Monday,20 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1149, 23 - 29 May 2013
Monday,20 August, 2018
Issue 1149, 23 - 29 May 2013

Ahram Weekly

Return of the soldiers

The seven troops who were abducted in Sinai have been freed. Dina Ezzat reports on the release and the anxious days leading up to their freedom

Al-Ahram Weekly

In the early hours of Wednesday morning a military operation successfully freed the seven Egyptian soldiers who were kidnapped in Sinai last week. A press conference presided over by President Mohamed Morsi and Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi was held to disclose the details of the operation.
The announcement was made by the military spokesman who said that “cooperation between the Military Intelligence and tribal sheikhs of Sinai led to the release of the soldiers.”
The press conference was held after the arrival of the soldiers at Almaza Airport. Morsi was at the Almaza air force base, where a host of officials including the ministers of defence and interior joined in an official ceremony to welcome the seven. Morsi praised the efforts made to free the soldiers but did not give any details about the identity of the kidnappers. He said on Tuesday there were no negotiations with the kidnappers who were demanding the release of jailed Bedouin militants. “I call on armed groups in Sinai to disarm. The development of Sinai has become a necessity now more than ever before,” Morsi said on Wednesday.
The freeing of the soldiers also led to the reopening of Rafah, the Gaza border crossing that police closed to protest the abductions. Rafah, the Palestinian territory’s sole border crossing for passengers outside of Israeli control, had been closed for five days.
Despite the fact that the general mood in Egypt indicates relief at the release of the soldiers, the danger posed to Sinai because of the presence of radical and fundamentalist groups is what concerns Egyptians the most.
The capture and subsequent release of the soldiers meant that months ahead of the 40th anniversary of the October War, Sinai is again in the headlines, and, despite the freeing of the soldiers, there is nothing much to celebrate.
Almost 40 years ago Samir Aziz, now a retired pilot fighter, was anxiously waiting. Each day he hoped to receive the command to go to war and liberate Sinai, occupied by Israel in 1967. Aziz says he was willing to die to wrest Sinai from Israel and he very nearly did. Today he complains of decades of poor management in the peninsula “for which so many Egyptians died”. “I cannot believe that the state has been so negligent. It is incredible that things could have been so poorly managed that we are now facing a situation in which Sinai could slide into chaos, terror and foreign intervention.”
“In less than 12 months Egypt has lost 16 soldiers to a terror attack and had seen seven security personnel taken hostage by a terror group. What this signifies is that state control of Sinai is seriously challenged. It means that state management of Sinai was embarrassingly poor,” says Aziz. Over the weekend the seven border guards were taken hostage by unidentified men who subsequently demanded the release of prisoners, all from Sinai, sentenced to jail after being convicted of staging terror attacks in 2005 and 2007.
On Sunday a YouTube video was uploaded showing the blindfolded abductees appealing to President Morsi to do whatever it takes to free them as they “cannot sustain further torture”. In the same video one of the kidnapped men appeals to Minister of Defence Al-Sisi to free them. “How can you keep your post when your men are being kidnapped?” he asked. “You need to free the political prisoners so that we can be released.” The video appeared following unconfirmed rumours that leading Islamist figures were negotiating with the kidnappers. Other reports seemed to suggest a military operation was being prepared to free the men.
There was strong pressure on the minister of defence to act promptly to free the hijacked recruits. “He is being told that it is wrong to hesitate in anticipation of a presidential command that might not come at all,” said an intelligence source before the release and who asked for anonymity. The same source says the word in the ranks of the armed forces today is “we have to act firmly”.
“There is much anger in the army. I am not just talking about the leadership but also among junior ranks. There is a strong feeling that the status of the army is being challenged and that if reaction to the kidnap is hesitant then criminal attacks will keep recurring,” said the source.
His account is confirmed by a military source who says “many people [from the Armed Forces] are asking the minister of defence to act promptly to convince the president to give the green light for a military operation to free the kidnapped soldiers.”
“Though technically speaking they are police officers their presence in Sinai is under the auspices of the army and the army has to act.” According to informed sources, the reluctance of the minister of defence to order a military operation in Sinai is prompted by several considerations. “He does not want to drag the Armed Forces into any confrontation with Egyptians — no matter who, no matter where, especially in Sinai where there are entire tribes that are heavily armed and where we could be talking about an extended military confrontation,” said one.
Another factor keeping Al-Sisi from succumbing to the pressure of senior aides and some rank and file officers is the reluctance of the president, in his capacity as commander of the Armed Forces, to give the go-ahead for an operation to free the kidnapped soldiers. “[The president] made clear in the first meeting that he does not want military operation,” says a source. Morsi has held several meetings with Al-Sisi and senior intelligence and security aides. According to one source, the minister of defence “played tough right from the beginning and told the president we are waiting for the orders of the commander in chief”. There is mounting speculation Morsi may seek to capitalise on the kidnap to remove Al-Sisi.
“[The president] has been wanting to get rid of [Al-Sisi] for a while — the kidnap of the soldiers might well present him with an opportunity to do so,” says another military source. Al-Sisi was appointed minister of defence last summer after Morsi removed his predecessor Hussein Tantawi following the killing of 16 soldiers in an incident the details of which have never been made public despite presidential promises that the assailants would be brought to justice.
In a controversial press statement issued following the kidnaps Morsi stressed that he had ordered the army to free the kidnapped soldiers without endangering the lives of either the kidnappers or their hostages. The statement appeared amid leaked news of negotiations conducted with the kidnappers to release the soldiers.
Later in the week presidential spokesman Omar Amer backtracked, telling journalists there were no negotiations. Tensions between the president and army are hardly new, and they have often focussed on Sinai. Army sources make no effort to conceal their dislike of their Muslim Brotherhood commander-in-chief, happily briefing that the military had turned down a presidential scheme to open up Sinai to foreign investors just as it has government plans for an investment zone along the Suez canal.
In a meeting held on Sunday with representatives of mostly Islamist political forces Morsi played down tensions with the army and promised “efficient management” of the kidnap crisis. His comments prompted eight human rights groups to issue a statement on Monday that efficient management could not include a military option that would inevitably amount to the “collective punishment” of Sinai’s inhabitants. (see p.3)

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