Egypt’s major security shake-up acknowledges counter-terror failures
Cairo- Egyptian officials undertook a major military and security reshuffle following terrorist attacks that have killed many soldiers and police officers in recent months.
Lieutenant-General Mohamed Farid Hegazy was appointed armed forces chief of staff, replacing Lieutenant-General Mahmoud Hegazy, who had held the post since 2014 and who has close ties — through the marriage of their children — to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Mohamed Farid Hegazy and Mahmoud Hegazy are not related.
Mahmoud Hegazy served as the secretary-general of the Defence Ministry and secretary of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. He was commander of the Second Field Army during the 2011 revolution, overseeing security for the Suez governorate.
The shake-up included the appointment of 11 new security generals at the Interior Ministry, including the head of the National Security Agency (NSA) — Egypt’s main domestic security agency — and the head of the Central Security Forces (CSF) Special Operations unit.
Officers from those agencies were killed in an ambush in the Western Desert, near the al-Wahat al-Bahriya oasis. The head of the security directorate in Giza, the province where the ambush occurred, was also replaced.
Cairo has refused to link the security reshuffle with the al-Wahat al-Bahriya ambush. A senior security official told state news agency MENA that the move aims to “improve security performance.”
However, the timing of the move — less than a week after the attack — had analysts saying it could not be discounted.
The police raided what they believed was a terrorist hideout on October 20 when they were ambushed. Questions continue to be asked regarding the intelligence that led to the operation and why there was not better coordination between Egypt’s police and military.
“There were major mistakes and failures in the past months, ones that led to huge problems,” said Mohamed Nour al-Din, a retired police general. “This was why a change of top security leadership was inevitable.”
“There was a lack of information on the number of the terrorists hiding in the area, the arms they had and the geography of the area,” he said. “These were all failures that necessitated the shake-up.”
Analysts said the security reshuffle so soon after the ambush could be an attempt to appease public anger and alarm.
A week after the attack, Cairo announced it had killed some of the militants involved in the ambush, freeing one police officer who had been captured. Earlier, the Interior Ministry announced that security personnel killed 13 suspects 40km from the site of the al-Wahat al-Bahriya ambush.
Quoted by state news agency MENA, a security official said the operation came “in revenge for the blood of the men who were martyred.”
Egypt has been fighting a branch of the Islamic State (ISIS) in the Sinai Peninsula for more than five years. Hasm, a group with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, has been more active recently. Both groups are believed to be operating in the Western Desert and receiving arms and recruits from neighbouring Libya.
“This tragedy should invite our attention to the need for revising security strategies, especially in the Western Desert,” said Khaled Okasha, a member of the National Council to Confront Terrorism and Extremism (NCCTE), a body formed by Sisi to draw up scenarios for the fight against terrorism. “The geographical nature of the desert and its proximity to Libya make it easy to penetrate by the terrorists.”
The Western Desert is 680,000 sq.km, almost the size of Iraq and Syria combined and ten times the size of Sinai.
Egypt has been struggling to prevent arms and militants from entering the country from Libya, with fears that ISIS’s defeat in Iraq and Syria could see militants move to the Egypt-Libya border region.
“It is very clear that we are talking about a new front that is opening in the fight against terrorism here,” said Mahmud Qotri, a retired brigadier general. “So the change of security leaderships, developments on the ground and action taken by the security establishment show that a new strategy is being implemented all with the aim of coping up with the enormity of the security challenge.”