Egypt's Islamist president is using former jihadists to mediate with radical Islamists in Sinai, trying to ensure a halt in militant attacks in return for a stop in a military offensive in the lawless peninsula, participants in the talks say.
The move marks a dramatic change from the iron fist policy of heavy crackdowns and waves of arrests under ousted leader Hosni Mubarak, which critics say only fueled support for militancy among Sinai's Bedouin population by subjecting them to torture and other abuses. But the dialogue and any possible truce could raise concerns in neighboring Israel, which has been targeted in cross-border militant attacks and has urged Egypt to stamp out the groups.
The dialogue also raised concerns among some in Egypt that it would give a de facto recognition to some of the most hard-core, fringe Islamist movements, which have gained followers in Sinai and in other parts of the country. The mediation attempt shows a willingness by President Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood figure who became Egypt's first freely elected leader, to use his Islamist credentials to deal with such groups in hopes of keeping them away from violence.
Egypt's military launched a major military operation in the Sinai after suspected Islamic militants carried out a surprise ambush of Egyptian troops on the border with Israel and Gaza on Aug. 5, killing 16 soldiers, before driving into Israel in an apparent attempt to carry out an attack. There, they were stopped and killed by Israeli airstrikes. Since the ambush, thousands of troops backed by tanks and heavy equipment have been deployed in northern Sinai, near the Israeli border.
The attack stunned the military and government and raised alarm over militants who had grown more powerful amid the collapse of central authority in Sinai after the fall of Mubarak. Over the past year and a half, attacks on police stations by armed men raising black banners similar to al-Qaida-linked groups became frequent, and militants — flush with weapons smuggled in from Libya — carried out attacks on security forces and several attacks into Israel, reportedly with the help from extremists in neighboring Gaza.
Still, the military operation seems to have avoided direct confrontations, apparently to avoid enflaming tensions with the population.
There were several raids on alleged militant hideouts in the first few days, but none reported since. Instead, the troops appear to mainly be making a show of force, setting up checkpoints on main roads and around the main towns of northern Sinai. In one instance, security officials said they notified the military of a meeting of wanted militants in the north Sinai town of Sheikh Zuwayid, but orders came to let them go without intervention.
At the same time, the past week has largely seen a halt in the hit-and-run gun attacks by suspected militants on police and army checkpoints that were frequent early in the operation.
Over the weekend, the first sessions of the dialogue took place between Sinai Islamists and a delegation of reformed jihadist mediators that participants and security officials in Sinai said was sent by Morsi's office.
The president's spokesman, traveling with Morsi on a visit to China, could not be reached to confirm that Morsi sent the mediators. The independent newspaper El-Shorouk quoted officials in Morsi's office as confirming that the delegation went to Sinai in vehicles with presidential license plates but that no officials from Morsi's staff were in the delegation.
Israeli military officials said they were not aware of the dialogue and refused to comment.
The idea appeared to be that such former jihadists — who once waged bloody campaigns against the government but have since forsworn violence — would have credibility with the Sinai militants to convince them to halt attacks.
In the talks, the two sides reached an agreement that would "pacify the situation forever," Hamdeen Salman Saad, a prominent Sinai Islamist who participated in the meetings, told The Associated Press.
Under the arrangement, Egyptian troops and security forces would not attack Sinai Jihadists and, in return, there will be no counterattacks or more bloodshed, he said. They would also stop "infiltrators" who aimed to carry out "sabotage" in Egypt, he said, referring to radicals coming from outside Sinai.
Another participant in the meeting said that under the arrangement, weapons would be handed over. On Sunday, a tribe called el-Barahma handed anti-aircraft guns, machine guns and large amount of ammunition to the military.
The participant also said Egypt would fully open the Rafah crossing into the Gaza Strip, while destroying part of the underground tunnel network used in smuggling, along with goods and medicine, weapons and militants to and from Gaza. The participant spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss specific details.
Saad and several other participants depicted the arrangement as agreed to by the delegation of mediators.
That did not necessarily mean Morsi has signed on to the details.
Morsi's spokesman, Yasser Ali, said late last week that the Sinai offensive was continuing and was succeeding in establishing security in the area.
The military Chief of Staff Sedki Sobhi, appointed by Morsi earlier this month, vowed that the army will not let the blood of the soldiers slain in the Aug. 5 attack "go in vain."
"The armed forces will not permit any criminal hideouts in the land of Sinai, and current measures taken ensure that no innocent will be harmed," he said. He said the military forces do not aim to "counter thoughts with weapons, but they raise arms in the face of those who carry arms."
The dialogue suggested continuing distrust between Morsi and internal security forces, which under Mubarak carried out heavy crackdowns on the Brotherhood. The security officials in Sinai said they had no prior knowledge of the mediation effort and discovered it only when the delegation arrived in Sinai and visited what they called some of the main strongholds of Islamic radicals in the towns of Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayid.
The delegation was led by a former jihadist leader, Magdi Salem, who served 18 years in prison for being part of a militant group known as the Vanguards of Conquest that carried out attacks in Egypt in the 1990s, including attempted assassinations of the prime minister and other officials. Also in the delegation were other former Islamic militants and a prominent lawyer from the ultraconservative Salafi movement, Nizar Ghorab, according to participants in their meetings and security officials in Sinai.
They met with around 40 prominent figures from Sinai hardline Islamist movements, according to one participant in the talks, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The figures deny having any connection to armed militants who carried out the Aug. 5 attack or other attacks the past year against security forces. But they have influence over Bedouin youth who may join those groups.
Safwat Abdel-Ghani, a former jihadi who helped set up the meetings, said the dialogue aimed to "prevent escalation or expansion of the conflict as it used to happen in the past."
Previously, security forces would launch heavy-handed crackdowns after any militant attack, arresting droves of Bedouin who already complain of neglect and discrimination by the central government.
"You would have 60 involved in one attack, but because of the repressive policies, you end up with confronting 600," Abdel-Ghani said.
Ahmed el-Jehaini, a leading Sinai Salafi who met with the mediators, praised Morsi for "reaching out to the sons of Sinai to build confidence."
Khalil Anani, an analyst of Islamic movements, said that a security crackdown in Sinai is not a solution, but that the dialogue strategy is also risky.
"On one hand, Morsi's reaching out to the jihadists can create divisions within their circles and weaken them, but on the other hand it is dangerous that you recognize the Jihadi groups," he said. "It is also very risky game that could fire back as Morsi could be using them but later on they can turn against him."