Sinai crisis: Presidential candidates, parties and movements react

Zeinab El-Gundy, Thursday 25 Aug 2011

The killing of five Egyptian policemen at the border with Israel in Sinai is not only a test for the ruling military council, but also for presidential hopefuls and the country's political movements

Israeli embassy
At the Israeli embassy's protest (Photo By Mai Shaheen)

When news came from Sinai that Israeli forces had crossed the Egyptian border and killed five policemen and soldiers last Thursday, people did not wait only for official reactions from the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) or from the government; they were also waiting for potential presidential candidates, political parties and social movements to react.

The Sinai crisis is the real first test that reflects on the positions of these political powers seeking a role in a country that considers the question of the relationship with Israel as essential as the question of bread and butter.

It was noticeable that the potential presidential candidates were quicker in their reactions, stating their positions before parties and even the government responded. Using Twitter and Facebook they expressed their views in short statements.

The first potential presidential candidate to comment on the killing of the Egyptian army officers was Amr Moussa on 18 August on his official Twitter account. “The martyrs' blood will not be wasted,” the former Arab League secretary-general said in a tweet, demanding that the Israeli ambassador be summoned and promising to follow the matter intently. However, Moussa did not clarify how the blood "will not be wasted."

Moussa won public popularity as the foreign minister of Egypt during the Mubarak years 1991 to 2001. His popularity was reflected in a song by singer Shaaban Abdel Rahim, "I hate Israel and I love Amr Moussa". While Moussa was Arab League secretary-general, Israel launched a fullscale war against both Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008. The Arab League could do little to help in either situation.

Last month, Moussa faced criticism when a document from the Foreign Ministry was leaked showing that he approved the export of gas to Israel. Moussa defended himself, saying that at the time there was hope for peace and he thought that such a step could encourage Israel to engage in the regional peace process.

On the same day Moussa reacted to the Sinai killings, Magdy Hatata, the former chief of staff of the Egyptian armed forces (1995-2001), who is not a frontrunner in the presidential stakes, gave his reaction. Hatata was critical of Israel both on his official Twitter account and Facebook page, demanding an official apology along with the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador, an international lawsuit against Israel, and reconsideration of the Camp David Accords. Meanwhile, the former lieutenant general did something no other presidential candidate did: he visited the family of killed officer Osama Galal, to offer his condolences himself in their village in Qalubiya governorate, after finishing a conference there.

Hatata did not only demand an investigation into the killing of the five policemen, but also that all previous files on Israeli aggression at the border be reopened, as the files of Egyptian prisoners of war killed by the Israeli army during the 1956 and 1967 wars — a matter that resurfaced during 1995 and 1996 and was ignored, despite Israeli confessions of atrocities.

On 19 August, Hamdeen Sabahi, the potential presidential candidate and longtime Nasserite nationalist politician, demanded a serious stand from SCAF and the government on his official Twitter account. His reaction was surprisingly considered, given the strong position against Israel and Camp David held by Sabhi. In a TV interview, Sabhi said that if he is elected president he will hold a referendum on the Camp David Accords, to see if the Egyptian people want to cancel the accords or not.

Sabhi praised on his Twitter account the actions of Ahmed Shahat who climbed a 20-floor building housing the Israeli embassy to bring down the Israeli flag, replacing it with an Egyptian flag, praising the generation of the revolution that managed to achieve the dreams of older generations.

Potential presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh said in a conference in Minya in Upper Egypt on 19 August that the Camp David Accords were "forced on the Egyptian people”. The former Muslim Brotherhood leader later issued a statement to the media condemning the Sinai attack and demanding SCAF expel the Israeli ambassador and stop exporting gas to Israel.

The position of Abul Fotouh was not surprising because he has long been an opponent to Israeli policies, or what he calls "the Zionist entity". Abul Fotouh has been general secretary of the relief and emergency committee in the Arab Medical Union, one of the biggest charities that participated in aiding Gaza and Lebanon during the Israeli wars.

While in Germany, potential presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei wondered on his Twitter account on 20 August about the reaction of SCAF, demanding an explanation of what exactly happened in Sinai.

ElBaradei's attack on the Mubarak's regime in participating in the Gaza blockade made him more popular in Egypt and hated in the Israeli media, especially given the policies of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which he headed, towards the Iranian nuclear programme and alleged Syrian nuclear ambitions. Ironically, at the same time he is attacked by opponents for neglecting Israeli nuclear arms, or being light on Israel's refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Potential presidential candidate Bothaina Kamel, the only woman so far running for the presidency, demanded a presidential council be formed immediately so the army could focus on protecting Egypt's borders. Kamel has for months has been critical of the role played by the army as interim ruler of the country and has called on a number of occasions for the army to hand over power to an elected civil presidential council.

