Egypt’s North Sinai: Residents stuck between Islamist rebels and brutal anti-terrorism operations
Ten years ago in North Sinai, following the ouster of the then president Hosni Mubarak, *Ashraf, then a 15-year-old child, was accompanying his mother to stage a protest in front of one of the city’s burnt police stations in the Sheikh Zuwied district.
“While the whole country was celebrating freedom and democracy after Mubarak left, we were just starting to demand the most basic of our rights,” Ashraf, now a 26-year-old construction worker based in Suez, tells The Africa Report.
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Economic and social marginalisation
Thousands of other North Sinai residents have for a long time been subjected to economic and social marginalisation in addition to radical state-sponsored violence like enforced disappearances, illegal arrests and extrajudicial killings.
Due to the lack of media and civil society access and because of its physical closeness to the restive Gaza Strip and the Israeli border, North Sinai has been a militarised governorate where the army plays an important role in day-to-day life.
This marginalisation and violence however, increased after 2011 as the governorate became home to one of the country’s most resilient militant organisation Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis. It pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) in 2014. It has now renamed itself Sinai Province.
In that sense, Ashraf and thousands of other residents continue to find themselves caught in the crosshairs of the militarised state and radical Islamist militants.
The term ‘enforced disappearance’ was only known to many Egyptians after 2013, but North Sinai residence have been familiar with it since the start of the 2000s.
Ashraf’s father, a Salafist, was detained in 2005 in a wave of arrests. This marked one of the many acts of oppression against North Sinai residents. In the early 2000’s until the 2011 revolution, the government was combating Islamist militancy in Sinai. It relaunched the fight in 2013.
“The term ‘enforced disappearance’ was only known to many Egyptians after 2013, but North Sinai residence have been familiar with it since the start of the 2000s,” Ashraf adds. During that wave of arrests, residents from North Sinai stood trial in courts in Upper Egypt – a far trek for families – as a sort of punishment, according to many activists.
In late 2012, as a result of secret negotiations between the Muslim Brotherhood and military officials, Ashraf’s father and other Islamists were released, says Ashraf. Following his release, Ashraf’s family returned to their land in Rafah and settled there as farmers.
After the military ousting of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, the Egyptian state started a buffer zone in order to isolate and target militants. That led to the displacement of thousands and destruction of hundreds of houses and farms.
Ashraf’s family was stripped of their land that he says they owned since the Israeli occupation in 1967. They were unable to prove this, with no clear documentation due to bureaucracy and corruption, he explains.
“In July 2015, around 2,000 families from Rafah and Sheikh Zuwied were ordered to evacuate their homes till the military operations ended, with promises to return,” he says. Within two weeks, they learned that their houses were demolished and crops destroyed.
Land over compensation
“Despite the hardships throughout the decades, Sinai residents are proud people. The tribal and Bedouin values prevent us from accepting ‘compensation’. We just want our right and the lands we owned,” *Ali Swuilem, another Rafah resident tells The Africa Report.
“Our farms survived the Zionist occupation and Mubarak corruption period but were destroyed in the time of [President Abdel Fattah] Al-Sisi,” says Swuilem.
While Ashraf’s family resided in Suez to work as labourers – the nearest city to North Sinai and with better job opportunities and infrastructure – Swuilem’s family have been facing extreme conditions. “Without land and produce, we lost the privilege that our grandfather fought for,” adds Swuilem.
As the soldiers were waiting for Swuilem to vacate his house, he wrote on the walls “We Will Be Back”, a slogan that is popular among Palestinians forced to leave their houses in the Occupied Territories.
Forced disappearances and random shooting and shelling
Since coming into power in 2014, President Sisi and his government have increased their crackdown on civilians, journalists, civil society workers and activists. This has added to an already tense situation on the ground in North Sinai.
Throughout the years, the military and the police have announced thousands killed in “security operations” in North Sinai and never revealed their identities.
Human rights activists say a lot of these deaths are either fake or indeed people who were kidnapped by the police and later executed.
In October 2016, *Salman, who is a member of Al-Sawarka tribe, saw his brother getting arrested from their own house in the southern side of Al-Arish city. Three months later, he was told by police informants that his brother was found killed during “security operations”.
