from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Morsi’s Tests: Hamas and Sinai

Egyptian soldiers stand guard at the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza after Egypt closed the crossing following the deadly attack on its soldiers on Sunday, August 6, 2012. (Courtesy REUTERS/Stringer).

August 13, 2012

Egyptian soldiers stand guard at the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza after Egypt closed the crossing following the deadly attack on its soldiers on Sunday, August 6, 2012. (Courtesy REUTERS/Stringer).
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Egypt’s president, Mohammed Morsi, acted with unexpected energy and speed to remove the top ranks of Egypt’s military this weekend. But he has not yet disclosed what his policy will be toward the linked tests of Hamas and Sinai.

After the terrorist attack that killed 16 Egyptian border police, Morsi reacted with strong words and visited northern Sinai with Field Marshal Tantawi--then the head of the Egyptian military, now cashiered by Morsi. Several days of strong military action followed, including the first use of jets and helicopter gunships in Sinai since the 1973 war.

But now what? Will Morsi instruct the new top brass he has appointed to take on the great challenge of restoring law and order to Sinai? Will he insist that Cairo, not the jumble of smugglers, criminals, and terrorists that have had a nearly free hand, rule Sinai? That task would take months and probably years of sustained effort.

Linked to it are the questions of Hamas and Gaza. Despite the international complaints against "Israel’s blockade of Gaza," under President Mubarak the blockade was as tough from the Egyptian as from the Israeli side. And as Hamas has recently complained, the Egyptian "blockade" remains in place under Morsi and the Brotherhood:

We suffered from the unjust regime of Mubarak that participated in the (Israeli) blockade of Gaza. Why should we suffer now in the era of Egypt’s revolution and democracy?" said Hamas Interior Minister Fathi Hammad.

"The Egyptian leadership is requested to order the reopening of the Rafah crossing to alleviate the suffering of Palestinians wanting to travel, students, patients, residents in third countries and pilgrims," he added in a statement.

Israel has for years refused exit visas for all but a tiny minority in Gaza, making Rafah the sole window on the world for almost all of the enclave’s 1.7 million Palestinians, with some 800 people a day using the terminal to reach Egypt.

Since the closure, thousands have been stranded, although Cairo did order a brief opening on Friday to allow Palestinians trapped in Egypt to return home.

Egypt said on Monday it would open the crossing temporarily yet again, but just for three days, mainly to permit travel for humanitarian cases such as Palestinians seeking medical care abroad, and students, a Hamas official said.

"If Palestine was not a top priority for you, you should change direction," Hammad said in an unusually sharp rebuke.

Hamas and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood are linked historically and ideologically, so maintaining a closed border will be difficult for Morsi. But opening the border risks allowing into Egypt jihadis and other violent extremists who have gathered, and trained, in Gaza. Opening the border for a couple of days when there is a holiday, such as the Eid al-Fitr at the end of Ramadan, is one thing; ordering that the border be truly open is another.

Law and order and government control in Sinai require real Egyptian-Israeli intelligence and military cooperation, something else it will be difficult for Morsi to maintain for ideological reasons. Morsi has just chosen a whole new group of military leaders and has also replaced the head of the intelligence service.  What instructions will they now receive: keep up that cooperation with Israel, or stop working with the Zionist enemy?

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