On 20 August, potential presidential candidate Ayman Nour stated on his official Twitter account that "we got a good chance to amend the Camp David Accords, especially the point concerning the number of Egyptian army forces in Sinai". Nour added that present demands should not be limited to expelling the Israeli ambassador. Nour criticised the decision of the cabinet to withdraw its statement regarding the recalling of the Egyptian ambassador and wondered about the reasons behind such a decision. When he was imprisoned, during the Mubarak years, 2005-2009, Nour attacked the Mubarak regime for its support of the Gaza blockade in his column in El-Dostor newspaper.

Potential presidential candidate Mohamed Salim El-Awa is against escalation with Israel at the wrong time, refusing calls for war, the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador or cutting relations with Tel Aviv. The lawyer who is famous for supporting the Palestinian cause only demanded that Israel respects the Camp David Accords. Right after the attack, El-Awa said on his official Facebook page that the Egyptian army would not accept that one Egyptian solider be injured without giving a reaction, and that "Egyptian blood [is] too precious to be wasted for nothing".

El-Awa said that any attack on the Israeli embassy is unacceptable, legally or religiously. He did not comment about the Israeli flag incident, but some believed that is what he meant. Indeed, the position of El-Awa was shocking for many, especially that the last high profile case for El-Awa was defending Sami Shahab, the Hizbullah member arrested in Egypt under the Mubarak regime.

Surprisingly also, potential presidential candidate Hazem Abu Ismail, who has been more outspoken against SCAF than any other candidate, did not speak much about the Sinai incident. Abu Ismail issued a short response after Israeli officials issued a statement of regret over the killings. The Islamic preacher seeking to be a president demanded an "official apology" from the Israeli government. But even though he did not speak as much as other presidential candidates about the incident, Abu Ismail’s critical position towards the Camp David Accords and Israel are well known. In a recent interview, Abu Ismail said that "the treaty made Israel interfere in Egypt even when it came TV series scenes."

Egyptian parties and movements were not as fast as presidential hopefuls in their reactions, yet they issued statements, many of which that seemed similar. Called-for demands included the suspension of gas exports to Israel, expelling the Israeli ambassador, and the revision of the Camp David Accords.

The El-Adl party was the first political party to issue a statement in the early hours of 19 August, demanding the suspension of Israeli-Egyptian relations and the recalling of the Egyptian ambassador in Tel Aviv. The centrist party also underlined the importance of ending the transitional period in domestic politics as soon as possible, so the Egyptian army could focus on its main mission: to protect Egypt’s national security and its borders.

Later the same day, the Freedom and Justice Party issued a statement demanding justice for the martyrs, while making clear that Egyptian borders are a red line and that the people stand side-by-side with the armed forces against any aggression on Egyptian territories. The Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated party attacked the US position on the incident in its statement.

The liberal-minded Free Egyptians Party also issued a statement on 19 August, sending its condolences to the families of the martyrs and describing what Israeli forces did as a violation of the Camp David Accords, demanding the army and police todo their best in fighting whom the statement described as "mercenaries" from Sinai.

In a statement issued by the Nasserite Karama Party on Sunday, 21 August, the party demanded the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador, suspending gas exports indefinitely, and ending all forms of normalised relations between Egypt and Israel. The party criticised the SCAF in its statement, wondering how it deals harshly with political activists but is timid on the Israeli attack.

The Egyptian Communist Party issued a similar statement the same day in which it expressed its full support for the protests staged in front of the Israeli embassy in Giza.

The April 6 Youth Movement “Ahmed Maher Front” issued two statements regarding the incident, the first issued on 19 August. The movement's stated demands were not different from other parties and groups’ demands — from expelling the Israeli ambassador to cutting gas exports. The second statement was issued 20 August, where the youth movement announced that it would participate in the sit in held at the Israeli embassy until the departure of the Israeli ambassador.

The April 6 Youth Movement “Democratic Front” also issued a statement on 20 August, agreeing with its rival “Ahmed Maher Front”. The Democratic Front is also participating in protests held at the Israeli embassy in Giza.

The Democratic Front meanwhile co-signed another statement along with 12 movements and parties, including the Revolution Youth Coalition, the Democratic Front Party and the Egyptian Left Party. The statement included two sets of demands, including filing a complaint with the UN Security Council regarding the Israeli action, reopening the Rafah Crossing to end the blockade from Egypt’s side, revising the Camp David Accords, expelling the Israeli ambassador, and closing the Israeli embassy. Further political demands included the end of military trials, purging state institutions of former regime members, and adding a treason count to Mubarak's charge sheet for his relations with Israel

Some activists suggested that the Giza sit-in be transferred to the Israeli ambassador’s residence in Maadi as the ambassador does not go to the embassy at this time.

The killing of the policemen in Sinai and the current crisis with Israel is not only a significant test for Egypt after the revolution, in particular for SCAF, but is also a test for the country's political forces, especially those forces that claim to be ready to govern.

The results of the test are not clear until now, but the test did prove that the Egyptian public is not in the mood to coddle up to Israel was the former Mubarak regime often did.

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