The blood of Sinai people is so cheap that even we had to accept the fact and bury him and shut up and not complain.
“We were lucky that someone called us, otherwise he would have been buried without us knowing,” Salman tells The Africa Report. “We found the body with signs of torture, and his hands tied, and a bullet to the back of the head and back, as if he was executed.”
“The blood of Sinai people is so cheap that even we had to accept the fact and bury him and shut up and not complain,” he adds. “My grandfathers fought in the war against the British and later against the Israelis. And instead of being honoured, we are treated like criminals and terrorists.”
While the family of Salman were able to locate their son, *Um Sleem, a mother of three, says that her son was arrested at a military checkpoint in 2018 and has not been seen since.
“Eyewitnesses said that he was snitched on by one of the militia members working with the army. He was taken from a minibus while he was on his way back from work in Islamillia,” Um Sleem tells us.
There is no clear information about the number of arrested or killed Sinai civilians due in part to the lack of civil society actors and human rights lawyers in the area. In addition, many of the tribes refuse to cooperate with the police and report disappearances.
Since 2018, Um Sleem has been waiting for a word from the spokesperson for the armed forces or the spokesperson for the interior ministry or even the pro-military newspapers that publish statements or articles saying: ‘Militants killed in exchange of fire with security forces.’
She makes her usual visits to the morgues in Arish, Suez and Islamilla hoping to find her son, and tries to bribe lower-ranking police officers so they’ll inform her if they see him: dead or alive.
“If he is dead, we just want to know, so we can have peace,” the mother says.
Unprotected from backlash
Despite the fact that the military has launched several mega campaigns and announced the death of thousands of militants, the rebels of the Sinai Province of IS continue to operate and inflict casualties on a weekly bases against military and security personnel, and also on civilians who cooperate with the military, state employees, Coptic Christians and pro-military militias.
Although the military stopped reporting deaths in its ranks, on a weekly basis local newspapers publish news about military funerals for soldiers and officers.
To counter the Islamist insurgency, the military has relied heavily on information and intelligence from the local community and has started to collaborate with civilian militias.
There are thousands of people in Sinai who continue to live under a siege in a war-torn environment, and yet no one talks about them.
One of these groups is the Sinai Tribes Federation, which includes an unknown number of armed tribesmen who are in close communication with the military. The launch guerrilla-style raids, conduct arrests and organise ambushes against the Islamist militants.
In early January, the Sinai Province rebel group published a propaganda videoshowing the execution of three civilians, all of whom collaborated with the army. One of them was Mohamed Lafi.
Lafi is part of a big family known for its close ties with the military. A relative of his tells The Africa Report that they “have to support the military in their fightagainst the terrorists, otherwise they [the militants] will pick us off one by one.”
However, the relative says the military does not do a good job in protecting its confidential informants. “The militants are well trained and have contacts everywhere. The military shows up in their Humvees and then disappears for weeks, leaving us on the frontline with the terrorists.”
Executing spies and citizens who collaborate with the army is a common feature in the rhetoric and media content produced by IS since its first days in Iraq in 2004.
Since 2014, several incidents reported by local media point to such executions through the discovery of decapitated bodies. Kidnappings continue to take place, with very few people knowing about them outside this region.
Coping with life
The sounds of explosions and jet fighters, news of dead bodies being discovered and continuous enforced curfews are not normal.
Much of the reporting on North Sinai focus on the militancy and state-backed human rights violations. It ignores the thousands of civilians, the majority of whom are young people, who have to live with this reality every day in the peninsula.
*Shaimaa, a 21-year-old student, says that life in the city of Al-Arish has left her traumatised. “The sounds of explosions and jet fighters, news of dead bodies being discovered and continuous enforced curfews are not normal.”
On more than one occasion the Egyptian military has denied that Sinai residents are subjected to ill treatment and illegal arrests. It has vowed compensation for those affected and mega-projects to redevelop the governorate.
“It is not OK to live like this for 10 years, especially when the whole country is acting like nothing is happening,” she tells The Africa Report.
“When an English-speaking activist in Cairo gets bullied on social media, the EU, the embassies and the whole world talks about them,” says Shaimaa. “There are thousands of people in Sinai who continue to live under a siege in a war-torn environment and yet no one talks about them.”
*Name has been changed for security reasons