On Saturday, militants in the Sinai ambushed a convoy of Egyptian policemen and soldiers, injuring four of them. Since the Egyptian revolution, the already turbulent Sinai has become a hotbed for Islamists and restive Bedouin tribesmen, a cause of concern for Israel and Egypt alike.
But what is most remarkable about Saturday’s attack is the audacity with which Egypt’s new President Mohammad Mursi is deploying his armed forces in the Sinai. According to the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, Egypt has to seek Israeli permission to send troops into the Sinai.
In response to the murder of 16 border guards last week, he sent tanks and helicopters into the Sinai — something which is specifically forbidden in the security annex of the 1979 Camp David Accords with Israel.
Last week, Mohammad Gadallah, Mursi’s legal adviser, announced that the president was considering seeking full sovereignty over the Sinai Peninsula, which was nominally returned to Egypt in 1979 having been captured by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967.
Mursi’s robust approach to Israel comes on the heels of his astonishing assertiveness at home where most commentators, myself included, predicted that the Muslim Brotherhood’s second choice for the role would prove a weak president unable to stand up to the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF).
Not so. Last Sunday, Mursi issued a presidential decree granting himself overall legislative and executive power. The first sign of Mursi’s new hardline approach was the August 9 firing of Major General Murad Muwafi, SCAF’s chief of intelligence. Mursi is close to Hamas leader Esmail Haniya and I have been told that he determined Muwafi should go when the latter refused to agree a plan to permanently reopen the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt.
Nevertheless, the SCAF seem to have been taken by surprise — if any coup was anticipated it was not this soft coup so subtly perpetrated by Mursi but, rather, a military coup by the generals.
Consolidating his position, Mursi next forced the resignations of SCAF’s top men, Field Marshal Mohammad Hussain Tantawi and Lt Gen Sami Anan. I have been told that the men only learned of their fate when they saw it announced on live television. Since Mursi publically appointed their replacements at the same time, they were unlikely to object since to do so would have resulted in a split within the Egyptian army.
Mursi replaced Tantawi with the much younger Lt Gen Abdul Fatah Sissi, who is not considered part of the Mubarak ‘old guard’, and appointed a whole raft of men he could count on to key positions within the army, the navy and the air force.
Since his inauguration, Mursi faced a campaign of vilification and ridicule in the pro-Mubarak wings of the Egyptian media, in particular a talk show hosted by Tawfik Okasha and the newspaper Al Dustour. Last week he took his revenge, instructing Egypt’s chief prosecutor to bring charges of defamation against Okasha and Islam Afifi, the editor-in-chief of Al Dustour.
The former has already lost his job.
Political activists and the demonstrators who powered the uprising have reacted to Mursi’s strong-arm approach against the remnants of the ancient regime with enthusiasm, celebrating in Tahrir Square in their thousands. Yet the excessive powers the new president has heaped upon himself are also, potentially, a cause for concern.
The new constitution, which is currently being drafted by a 100-member council, will be key to a stable, harmonious future for the people of Egypt and a government of national unity. This document has already become the source of bitter disagreement between the secular liberal element and the Islamists who wish to establish a Sharia-based model.
Among the powers Mursi granted himself is the authority to overrule the constitutional council. Mursi remains deeply conservative, although he renounced his membership of the Muslim Brotherhood on assuming the presidency.
In addition, by providing the generals with a face-saving exit via ‘resignation’, Mursi implies a reluctance to prosecute them for the murder of around 800 protesters during the revolution, torture and other human rights abuses.
The new president’s monopoly over the state’s institutions and the decision-making process will rival that of his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.
Many fear that this will result in a new administration with formidable power, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and those close to Mursi. In effect, a religious dictatorship.
It is to be hoped that Mursi will use the power he has wrested from SCAF wisely, for the benefit of all Egyptians and their fellow Arabs.
The Palestinians have reason to be hopeful that Mursi’s administration will not continue with the policies of his predecessors which were weighted in favour of American and Israeli interests. The Brotherhood’s desire for justice for the Palestinians is well-known.
During the recent Islamic Solidarity conference in Makkah, Mursi emphasised that the Palestinian issue remains ‘the most urgent’ in the region and urged the Palestinians to unite; his Information Minister Salah Abdul Maksud said that Egypt will not ‘normalise’ relations with Israel until occupied Palestinian land is freed.
Although Israel has retroactively approved Egypt’s military deployment in the Sinai, the Israel press reflects a certain anxiety about the build-up of Egyptian tanks and soldiers at its doorstep.
Equally alarming for the Israelis is the closeness between Hamas and the new Egyptian administration. The two have already set up a joint security committee in order to combat growing militancy in the Sinai. In addition, Mursi plans to visit Tehran before the end of the month in a bid for rapprochement with Washington’s regional nemesis.
In the past, the US has been able to influence Egypt’s foreign policy in favour of its client state with billions in military military aid.
It must be a cause for concern in Washington and Tel Aviv that Mursi is so very clearly his own man.
Abdel Bari Atwan is editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi.