By David Ignatius
In firing Egypt’s chief of intelligence for his alleged failings in Sinai, President Mohamed Morsi sacked a general who has won high marks from U.S., Israeli and European intelligence officials – and who, ironically, has been one of the Egyptians pushing for a crackdown on the growing militant presence in Sinai.
Last week’s shuffle is bound to raise concerns among U.S. and Israeli officials about the security policies of Morsi’s government, and its seeming mutual self-protection pact with the Egyptian generals who still hold considerable power through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF.
Morsi and the military appear to have concluded that the fired intelligence chief, Gen. Murad Muwafi, was a convenient scapegoat after the attack last Sunday by terrorists in Sinai that left 16 Egyptian soldiers dead. After that attack, the Egyptian military launched an armored assault in Sinai to “restore stability and regain control” in the lawless desert that had become a haven for Islamist militants.
The statements that accompanied Muwafi’s firing were surprising, given this background.
The Egyptian media blamed him for ignoring an Israeli intelligence report about last Sunday’s attack.
Muwafi had also been Egypt’s main interlocutor with the Palestinians.
The new Egyptian intelligence chief will be Gen. Mohammed Shehata. He is described as an experienced officer who “knows the Palestinian file well.”
This past June, a few days before the final presidential runoff that elected Morsi, I posed the Muwafi question to a leading Muslim Brotherhood strategist named Khairat el-Shater.
He said that if the Brotherhood won, it would keep Muwafi in his job because “we do not want collisions” over foreign policy. He added that the Brotherhood recognized that certain key contacts, such as with Israel and America, had been handled largely through intelligence channels, and that continuity was important. But that was then, apparently.
The Muwafi incident is just a blip on the broad radar of U.S.-Egyptian relations, and American officials generally think the Morsi government is off to a good start. But the incident does show two things:
First, the situation in Sinai is dangerous, and getting worse. U.S. intelligence believes that scores of jihadists have migrated into Sinai in recent months – some from the tribal areas of Pakistan, some from Libya, and some from Egyptian prisons.
Among them are people a U.S. official describes as “al-Qaeda wannabes.”
Second, the Egyptian military is preoccupied with buffing its image, and fending off potential critics.
In that exercise in self-preservation, the generals seem quite happy to work with Morsi and the Muslim Brothers – as in the firing of Muwafi.
David Ignatius’ email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.