Shortly after the Aug. 5 killing of 16 paramilitary policemen near Egypt's border with the Gaza Strip, Egyptian, Israeli, and U.S. officials determined that the perpetrators were part of an "extremist group" -- one they have yet to identify. According to official accounts, assailants firing AK-47s attacked the conscripts and officers as they prepared for iftar, the traditional breaking of the Ramadan fast. Eight of the terrorists were killed in the ensuing firefight, but not before the perpetrators hijacked an armored personnel carrier and tried unsuccessfully to cross the Egypt-Israel frontier.
To a variety of observers, however, the official story seems a little too neat. The Egyptian government rarely comes to a quick conclusion about anything except when its leaders have something to hide, typically resulting in a half-baked story that few are inclined to believe. The tale about a shadowy group of militants fits the bill, leaving journalists, commentators, and other skeptical Egyptians with two theories: Either the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and Egypt's intelligence services planned the operation to embarrass Egypt's new president, Mohamed Morsy, or Israel's Mossad did it -- a silly allegation that Morsy's own Muslim Brotherhood advanced. Lost in all this speculation, however, were the attack's unexpected but important political effects.
What makes the Rafah incident more interesting than previous attacks in Sinai -- of which there have been many -- is its potential to break Egypt's political logjam. At first it looked as if Morsy would bear much of the blame for the attack despite his tough rhetoric in its aftermath. Indeed, he stayed away from the funerals for the martyred policemen, claiming implausibly that his security detail would disrupt proper mourning rituals. Protesters chased Hisham Qandil, Morsy's handpicked prime minister, from the proceedings with a barrage of shoes. On Tuesday, it seemed that predictions of Morsy's early political demise would prove accurate. But just 24 hours later the tables had turned.
It was perhaps inevitable that Egypt's various political parties, groups, and factions would try to leverage the violence in Rafah to their political advantage. Even the April 6 Movement, Kefaya, and other less well-known groups seized the opportunity to burnish their now fading political images with what turned out to be a sparsely attended protest. They rallied near the Israeli ambassador's residence over Mossad's alleged responsibility for the killings, apparently indifferent to the irony of expressing solidarity with the widely demonized security forces. At the end of the day, however, these antics were but a sideshow to the next act in Egypt's central political drama, pitting the SCAF against the Muslim Brothers.
For months now, it has seemed that this play had no end. The Brothers have long maintained a vision of society that resonates with many Egyptians but very little in the way of means to transform these ideas into reality. The military is an exact mirror image of the Brothers. The officers have no coherent and appealing worldview, but they have had the ability to prevent those who do from accumulating power and altering the political system. The result has been a stalemate, marked by a series of tactical political deals that only last until circumstances force the Brothers and the officers to seek accommodation.
But the Rafah killings may well have tipped the scales. As weak as Morsy's position seemed to be, two distinct advantages have enabled him to spin the attack to his political advantage: the utter the incompetence of Maj. Gen. Murad Muwafi, the head of the General Intelligence Service, and the very fact that Morsy is a popularly elected president.