Mohamed Morsi and Hussein Tantawi (Photo: AP/ Sherif Abd El Minoem)
President Mohamed Morsi, Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, Minister of Interior Ahmed Gamal-Eddin and Head of Intelligence Mourad Mowafy returned from a quick visit to Sinai on Monday, following deadly attack on the Egypt-Gaza border which saw the death of 16 Egyptian soldiers and the injury of seven others.
The visit lasted approximately two hours and Morsi and his entourage were reported to have arrived back in Cairo at 8pm. This was contrary to initial reports that Morsi would attempt to tour the town of Rafah and visit the site of the border attack.
The high-profile visit—the first of its kind since Morsi took office—comes a day after the attack by unknown assailants on Egyptian border guards.
The officials arrived in Al-Arish at 5pm on Monday, where they met with the governor of North Sinai and discussed tightening security measures in the region. They further discussed the need to cleanse the border areas of criminal groups.
Tantawi also stressed the need to coordinate between Sinai residents and tribal groups, and the security forces in an attempt to pre-empt future crimes, as reported by Al-Ahram Arabic website.
Notably, Morsi on Monday announced a three-day mourning period for the soldiers who were killed, and also reported he would be attending the funeral on Tuesday.
According to media reports on Sunday evening, the attack involved a military vehicle, reportedly hijacked earlier, which exploded around 7pm, the time of iftar (the early evening meal during Ramadan). Others were injured after the attackers opened fire on them.
Investigations by authorities into the attack have been opened as no group has claimed responsibility yet.
However, Egyptian state television claimed that elements of Islamic extremist groups situated in the Sinai peninsula had carried out the attack, but provided no details.
An anonymous Egyptian security official was quoted by Egypt's state-run news agency, MENA, as saying that Islamist elements who infiltrated Egypt from the Gaza Strip through tunnels are behind the attacks, along with other Islamists situated in the areas of El-Halal Mountain and El-Mahdia in eastern Sinai.
For their side, however, Gaza Strip rulers Hamas, which has governed the area since 2007, stressed it has not been involved in the attacks.
"Hamas has nothing to do with the border tensions. On the contrary, it cares about the Egyptian national security and would never use weapons against the Egyptian army," the faction’s senior leader Mahmoud Al-Zahar told Ahram Online.
Egypt's border with Gaza was closed on Monday after the attack. The border had been used by thousands of Palestinians to transfer food and goods through its tunnels, overcome humanitarian hardships resulting from an Israeli-imposed embargo on the Gaza Strip.
Infuriated by the incident, hundreds of Rafah residents (on the Egyptian side of the Egypt-Gaza border) gathered at Sadat Square and blocked the road.
The Sinai Peninsula has been a turbulent region for decades, and its inhabitants have repeatedly claimed they have been marginalised as a community.
Moreover, since Egypt's 2011 uprising the country has witnessed what many describe as a security vacuum, with Sinai seen as particularly lawless. Observers point to a spate of kidnappings and the fact that a gas pipeline leading to Israel and Jordan has been blown up 15. Meanwhile, dissenting voices suggest that it is not security measures that are required but policies that address the marginalisation of Sinai that long predates the January 25 Revolution.