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Egypt's latest Sinai kidnappings
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 23 - 05 - 2013

Northern Sinai has become increasingly lawless in the last two years, with both tribesmen and militant jihadists benefiting from a steady flow of arms, looted and smuggled from Gaddafi's old Libyan arsenals.
This has posed a rising threat to President Mohamed Morsi's administration, not simply in terms of security but because the Sinai resorts have become important earners of tourist dollars in the last two decades. With traditional tourist destinations along the Nile seeing sharp falls in visitor numbers, there had been relief that the Sinai resort business had held up relatively well.
However, a rising tide of kidnappings which has caught up a number of tourists is now beginning to have an impact on the numbers of sun-seeking, largely European tourists booking for this part of Egypt.
Now, in a direct challenge to the Morsi administration, militants or tribesmen, it is not yet clear which, seized six Egyptian police officers and a border guard. Footage was posted which appears to show the men blindfolded and in fear of their lives. They were begging for the release of “political prisoners”, some of whose names strongly suggest a jihadist connection. The clear implication is that unless the kidnappers' demands were met, they would kill the unfortunate seven in cold blood.
Morsi surprised many by the extremely strong stance that he took over the abductions. He said there would be no negotiations. His government would not talk to criminals. Meanwhile, the already-raised security presence in the Sinai was being boosted with further units being sent from the west.
In the event, army intelligence working through local tribal elders secured the release of the seven yesterday. However, big questions remain. It is admirable that Morsi refused to bow to blackmail. Letting out terrorist prisoners might have gained the release of the policemen and border guard, but it would have returned to freedom dangerous men. It would almost certainly have guaranteed that since kidnappings were clearly working, the terrorists would continue with the cruel and heartless policy.

However, by instructing the armed forces to act, Morsi probably realized that he was taking a calculated risk. The generals had the important security operation for which they were doubtless waiting. This has been their chance to remind the president that they are the ultimate guarantor of Egyptian security. Since the operation to release the hostages has been successful so quickly, the army's stock among many Egyptians will have risen. Morsi should be praised for his toughness, but the generals have had the chance to demonstrate where the real power lies, in security terms at least.

No one should doubt that many in the Egyptian military believe that democratic politics is opening up the deep divisions which the hard rule of Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak held together. The generals are waiting for a sufficient breakdown in public order to be able to intervene “for the good of the country”. In encouraging confrontation on the streets, some opposition politicians are almost promoting that outcome.

Have commanders perhaps also encouraged the situation in Sinai? The army has units throughout the peninsula, and good intelligence, as yesterday's releases demonstrate. Some may suspect that the jihadist and tribal threats have been deliberately allowed to grow. The army command may of course be entirely innocent in this instance, but the message surely is that the civilian government of President Morsi must remain vigilant.


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