Stratfor's 2018 Annual Forecast said that Egypt's government would aim to court popular opinion as much as it can in the early part of the year as presidential elections approach. The military's latest counterterrorism campaign is very much a part of that strategy. The government is hoping to communicate its ability to provide security to its citizens with forceful operations against militant groups.
Following reports in recent weeks of heavy equipment and medical deployments in Ismailia and Sinai, Egypt has officially launched a new military offensive. On Feb. 9, the country announced Operation Sinai, a series of comprehensive military and security operations in the Sinai Peninsula, along the Nile and in the Western Desert area. Although the new operations will focus heavily on the Sinai Peninsula, their stated intent is to root out terrorist strongholds across all of Egypt. And a spokesman for the Egyptian army has released video footage and photographs of tanks, armored personnel carriers and the air force all targeting alleged terrorist hideouts.
Egypt is currently struggling in its fight against a variety of militant organizations, such as al Qaeda-linked groups in the Western Desert, urban anti-government groups like the Hasam Movement in the Nile Delta region and the Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula. Shortly after the new military operations were announced, the Egyptian police released the well-timed news that they had arrested 14 members of the Hasam militant group and killed three others in Egypt's Delta and Western Desert regions. The country also closed the Rafah border crossing with Gaza today after a brief opening this week, a nod to concerns over the potential flow of Palestinian recruits to the Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula. Indeed, over the past few weeks, Egypt has implemented tighter-than-usual security procedures at border crossings and transit points throughout the Sinai Peninsula, indicating that it is approaching the new operations seriously.
The timing of this massive offensive makes smart political sense. Presidential elections are coming up in March, and there are still a few weeks left of the three-month deadline for routing Sinai terrorism that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi set in a vague November 2017 speech. Still, the operation is targeting several unique regions — the urban core, Western Desert, Delta, northern Sinai, southern Sinai — that are all afflicted by different insurgencies and terrorist threats. Egypt will need to use a variety strategies and tactics if it hopes to have widespread success across these areas. Already, there are hints that the country may be deploying units trained in counterinsurgency, such as Unit 888, alongside the military for the first time, which could prove successful. However, precedent and typical Egyptian military practices suggest the new offensive will also rely on scorched earth tactics, which risk generating collateral damage and anti-government sentiment.