CAIRO — The safe release Wednesday of seven conscripts kidnapped by suspected militants in Sinai brought a victory for Egypt's Islamist president after months of criticism that his government is mismanaging the country.
Seated with top military brass and senior officials, an animated Mohammed Morsi lauded the release as a show of how unified and strong his leadership is and urged his opponents to work with his government in dealing with Egypt's multiple crises.
Despite the end of the nearly weeklong kidnapping drama, however, Morsi's government has left unresolved the issue of widespread lawlessness and growing power of Islamic militants in the Sinai Peninsula. Key questions remained over how the release of the six police conscripts and a military border guard was negotiated and whether the militants suspected of kidnapping them will be pursued.
Critics warned that the resolution only boosted militants. The biggest winners from the crisis may be hardline Islamists on whom Morsi relies for political support and who said they played a role in mediating the captives' release.
The seven captives were released early Wednesday in the middle of the desert in northern Sinai. They had been abducted last Thursday, sparking widespread public anger over the state's inability to rein in armed groups in the peninsula. The outrage was fueled when a video of the seven was released showing them bound and on the ground, pleading for Morsi to meet the kidnappers' demands for the release of detainees from Sinai, including convicted militants.
Military spokesman Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali said the release came about as a "result of efforts by military intelligence, in cooperation with the honorable tribal leaders and Sinai residents." Alongside the behind-the-scenes mediation, the military and security forces had carried out a large buildup of troops in Sinai as a show of strength.
Morsi took center stage at a televised welcoming ceremony for the released conscripts. Flanked by his defense and interior ministers, Morsi alone shook their hands and patted their shoulders. Speaking afterward, he praised an "operation" that showcased "perfect" coordination between the armed forces, the police and security agencies.
"On this occasion, although it was painful to see our sons go through this, we stress these important points: Egypt is one body, one leadership, and Egypt has complete control over its territories," he said.
He cited the collaboration between security agencies and the presidency as a model, calling on critics to work with him on the country's problems. "I say come all, let's sit together, discuss, disagree but send one message: We Egyptians, God willing, were born again with the help of these great leaders ... and will achieve a grand renaissance."
Morsi vowed to hunt down the kidnappers, saying "there will be no going back on bringing the criminals to account." He also said the incident was "a departure point for all of us to solve the problems of Sinai, its people and to develop Sinai."
The kidnapping highlighted the growing instability in the desert peninsula bordering Gaza and Israel. Sinai's population, including powerful Bedouin tribes and local families, has long been disgruntled with what they call state discrimination and neglect and heavy-handed security crackdowns. Sinai residents detained in security sweeps have reportedly been tortured and often sit for years in prison with no clear court verdict, fueling their families' anger.
Islamic militants and criminal gangs have grown amid the security vacuum since Egypt's 2011 uprising. Armed groups smuggle weapons, attack security forces and kidnap tourists to trade for relatives held in Egyptian jails. Last August, just over a month after Morsi took office, militants carried out a brazen attack killing 16 Egyptian soldiers along the border with Gaza and Israel. The culprits for that attack are still unidentified.
Sheikh Aref Abu Akr, a top tribal leader in northern Sinai, dismissed calls in Cairo for the kidnappers to be punished, saying "people treated unjustly as demands." Abu Akr was among tribal chiefs who met with North Sinai's provincial governor as part of the mediation efforts.
"Cairo is not Sinai. People are sitting in air conditioned rooms and the media portrays us as Afghanistan," he told The Associated Press. "We don't have Jihadists." He said the state must now follow through on promises to address Sinai grievances and increase development.
Abu Akr told Egypt's Al-Masri Al-Youm newspapers that local mediators convinced the kidnappers to release their captives to prevent bloodshed from a possible military assault.
Liberal politician and former lawmaker Amr Hamzawy lauded the captives' release, calling it "successful crisis management." Now, he wrote on his Twitter account, authorities must deal with the Sinai issue "which shook state sovereignty and national security, and where grievances have accumulated and development lacked."
Morsi's supporters criticized his opponents for failing to rally behind him and seize the moment.
The main opposition umbrella group, the National Salvation Front, had declined an invitation from Morsi at the height of the crisis to sit down and discuss how to resolve the crisis.
Mourad Aly, a senior adviser to the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm from which Morsi hails, said on his Facebook page that the NSF lost "a lot" by its stance, saying it came off as an "attempt to cause the president to fail, even at the expense of the suffering of the simple people."
He said the opposition should review its position and reconsider working with the president.
Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading figure in the National Salvation Front, praised those who participated in the conscripts' release and said the culprits should be punished. He also said military intelligence should explain the situation in Sinai, saying in an interview with Al-Hayat TV that "the revolution happened for the sake of more transparency."
Little has been made public of the negotiations or who was involved in them. But various hardline Islamist and tribal chiefs have met with officials openly and some have said they are informed of the talks, using their connections in Sinai and working with military intelligence to find a resolution.
"The Islamist groups won a lot out of this," said Mohammed Abu Samra, a member of the Islamic Party, the political arm of the Islamic Jihad group, a former militant group that renounced violence.
Islamists, he said, made clear they had nothing to do with the abductions then helped by identifying the kidnappers and pushing them to negotiate. By cooperating with the tribes and military, the Islamists "showed they were efficient, that they were sincere with the army and that they are no longer part of terrorism networks."
Ahmed Maher, a leading member in the opposition April 6 group, said the resolution of the crisis is "unsettling" and that Morsi appeared to be avoiding stepping on groups with an Islamist agenda, even those pursuing it through violence.
Soon after the abduction, Morsi said he didn't want the kidnappers or the captives to be hurt – which raised criticism that he was equating the two sides.
"There are common roots between these Jihadi groups and the Muslim Brotherhood. He wouldn't want to upset them," Maher said. Maher, who was himself detained briefly for organizing an anti-government protest, said that while liberal and secular opponents are prosecuted, "we don't see a fourth or even tenth of that treatment with these armed groups in Sinai."
"Morsi didn't win and no one won. But the Jihadists came out stronger, because they were unhurt in this. The state is the biggest loser."