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Mohammed Mursi

Mohammed Mursi is a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood and former president of Egypt, assuming office on 30 June 2012. He was unseated in a military coup on 3 July 2013 by the Egyptian defence minister Abdul Fatah Khalil Al-Sisi following widespread democracy protests across the country and calls for his resignation by leading opposition party members.

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EGYPT

Egypt's upheaval sets off jihadist attacks in Sinai peninsula

10 killed in desert province since Mursi ousting, which fed nomads' low opinion of democracy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 July, 2013, 10:40am

Within hours of Egypt's elected president being overthrown this month, militant fellow Islamists in the Sinai peninsula were talking of making war on Cairo's security forces.

Scarcely had a video surfaced on YouTube of hundreds of men chanting "No to peace!" than police and troops were attacked in El Arish and other North Sinai towns. Ten have been killed in the province since Mohammed Mursi was toppled on July 3.

The desert peninsula has long been a security headache for Egypt and its neighbours. Large and empty, it borders Israel and the Gaza Strip, and flanks the Suez Canal linking Asia to Europe. It is also home to nomadic clans disaffected with rule from Cairo.

By adding to anger and seeming to confirm low expectations of democracy among Islamist militants who viewed Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood as too moderate, the president's removal by the army has brought new violence to Sinai.

Targets this month, in addition to security posts near the canal and Gaza, have included a Christian priest, shot dead in the Mediterranean port of El Arish; a gas pipeline to Jordan; and the Israeli Red Sea resort of Eilat, where remains of a rocket were found.

Yesterday, militants killed at least three people and wounded 17 when they fired on a bus carrying workers in El Arish.

Egypt's armed forces are on high alert, though military sources play down talk of a major offensive. Such an operation might require Israeli approval - due to their 1979 peace treaty. And some experts say the Egyptian army is less than ideally equipped and trained for a counterinsurgency drive.

Despite banner headlines in a state-run newspaper last weekend declaring a new assault on Sinai militants in the coming days, army sources are playing down the possibility of a major operation in the near term.

The Abrams tanks and F-16 fighter jets it buys with US$1.3 billion in annual American military aid are not ideal for fighting small groups of international jihadist militants and their local Bedouin allies in remote, rugged terrain.

"We've long been urging them to change their procurement policies to give them the flexibility they need to tackle counterterror in Sinai," said Robert Springborg, who studies the Egyptian military at the US Naval Postgraduate School.

Video: Clashes erupt between pro-Mursi protesters and security forces

Under a US-brokered treaty that ended 15 years of Israeli occupation of Sinai in 1982, Israel has a say in whether Egypt can increase its forces in the largely demilitarised peninsula. Since an increase in militant activity after the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 - including trouble on Israel's border - the Jewish state has already given a green light.

"Egypt could bring in more forces now, with Israel's blessing," said Amos Yadlin, former chief of military intelligence and now head of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

"That will be a sensible thing to do. And if they were to leave 30 tanks, we could live with that."

Army sources estimate there are about 1,000 armed militants in Sinai, divided into different groups with varying ideologies.

The attacks since Mursi's removal may have risen in number, but they have been relatively small in scale so far, and may not, in themselves, unduly worry General Abdelfattah Said El-Sisi, the head of the armed forces who removed Mursi from office.

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