Egyptian authorities announced this weekend that a container ship passing through the Suez Canal was attacked by terrorists, who apparently sought to close the strategic waterway.
The Panama-flagged vessel reportedly escaped major damage. More importantly, the canal was not forced to close, which would have disrupted global shipping operations, ratcheted up oil prices, and complicated the deployment of U.S. naval vessels responding to crisis in Syria or to future scenarios in the Middle East, Persian Gulf, and Horn of Africa.
Although the group responsible for the attack has not been identified, it is likely that the attackers are linked to Islamist militant groups that have flourished in the Sinai Peninsula since Egypt’s 2011 uprising, or to groups battling the Egyptian government since the July 3 coup.
Islamist militants, including some linked to al-Qaeda, have exploited the rising lawlessness in the northern Sinai to establish bases from which to attack Israel and Egyptian government personnel. Last week, militants attacked an Egyptian police convoy and executed 25 police recruits by the side of the road near a checkpoint manned by the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), the peacekeeping force that monitors compliance with the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty.
The MFO, which contains 700 U.S. troops in addition to troops from 12 other nations, previously has been attacked by terrorists and harassed by local Bedouin, who increasingly have rebelled against the Egyptian government. Local Bedouin tribesman, collaborating with Palestinian Islamist militants based in Gaza and foreign militants who have streamed into Sinai, have launched attacks against Egyptian security forces on an almost daily basis.
Egyptian security forces are spread thin due to the unrest incited by the Muslim Brotherhood, which has called for protests against the interim government installed in a July 3 coup. Heritage Foundation analysts have argued that the coup has given democracy in Egypt a second chance after President Morsi dropped his democratic pretensions and tried to impose his Islamist agenda on unwilling Egyptians.
The Obama Administration has repeatedly been caught by surprise with events in Egypt and was criticized by many Egyptians for its uncritical support of President Mohamed Morsi’s government, which was dominated by supporters of the anti-Western Muslim Brotherhood.
The Administration belatedly recognized that the Egyptian Army’s intervention was necessary to halt Egypt’s slide into dictatorship under Morsi, but it has refused to label the act as a coup, which would force a cutoff of aid under U.S. law. Heritage Foundation analysts have urged the Administration to comply with the law and suspend aid, while working with Congress to gain the legal authority to provide aid on a conditional basis as long as Egypt’s interim government remains committed to a democratic transition.
The terrorist attack on the Suez Canal underscores the fact that Egypt’s new military-backed government shares an interest with the United States in combating terrorism and remains an important ally in the increasingly volatile Middle East.
See also: Q & A: U.S. Foreign Aid to Egypt
See also: Egypt: A Way Forward After a Step Back