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Egypt to try civilians in military court, destroy Gaza tunnels after Sinai attack

Hamas denies that Egyptian security measures will affect the Gaza Strip, as Egyptian newspaper heads blame Muslim Brotherhood for Sinai attack
An image shot from the Palestinian side of the border shows an Egyptian soldier staffing a border post next to a tattered Egyptian flag (AFP)

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued a decree on Monday allowing the country’s army to “secure and protect vital public institutions” for a period of two years.

Anybody suspected of attacking “state institutions”, which the decree does not define exactly, will be tried in a military court.

Egypt’s leaders have long come under pressure for the use of military courts to try civilians – Human Rights Watch warned in 2011 that military courts “do not satisfy the requirements of independence.”

Defendants have no right to choose their own legal representation, and cases are judged by military officers who, according to Human Rights Watch, are subject to the military “chain of command” and unlikely to issue independent rulings.

The presidential spokesperson, Alaa Yousef, said in a statement on Monday that the decision aims to protect electricity facilities, “oil pipelines, gas fields, railway lines and the network of roads and bridges and other public installations.”

According to the statement, which comes after a devastating attack on Friday killed at least 30 soldiers at an army checkpoint in the Sinai Peninsula, the move aims to protect Egypt against further “terrorist activities.”

Egyptian security sources told al-Arabiya on Monday that they had uncovered the identities of eight people allegedly involved in the attack, which saw a car packed with explosives ram an army checkpoint near the border with the Gaza Strip, followed up by a volley of gunshots to kill any survivors.

According to the site’s sources, the attackers were “new faces”, not among those most wanted by the Egyptian security services.

In a speech on Monday, President Sisi said the attack was planned with “external support”, though he did not specify the source of the backing.

A man stoops in one of the tunnels between the Sinai and the Gaza Strip (AFP)

Gaza tunnels to be targeted

Egyptian security forces are continuing a large-scale operation in the restive northern Sinai Peninsula, which has seen frequent violent attacks and bombings in the years since 2011.

On Monday it was revealed that tackling underground tunnels linking Egypt with the Gaza Strip will be a cornerstone of the military’s strategy in the Sinai.

The army’s campaign aims to “completely destroy tunnels with the Gaza Strip”, a military source told pan-Arab daily al-Hayat on Monday.

The source reported that the openings of many such tunnels lie “within houses on the border”, making them difficult to discover.

Giving a speech in the aftermath of the attack, President Sisi stressed that “the problems…of the Rafah border line and all the problems in the area should be approached.”

The Egyptian army has long attempted to destroy the tunnels, and in 2013 deployed the new tactic of flooding the routes with sewage.

In March 2014, Egypt announced that it had destroyed 1,370 of the tunnels, though it did not specify a time period – Egypt fears that the underground routes are used to smuggle items into and out of the Gaza Strip.

The day after the attack, authorities announced that large areas of the Sinai will be on lock-down for a period of three months, with a curfew enforced from 17:00 in the evening until 07:00 in the morning.

The measures also include the complete closure of the Rafah crossing “until further notice” – Rafah is the only route into the Strip not directly controlled by Israel.

Border area to be cleared

Egyptian authorities are also seeking to expand a military “buffer zone” between the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip.

680 homes along the length of the border between Egypt and Gaza will be cleared, as part of a military operation dubbed “temporary demographic redistribution.”

A source involved in the campaign told al-Hayat that the operation will involve “temporary redistribution” rather than forcible relocation.

Commenting on the decision to expand the buffer zone on the border of the Gaza Strip, Hamas leader Ahmed Youssef said the operation will not affect Gaza.

Youssef told Palestinian news agency Ma’an that stability in the Sinai is in Gaza’s interests, because keeping the Rafah crossing open is a priority.

Media support for ‘national project’

The editors of a number of Egyptian newspapers on Sunday morning expressed their “complete support for the Egyptian national project” under President Sisi.

Editors of 16 leading Egyptian newspapers, including al-Masry al-Yawm, al-Ahram and al-Yawm al-Sabia, met in the Cairo headquarters of private daily al-Wafd.

In a joint statement released after the meeting, the editors condemned Friday’s attack, which they said was “led by the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood and various groups affiliated to it.”

The statement’s signatories also pledged to “stop publishing statements that support terrorism."