The attack in Sinai in which 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed is a political bombshell for Egypt’s Islamist president, Mohammed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).
Whatever view he takes of the incident, and however he responds to it and its perceived perpetrators, Mursi risks setting himself at odds either with the Islamist movements and some of the country’s revolutionary forces, or with the military. Similarly, he stands to discredit either himself, by appearing ineffectual, or the Islamists as a whole, by allowing them to be depicted as a scourge and a source of disturbances in the country.
The flurry of speculation about who was behind the attack boils down to two general theories.
First, that the attackers were al-Qaeda-style jihadis operating with Palestinian support and without Israel’s knowledge.
Second, that the attack was manipulated by intelligence agencies, orchestrated, aided or abetted by Israel with help from within Egypt.
If Mursi is to adopt either view, and respond accordingly, he is liable to discredit himself in the eyes of the Islamists and of the public at large – especially given his inability to act independently of the powerful Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) on security matters.
If the official position ends up blaming Palestinian-backed jihadis, Mursi would be forced into a confrontation with the Gaza Strip, which adjoins the Egyptian border. Egyptian media controlled by Mubarak-era holdovers are already loudly accusing Hamas – the Palestinian chapter of the MB, which runs the Strip – of being the main culprit in the affair.
Mursi would also stand to be accused of poor judgement over his recent decision to permanently reopen the Rafah crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip to Palestinian travellers and cancel visa requirements. He would face renewed calls to close the crossing and destroy all the underground tunnels into the Strip, used to supply the population with basic necessities and the Palestinian resistance with arms. The same voices would also revert to demonising the resistance and accusing it of trying to drag Egypt into war with Israel.
Mursi would find himself in an extremely awkward position vis-a-vis the Islamists if he were succumb to such pressure to blame Palestinian groups for the incident, and acquiesce to a response that effectively reinstates the blockade of the Gaza Strip – something he and his group have long and vociferously opposed.
Such a development would also be likely to bring an end to the inter-Palestinian reconciliation process, and make Palestinian faction leaders unwelcome in Egypt, while at home Mursi would stand accused of jeopardizing public security with his recent freeing of former jihadi Islamists.
This could amount to a first attempt to put Mursi at loggerheads with the Islamist movement which propelled him to office, with the aim of “burning” him. He would be depicted as two-faced, backing down to the ruling establishment and the enemies of the resistance, letting down fellow Arabs and Muslims, and indecision and ineffectiveness over Gaza and in general.
If, however, Mursi were to adopt the other view, that the Israelis were involved in the attack, he would also find himself in a bind, as he would be bound to respond against Israel and its accomplices to punish those responsible for killing the soldiers.
This would not be easy to do, given Mursi’s declared commitment to respecting all international treaties, including the Camp David agreement which ties Egypt’s hands in the Sinai peninsula, especially in Area “C” adjacent to the border.
Moreover, any bid to respond directly or by upping the diplomatic ante would cause tensions with Israel that would impact on Egypt’s international relations, which the country is deferring dealing with until it has sorted out is domestic affairs.
This could end up strengthening SCAF. It would play up fears about Mursi getting the country embroiled in unnecessary confrontations at a time when it can ill afford them, and taking it down an undesirable path which a “responsible statesman” would try to avert.
The upshot of the whole affair may be for Mursi to appear impotent vis-a-vis SCAF chairman Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and the country’s military and intelligence chiefs. That could prove politically fatal for him in the near term, and fatal in both the political and security senses for the Islamists in future.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.
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