WASHINGTON — In the wake of the attack that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers near the border with Israel last Sunday, the United States and Egypt are negotiating a package of assistance to address what administration officials described as a worsening security vacuum in the Sinai Peninsula.
Egypt’s new president, Mohammed Morsi, and its military leaders balked last month when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta each separately pressed them to act more aggressively against extremists operating in Sinai. But after the attack, Egypt appears to have overcome its sensitivities about sovereignty and have accelerated talks over the details of new US assistance, which would include military equipment, police training, and electronic and aerial surveillance, the officials said.
The attack — in which at least 35 masked gunmen raided an Egyptian border post and commandeered two military vehicles they used to try to storm the border with Israel — has deeply shaken Morsi’s government. It led to the dismissal of the country’s intelligence chief and a retaliatory military operation that included the first helicopter airstrikes in Sinai since Israel ended its occupation in 1982.
American and Israeli officials now see Egypt’s response to the attack as an important test of Morsi’s nascent presidency and, more broadly, the country’s commitment to security after the uprising in 2011 that toppled then-President Hosni Mubarak.
While the US military has long had ties to its Egyptian counterpart, the deeper, more direct effort now under discussion could bind the United States and Egypt more closely against the shared threat of extremism. It could also overcome reservations among some in Washington about Morsi’s affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, a group long reviled by US officials for its anti-Western views and Islamist politics.
The Pentagon is discussing a variety of options for sharing intelligence with Egypt’s military and police in Sinai. They include intercepts of cellphone or radio conversations of militants suspected of plotting attacks and overhead imagery provided by aircraft — both piloted and drones — or satellites, the officials said.
The talks are taking place through military and intelligence channels that the two countries have used for decades, as well as with Morsi’s new government. Clinton spoke by telephone with Morsi’s new prime minister, Hesham Qandil, to offer condolences and discuss greater assistance.
Egypt, though it receives $1.5 billion a year in arms and other military assistance from the United States, is deeply averse to direct US involvement in its security and, in public at least, plays down the aid assistance it has received. Even the more routine assistance under discussion — including equipment and training of its border police — has faced resistance, but after talks last week, the officials said they were optimistic that Morsi’s government would allow greater military-to-military collaboration.
It was not yet clear who carried out last Sunday’s attack, which US officials described as disturbingly sophisticated. The officials expressed fear that future attacks could lead, inadvertently or not, to a clash between Israel and Egypt that could threaten the peace treaty between them.