High-level Egyptian officials in Northern Sinai denied the forces deployed Friday afternoon were intended to launch any security operations in the province recently subjected to a series of attacks by terrorists.
According to reports, hundreds of joint army and police forces, tanks and armored vehicles, were deployed across the province, around vital buildings in Northern Sinai and across the border from Gaza.
Witnesses told reporters this was probably the first time such well-equipped forces have been deployed in the area where the presence of military forces is limited as per Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
North Sinai Governor El-Sayed Abdel-Wahab Mabrouk told Egypt Today that the troops deployed are not combat units and that their job is to deter any attacks against individuals, private and public buildings and vital security sites.
"We will not fight our own people in Sinai ... and these forces will not head to the mountains," he said.
Mabrouk further denied earlier media reports about an alleged “Operation Eagle."
"As we stressed, these units will not launch any operations. They are here to prevent any acts of sabotage or thuggery and to protect lives and possessions," he said.
Media reports claim that local Islamist groups intended to form popular committees to resolve disputes, to establish customary courts run by their leading Salafi sheikhs — instead of the traditional Bedouin councils— and deploy about 6,000 armed men to enforce law and order in the province.
On July 29, dozens of armed men attacked a police station in Al-Arish and exchanged fire with security forces. The attack resulted in six people dead, including an army officer and a police officer, and 21 injured.
Clashes continued till the early hours of July 30. On the same day, unidentified gunmen attacked, for the fifth time since February, a natural gas pipeline, located about 15 kilometers from Al-Arish, through which gas is piped to Israel and Jordan. Israeli electricity rates are set to rise by 12% as a result.
Egypt supplies roughly 40 percent of Israel's natural gas used to produce electricity. Egyptian political groups frequently slammed the former regime for entering into a deal with Israel.
A few days after the July attacks, a group naming itself the Al-Qaeda Network in Sinai Peninsula, released a statement that demanded the province be turned into an Islamic Caliphate. The group urged the Egyptian army to breach the Camp David Peace Accords and interfere to end what it called the 'siege on Gaza.'
Tribal leader sheikh Hassan Khalaf told Al Masry Al Youm the situation in North Sinai is currently stable, after security was beefed up in the region and the military presence increased.
However, he expressed disappointment that the deployed tanks were unarmed in compliance with the peace treaty signed with Israel.
"They look stupid and are completely useless in facing Islamist groups who carry machine guns and heavy artillery," Khalaf said. "Israel has tied the [Egyptian] army's hands."
Khalaf said several members of the Islamic groups were detained, forcing the rest to flee. The locals in North Sinai, he continued, weren't afraid of the Islamists.
"The most they do is torch the pipeline that transfers gas to Israel and we couldn't care less about whether Israel has gas or not," he said.