There has been scant reporting about a major offensive launched by Egypt’s army against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in northern Sinai earlier this week. The assumption is that the offensive continues while everyone in Cairo waits for a new army communique.
Reporting is scant because northern Sinai is a war zone, and in any war zone concerns about security and morale trump journalism, even the most responsible journalism, which in such circumstances can be a rare commodity anywhere, not just in Egypt.
The temptation of Egyptian news organizations to use unverified accounts telephoned in from near the front by anyone, and which can contradict official statements , is no longer a problem. That is because under a new law, reporting details of ISIS attacks that contradict official statements can result in massive fines for journalists, and courts barring journalists from working in their profession for up to a year.
The Egyptian army is not the post-Saddam Iraqi army, which for all of the billions of dollars of American equipment and training fell apart during a series of ISIS offensives.Abdallah Schleifer
That means scant reporting. The way to balance the need for reporting from the front while preserving security and morale is to embed journalists with a minimal level of security clearance. They may accompany army units, and have all reporting from the front submitted for quick clearance by army censors.
ISIS has few friends in Egypt (which is not necessarily the case in some other Arab countries), just as the Nazis had few friends in America during World War II. No American journalist suspected of sympathy for the Nazis would have accredited by the allied armed forces as a war correspondent. Those accredited still had to submit battlefield reports for quick clearance by a military censor.
In Cairo, there is speculation as to why the army has launched such a massive offensive around the towns of Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid and El-Arish. Such speculation focuses on recent ISIS attacks: the killing of two policemen in El-Arish in late August, and two blasts on Sept. 3 that wounded six members of the Multinational Force and Observer (MFO) peacekeeping mission that has been operating in the Sinai since the Israeli withdrawal. Four Americans were among the wounded.
However, this misreads what is happening in the Sinai. The very name of the offensive, “Retribution for the Martyrs,” indicates that this is an ongoing response to a coordinated and unprecedented attacks by ISIS on July 1 against army checkpoints and police positions in northern Sinai. Three hundred ISIS fighters were involved.
In eight hours of intense fighting - particularly in the town of Sheikh Zuweid close to the border with Gaza - at least 100 jihadists were reportedly killed. In the weeks leading up to that attack in July, there were reportedly a series of blasts targeting Egypt’s army and security forces. This has been the pattern of ISIS offensives in Iraq: intermittent attacks leading up to major assaults to seize towns and cities.
The barely-reported but apparent goal of ISIS in July was to take and hold Sheikh Zuweid. It failed. Between then and the Egyptian army offensive this past week, intelligence was gathered on the location of ISIS bases. As a result, heavy casualties were inflicted on ISIS this week, and more than 100 have reportedly been taken prisoner.
Egypt is not Iraq, and the Egyptian army is not the post-Saddam Iraqi army, which for all of the billions of dollars of American equipment and training fell apart during a series of similar ISIS offensives.
Nor is Egypt Syria, where ISIS and its Al-Qaeda competition, Al-Nusra Front, have pushed out the Syrian army, as well as rebel militias theoretically opposed to both radical Islamist groups, from towns along the border with Turkey as well as the suburbs of Aleppo and Damascus.
This summer, Washington resumed delivery of crucial military equipment to Egypt, and Secretary of State John Kerry came to Cairo to resume suspended strategic talks, deliver a reportedly conciliatory letter from the American president to his Egyptian counterpart, and talk with enthusiasm about U.S. support for Cairo in its struggle against ISIS, and readiness to participate in Egypt’s economic development.
So perhaps the ISIS threat, and the Egyptian army’s performance in countering that threat, has finally had an impact on those White House circles that have been so receptive to the Muslim Brotherhood’s ambitions in Egypt even before the 2011 revolution, and so critical of Egypt since those ambitions were cut short by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Abdallah Schleifer is a veteran American journalist covering the Middle East and professor emeritus at the American University in Cairo where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for TV and Digital Journalism. He is chief editor of the annual publication The Muslim 500; a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (USA) and at the Royal Aal al Bayt Academy for Islamic Thought (Jordan.) Schleifer has served as Al Arabiya Washington D.C. bureau chief; NBC News Cairo bureau chief; Middle East correspondent for Jeune Afrique; as special correspondent (stringer) , New York Times and managing editor of the Jerusalem Star/Palestine News in then Jordanian Arab Jerusalem.
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