansar Beir al-Maqdis, a terrorist group, pledging support for the self-described Islamic State last year, the CSM reports.

Islamist militants, far more hardline than the Brotherhood, have pursued a campaign against Egyptian police, prosecutors, and judges for the past two years, mostly in the Sinai Peninsula but with occasional assassination attempts in Cairo and other parts of the Egyptian mainland.

Two years since the coup, Egypt has become a far darker place than it has been for decades. Amid a struggling economy and an effort to quell the protest culture that briefly flourished in 2011 and saw longstanding dictator President Hosni Mubarak ushered from power, political repression has become widespread.

The militants are sending a direct message to the government: “You can’t control us,” Crispin Hawes, managing director of risk consultancy Teneo Intelligence told Bloomberg.

Others argue that the state of affairs in Egypt – government-condoned abuses of human rights, impunity for wrong-doing by security forces, and laws that curb civil liberties – has created a “climate where violence seems like the only option for Islamist groups,” reports The Monitor.

To be sure, violence in the Sinai is nothing new. In 2004 and 2005, two mass casualty terrorist attacks killed over 100 people, many of them foreign tourists, in the region. While the latest surge in Sinai attacks tracks with Egypt's 2013 coup, it also tracks the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the regional expansion in Islamist militancy since the 2011 Arab uprisings.

On Tuesday, Sisi said the government was planning on introducing new law to speed up prosecutions and make executions of convicts easier, reports the AP.

"The judiciary is restricted by laws, and swift justice is also restricted by laws. We will not wait for that," Sisi said.

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