CAIRO -- An Egyptian court sentenced 26 people to death today for forming a "terror group" to target shipping passing through the Suez Canal, judicial sources said.
The death sentences on the defendants, all tried in absentia, came a day after the military-installed authorities named a new prime minister, who vowed to fight terrorism and lure back foreign investors and tourists.
The Suez Canal links the Mediterranean with the Indian Ocean through the Red Sea and is a key trade route between Europe and Asia. It accounts for a huge chunk of Egyptian foreign exchange earnings and government income.
It also separates mainland Egypt from the lawless Sinai Peninsula, where the longstanding hostility to authority of Bedouin tribes has created fertile ground for Islamist militant groups.
The convictions all relate to offenses allegedly committed between 2004 and 2009, before the Arab Spring uprising ended the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
They were for "founding and leading a terror group that aimed to attack people's freedom, damage national unity and [attack] the Suez Canal," the source said.
They were also convicted of possessing firearms and explosives, manufacturing rockets and carrying out surveillance of security force buildings in preparation for attacks.
The court referred the death sentences to the mufti, a top Muslim cleric who must approve all executions and has until March 19 to give his decision.
The defendants have the right to appeal.
New Chief Targets Terrorism
Ibrahim Mahlab, a former state-sector construction boss and member of Mubarak's now disbanded National Democratic Party, was named interim prime minister Tuesday.
Mahlab vowed to fight terrorism and bring back tourists as he began work on forming a new cabinet following the surprise Monday resignation of prime minister Hazem al-Beblawi.
"This will create the conditions for investment and the return of tourism," said Mahlab, who was Beblawi's housing minister.
Since the military ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi last July, militants based in the Sinai have stepped up attacks on security personnel, killing scores and severely denting tourism and investment.
The army has poured reinforcements into the arid, underdeveloped peninsula, but that has not stopped the jihadists from extending their attacks to other regions, including the heart of the capital.
Last year, an Al-Qaeda-inspired group, the Furqan Brigades, attacked vessels passing through the Suez Canal and vowed further such attacks.
Crucial Oil Route
Nearly 125 miles long, the Suez Canal is owned by Egypt but governed by an international treaty that guarantees free navigation.
A significant proportion of the world's oil and gas passes through the strategic waterway, from which Egypt earns toll income that has become all the more important as a result of a sharp drop in tourist numbers.
The canal earned 32.5 billion Egyptian pounds (nearly $4.6 billion U.S.) for the 2012-13 fiscal year, according to the head of the Suez Canal Authority, Mohab Mamish.
Meanwhile,the government said the number of tourist arrivals had plunged by almost 31% in December from a year earlier.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2014