IT WAS as if the militants knew they were coming. When the Egyptian police drove into the desert 135km (84 miles) south-west of Cairo on October 20th, toward a suspected terrorist hideout, their convoy was met with a barrage of gunfire and rockets. In the ensuing firefight some officers ran out of ammunition, and were captured and killed. Others fled and spent hours lost in the desert. It was the deadliest shoot-out in more than two years.
The government’s response, as ever, was to obfuscate. The interior ministry kept silent for a day, then said 16 officers had been killed. In private officials said the death toll was much higher—above 50. Local websites published lists of victims that included names not on the official rolls. The government has not tried to explain the discrepancy, nor has it identified the culprits.
A week later Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, the president, did a late-night housecleaning of the security services. He fired a dozen top police officials and, unexpectedly, sacked the army chief, Mahmoud Hegazy. Mr Hegazy has been a close ally of the president, who helped him rise through the ranks. The pair also have family ties: Mr Hegazy’s daughter is married to one of Mr Sisi’s sons. The firing offers a clue as to who was responsible for the ambush.
Egypt is fighting an array of jihadist groups. The newest is Hasm, founded in 2016, which has repeatedly targeted the police, army and judiciary. It took credit for the attack in the desert. But it seems an unlikely culprit. Hasm has never used heavy weapons and most of its attacks have been confined to greater Cairo. Some are cartoonishly inept. It claims to have set off a bomb outside Myanmar’s embassy on September 30th, to protest against the treatment of the Rohingya—except the bomb actually went off inside an apartment several blocks away.
The ambush was more likely the work of the Islamic State (IS) group, which has procured weapons from neighbouring Libya. Securing that border was Mr Hegazy’s responsibility. IS has tormented Egypt’s army, mostly in Sinai, where it attacked a church in October, killing six soldiers. (The group lost two dozen of its own men in that battle, says the government.) After years of scorched-earth tactics, the army is finally making some gains against the jihadists. Last month it recaptured Gabal al-Hilal, an IS logistics hub in the mountains of north Sinai.
This week the air force bombed areas of the Western desert. The government claims it is killing terrorists, but Egypt still struggles with counter-insurgency, in part because of the constant turnover in its conscript army. Grunts and non-commissioned officers tend to be young and inexperienced. It is further hobbled by poor intelligence and by a culture that shirks responsibility. In 2015 army helicopters bombed a group of Mexican tourists having a picnic in the Western desert, killing 12. The government apologised, but also blamed the tourists for entering a restricted area. The police, for their part, are preoccupied with a sweeping crackdown on gay people. Officers have spent the past few weeks setting up stings on Tinder and other dating apps.
The devastating ambush, and the muddled response, will further undermine confidence in the government. Even Ahmed Moussa, a fervently pro-regime talk-show host, appears dismayed. He aired an audio recording in which a doctor relays alleged complaints by policemen wounded in the ambush. They claim to have been sent into the desert with little intelligence and left without backup for hours, according to the doctor. Mr Moussa, who once told an interviewer he would “say anything the military tells me to say”, now faces an investigation for “fomenting a state of disarray and despair”.