Thousands of Egyptians gathered for the funeral of 16 soldiers killed by militants in Sinai, in an attack that gave President Mohamed Mursi his most serious test since assuming office and led the Muslim Brotherhood to call for reviewing Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.
Mursi’s newly appointed Prime Minister Hisham Qandil was pelted by shoes during the ceremony, aired live on state television, as the flag-draped coffins of the soldiers killed on Aug. 5 were carried on a parade route where former President Anwar Sadat was assassinated more than 30 years ago.
As troops held back the crowd, some mourners chanted that the military and people were “one hand,” while others railed against Mursi, the Brotherhood and the group’s spiritual leader, chanting “leave, leave,” as coffins were carried into a mosque. Mursi didn’t attend.
No group has claimed responsibility for the bloodshed near the border with the Gaza Strip, which the Brotherhood said was aimed at driving a wedge between Egypt and the Hamas government in the Palestinian territory. Mursi, drawn from the ranks of the Brotherhood, is contending with popular sentiment against the 1978 peace accord with Israel at a time when he is already engaged in a power struggle with the military that handed over power to him in June.
The attack “draws our attention to the fact that our forces in the Sinai lack the personnel and the equipment to protect the region or guard our borders, which makes it imperative to review the terms of our accords with Israel,” the Brotherhood said in a statement posted today on the website of its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party.
Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted last year, closely cooperated with Israel on security and helped maintain an embargo on Gaza. By contrast, Mursi met with senior leaders of Hamas last week in Cairo to discuss relaxing border controls.
“I hope this will be a wakeup call for Egypt regarding the necessity to be sharp and efficient on their side,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said while touring the border region. Last August, gunmen operating out of Sinai killed eight Israelis and injured about 40 people near the southern Israeli city of Eilat. A natural gas pipeline feeding into Israel and Jordan has been attacked 15 times since Mubarak’s fall.
Israel would argue that “the deterioration in security has been facilitated by a deliberate drawdown in security operations by the Egyptian military in northern Sinai,” Crispin Hawes, director of the Eurasia Group’s Mideast program, said by phone from London. “They’ve helped facilitate a situation they now can’t control.”
Still, the attack won’t “fundamentally affect the desire and the mutual need on both sides to up their efforts to cooperate on things like sharing intelligence on what is becoming a very dangerous situation in Sinai,” said Hawes.
The deterioration in security comes as Mursi struggles to revive an economy battered by unrest since Mubarak was ousted in February 2011. Egypt’s international reserves fell to a record low of $14.4 billion in July, data released by the Central Bank of Egypt today show, continuing what was a steady decline interrupted by three months of marginal gains between April and June.
The Sinai assault, which the military said involved 35 people, took place near the Rafah border crossing with Gaza. The region has suffered a spate of attacks and kidnappings in the past year which have been attributed variously to militant groups and local Bedouin. The military blamed the latest bloodshed on “enemies of the state,” and said the assailants may have been supported by “elements” in Gaza.
Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., Israel and the European Union, denied any involvement and condemned the attack. No group has claimed responsibility.
The peace accord between Egypt and Israel limits the number of troops Egypt can deploy in the peninsula. Mursi, who has repeatedly said that the country will honor its international agreements, ordered the military to take “complete control” of the region and send in helicopter gunships. The army was patrolling the area by land, sea and air today, the independent Al Shorouk newspaper said. Authorities were also demolishing smuggling tunnels used to ferry supplies to Gaza, it reported.
The charred bodies of six of the attackers arrived at hospital in Arish, the state-run Ahram Gate website said today. They were killed by Israeli forces after trying to break through the border following the attack on the Egyptian soldiers, officials said.