CAIRO -- Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi ordered army reinforcements to the restive Sinai on Monday amid rising tensions there over the kidnapping of seven soldiers by suspected Islamist militants.
In a break from past practices, Morsi said he would not negotiate with kidnappers, which some interpreted as an effort by the beleaguered president to appear tough in the face of his falling popularity and a general decline in security across the country. Presidential spokesman Omar Amer dodged a question about whether Morsi’s stance was for political purposes. “We are proceeding as we are,” Amer said.
But he also said that “all options are on the table to free the kidnapped soldiers,” though he did not specify what options might be under consideration if negotiations had been ruled out.
The Sinai has been increasingly unstable since the 2011 uprising that toppled former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak. A largely ungoverned region, run by militants and Islamist groups, the northern part of the peninsula has been defined by instability and lawlessness.
It’s the second time Morsi has deployed the army to the Sinai since he assumed the presidency 11 months ago. In August, Morsi dispatched troops there after 16 soldiers were killed by still unidentified Islamist assailants who later died when two hijacked Egyptian army vehicles were destroyed by Israeli troops as they approached the Israeli border. Morsi used the incident to dismiss three top officials. Most of the troops dispatched then left after two weeks.
The kidnapping renewed fears of widespread violence in the northern Sinai. Shipping in the Suez Canal has been brought to a halt by the latest kidnapping, according to Egyptian state media, and the government closed both the al Awja border crossing into Israel and the Rafah crossing into Gaza.
Sinai residents have long complained that the central government in Cairo has ignored the region, leaving it a backwater. “We are discussing plans and strategies to develop Sinai’s health, education and economy,” Amer said.
The kidnapped soldiers were snatched Thursday while traveling by minibus to the city of al Arish, and they appeared in a two-minute video Saturday. Blindfolded, the men pleaded for Morsi’s help and implied they’d been tortured, though they appeared to be in good health. The video shows a rifle barrel tapping each soldier to indicate it was his turn to speak. Six of the seven said they were 20 years old; the seventh said he was 21.
While Bedouin tribesmen in the Sinai frequently kidnap tourists for ransom, the video suggested a political motive behind the soldiers’ abduction.
“The demands of the brothers, Mr. President, is the release of political prisoners from Sinai,” a hostage, who identified himself as Cpl. Ibrahim Sobhi Ibrahim, 20, said in the video. “Please, Mr. President, release them quickly. We can no longer tolerate torture.”
Gen. Ahmed Wasfy, head of Egypt’s 2nd Division, led the latest deployment, the same general who led troops earlier this year in Port Said, where a verdict over a soccer match created weeks of instability in the northern port city.
Al Azhar Mosque, Egypt’s premiere Sunni religious institution, called on the kidnappers to release the soldiers and to stop these “heinous crimes,” according to a statement published on a state television website.
McClatchy special correspondent Amina Ismail contributed to this report.