El-ARISH, Egypt – Coordinated day and nighttime attacks Sunday by emboldened militants in Egypt’s northern Sinai Peninsula targeted different areas in the main city of el-Arish and a border town, killing one civilian and four security officers, according to officials.
The pace of attacks on the police and military in northern Sinai has intensified since the July 3 ouster of President Mohammed Morsi from power, but assaults have largely been confined to desolate desert areas of the region.
Sunday’s assault was significant in that it struck in the heart of el-Arish and killed a 32-year-old man driving his car in the most populated city in northern Sinai, which is also its provincial capital. The city is home to about 150,000 people.
For militants in Sinai, however, restoring Morsi is not the priority – they have said their goal is to drive out the military and the authority of the central government in order to create an “Islamic Emirate.” Morsi’s ouster by the military, though, took away a leader seen as reining in security crackdowns.
The attacks Sunday highlighted the security crisis Egypt’s military-backed interim leaders face in restoring stability after more than two years of turmoil since the popular uprising that toppled longtime President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
The northern part of Sinai has been the most lawless corner of the country since then. Police stations have been torched and security forces kicked out of tribal areas, where they were notorious for abuses against the powerful tribes of the region.
In the nighttime attacks Sunday, security officials said militants fired automatic weapons at a police club, a police station and a security post outside a bank in the center of el-Arish.
A 25-year-old woman walking in the street near the bank was struck by a bullet and seriously wounded. A soldier outside the bank was killed in the clash, officials said. The bank is on a main square in el-Arish.
Officials said a gun battle raged for several minutes between militants and security forces at the police station. A male driver was killed outside the station when a bullet hit him.
Also at night, a police camp in the city of Rafah on the Egypt-Gaza border came under attack by militants, who fired rocket-propelled grenades at the building, wounding four civilians and six soldiers protecting the site.
Earlier in the day, three policemen were killed by sniper fire in another coordinated attack while guarding an administrative building, a TV station and the police station in el-Arish, according to a security official. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.
Sunday’s deaths push to 14 the number of policemen and soldiers killed in Sinai since Morsi’s ouster. At least four civilians have been killed, including one woman and two Christians.
Also, a Christian ambulance worker was stabbed and wounded Sunday in northern Sinai when a man spotted a tattoo of a cross on his wrist, a trademark of many Coptic Christians in Egypt, security officials said.
In Cairo, military-backed civilian leaders forged ahead with a fast-track transition plan aimed at bringing the country back to democratic rule.
A panel tasked with amending Egypt’s constitution began its work Sunday in the face of opposition from Morsi’s supporters who denounce the military coup that overthrew the Islamist leader and reject the new political order that has replaced him.
The new 10-member-panel of legal experts and senior judges met for the first time to begin drawing up proposed amendments to the constitution. The panel has 30 days to do so. A second 50-member committee then will have 60 days to review those amendments before citizens vote on the new constitution in a referendum.
The drafting of the constitution that will be amended was one of the most divisive issues of Morsi’s one and only year in office.
His Muslim Brotherhood and their Islamist allies have vowed to stage daily rallies until he is reinstated, saying his ouster was unconstitutional. They rallied outside military buildings in Cairo and the southern cities of Luxor and Assiut on Sunday.
Protesters in Cairo took to the streets to also protest the deaths of three women killed by unidentified assailants at a Brotherhood rally in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura Friday. Egypt’s prosecutor general opened an investigation and top figures of the new leadership have condemned the killings.
“What happened in Mansoura will happen again in the future,” said 35-year-old housewife Nagah Thabit, who was among the protesters out on the streets in support of Morsi on Sunday. “Anybody who will take to the streets in the future, the army will unleash their thugs against them.”
Members of all political factions in Egypt accuse the United States of meddling in the country’s affairs, usually on behalf of their rivals.
Since overthrowing Morsi, security forces have launched a crackdown against the Brotherhood and some of their staunchest supporters. Prosecutors have issued arrest warrants for the group’s leaders for allegedly instigating violence. Morsi himself has been held incommunicado since July 3.
The prosecutor general’s office said he has not yet been charged, according to a state TV broadcast Sunday evening.