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Egyptian President Al-Sisi. (Courtesy)

Egyptian General who Oversaw Destruction of Gaza Tunnels Assassinated

Killing comes as Al-Sisi squares-off against the Muslim Brotherhood

[CAIRO] A top Egyptian officer was gunned down in front of his home north of Cairo just after dawn Saturday in another sign of the increasing conflict between the government and its opponents – both armed and unarmed.

The Lewaa Al-Thawra [Revolution Brigade] claimed responsibility for the assassination of Major Adel Ragaai, head of the Egyptian Ninth Amour Division – the unit charged with destroying the tunnels running between Egypt and the Gaza Strip.

“Major Adel Ragaai was killed in front of his house in Obour City [25km. northeast of Cairo] as he was leaving for work,” said army spokesman Brigadier General Mohamed Samir. “Two bullets pierced his head.”

The Brigade made its debut in August with an ambush on a police checkpoint in Sadat City – an attack that killed two and injured five others, including two civilians.
Ragaai’s wife, Samia Zein Al-Abdeen, is a defense correspondent for the state-owned daily Al-Gomouria.

The newspaper quotes Al-Abdeen as saying she hurried outside when she heard a burst of gunfire from a private vehicle as it sped down their suburban street. “From the discourse in their statements and the music in their propaganda videos it’s clear Lewaa Al-Thawra is closer in orientation to the Muslim Brotherhood than Islamic State,” said, Abdullah Kamal, an independent expert on jihadist groups in Egypt.

Ragaai’s death is the first political assassination of a military figure since former President Mohamed Morsi was removed from office by Egypt’s military in 2013. Since that year, the Egyptian military has destroyed more than one thousand smuggling tunnels, a key lifeline for what remains of the private sector in the Gaza strip. The tunnels also serve as a conduit for a busy cross-border arms trade that provides revenue and ammunition for the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas.

Ragaai oversaw a massive operation that began last year to dig a canal parallel to the Rafah border, flooding the frontier with sea water which seeps into the tunnels, preventing their use. Hamas officials in the town of Rafah complain that Gaza’s limited fresh water aquifer is being rendered undrinkable as well.

Ragaai ‘s assassination was preceded by an attack on security personnel in nearby Al-Arish Friday. The Interior Ministry said two police officers were killed as their vehicle ran over an improvised explosive device. But security officials were eager to point out that they are on the offensive in the pocket of the northern Sinai where most incidents of Islamist violence are concentrated.
“Our forces killed 21 terrorists, destroyed over twenty of their hideouts and were able to locate and disable 16 IEDs before harm came to our men,” said an Interior Ministry spokesman.

The battle against the Muslim Brotherhood has intensified in Egypt’s courts as well. Cairo’s Court of Cassation rejected an appeal Saturday by the ousted former president Morsi against a 20-year prison sentence for a 2012 incident that the state charges led to the deaths of 10 people in clashes outside the Ittihadiya Presidential Palace. The Ittihadiya case is one of several indictments still pending against Morsi which include charges of espionage on behalf of Qatar and of organizing a jailbreak in conjunction with Hamas.

Last week, Attorney General Nabil Sadek obtained arrest warrants for an undisclosed number of Muslim Brotherhood members in Nasser City, charging them with “forming cells that planned to collect sugar from the Egyptian market and engaging in economic sabotage.”

Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics reports that annual inflation is the highest it’s been in nine years and foodstuffs ranging from sugar to baby formula to cheese have become scarce on the shelves as suppliers are unable to find foreign currency to pay for the products.

An intensified American critique of the Egyptian security state’s battle against the Brotherhood is adding to the headaches of the top brass in Cairo.

Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, told a forum at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on Friday that “the worst counter-terrorism strategy ever invented is Egypt’s mass incarceration of thousands of peaceful activists and opposition supporters right alongside the most hardcore terrorists.”

“We need to cooperate with countries in the region, including with Egypt, to share information about terrorist groups and plots so we can stop attacks before they happen,” Malinowski added. “But it is important that we not confuse good counter-terrorism cooperation with good counter-terrorism.”

“The former is necessary, but a finger in the dike. The latter – effective counter-terrorism — is what prevents the flood. It requires political reform that gives all legitimate stakeholders in the Middle East a voice in their governance, including peaceful Islamist parties.”

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