CAIRO (Reuters) - An Egyptian court on Saturday banned the armed wing of Palestinian group Hamas and listed it as a terrorist organization, a ruling in keeping with a systematic crackdown on Islamists by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Sisi said on Saturday Egypt faces a tough, prolonged campaign against militancy. “(It) will be difficult, strong, evil and will take a long time,” he said in comments broadcast on state television after meeting top military officers.
Hamas is an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which the authorities have also declared a terrorist group and repressed thoroughly since the army ousted one of its leaders, Mohamed Mursi, from the presidency in 2013.
“We reject the Egyptian court’s decision against Qassam Brigades. It is a political, dangerous decision that serves only the Zionist occupation,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, referring to Israel’s control over Palestinian territories.
The ruling came days after Egypt was hit with some of the bloodiest Islamist militant attacks on security forces in years.
“The court ruled to ban the (Hamas) Qassam Brigades and to list it as a terrorist group,” said Judge Mohamed al-Sayid of the special Cairo court which deals with urgent cases.
The case was based on allegations that the Qassam Brigades staged terrorist attacks to support the Brotherhood, and carried out a bombing and shooting operation which killed 33 security personnel in the Sinai Peninsula in October of 2014.
A source close to Hamas’ armed wing signaled the group would no longer accept Egypt as a broker between it and Israel. “After the court’s decision Egypt is no longer a mediator in Palestinian-Israeli matters,” the source told Reuters.
Cairo has for many years played a central role in engineering ceasefires between Israel and Hamas, which dominates the Gaza Strip, including a truce reached between the sides in August that ended a 50-day Gaza war.
Egyptian officials say that weapons are smuggled from Gaza into Egypt where they end up with militant groups fighting to topple the Western-backed Cairo government.
Islamist militants based in Egypt’s Sinai region, which borders on Gaza, have killed hundreds of police and soldiers since Mursi’s political demise. The insurgency has spread to other parts of Egypt, the most populous Arab country.
On Thursday night there were four separate attacks on security forces in North Sinai and Islamic State’s Egyptian wing, Sinai Province, claimed the killing of at least 30 soldiers and police officers.
Egyptian officials say the Brotherhood, Islamic State, Al Qaeda and Sinai Province, previously called Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, share the same ideology. The Brotherhood says it is committed to peaceful activism and denies any tie to violence.
Sisi, who was the army chief when Mursi was toppled, restored some stability to Egypt and the economy had begun to recover from frequent political violence since the 2011 popular uprising that overthrew veteran autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Then signs of discontent emerged in the past week. More than 25 people were killed last weekend when security forces fired at protesters angered by what many perceive as a police state re-established by Sisi since Mursi’s fall.
On Saturday, a sniper wounded a soldier in a village in central Sinai, security sources said. In northern Sinai, Islamist militant gunmen killed a Christian man suspected of cooperating with Egyptian authorities.
Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Mark Heinrich