Egypt’s Sinai: Caught in the middle

Clashes between Egyptian military and armed groups have taken a toll on parts of the Sinai peninsula.

Security in Egypt's Sinai peninsula has deteriorated since Mohamed Morsi was overthrown last July [AFP]

For months, Egypt’s border city of Rafah has been the target of an intense military campaign carried out in response to a spike in attacks by armed groups. Now, a new video making the rounds on social media allegedly shows how Egypt’s Rafah increasingly resembles the Palestinian city of the same name across the border in Gaza, scarred by rubble and collapsed homes.

The video showing homes in Rafah flattened into piles of debris, could not be verified by Al Jazeera. However, the scenes depicted in the footage largely matched testimonies given by several residents of northern Sinai, who say conditions there are deteriorating.

As Egypt grapples with its worst violence in decades, civilians in northern Sinai have found themselves caught in the crossfire between the army and radical fighters, who have killed about 300 members of the Egyptian security forces since July and carried out a series of bomb attacks and assassinationsMany speak of a raging war in which ordinary residents are bearing the biggest brunt of the damage.

The historically neglected Sinai peninsula fell into lawlessness following Egypt’s 2011 revolt and the security vacuum that accompanied it. The situation in Sinai grew still more chaotic after Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was deposed. Many Sinai-based armed groups directed their operations towards Israel before Morsi’s ousting. Today, much of that anger is directed towards Egyptian security forces instead, and many residents believe they are caught in the middle of a shadow war.

Military operations in Sinai region began in July 2013, after Morsi’s ousting. The army has vowed to eradicate drug dealers, human traffickers and a web of border-crossing tunnels, which the government claims are used to smuggle weapons from Hamas-led Gaza. Local media and army statements regularly report the arrests of armed fighters, and announcements made by mostly Sinai-based armed groups, such as Beit al-Maqdis, claim responsibility for attacks. Very little attention, however, has been paid to the plight of Sinai’s civilians.

Arbitrary measures 

“Tens of innocent civilians have been killed since the operation started,” said Ismail Alexandrani, a Sinai expert and researcher at the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights. Among those killed over the past six months were a four-year-old child and a 65-year-old woman, who were wrongly shot to death by army bullets in separate incidents.

Hundreds of stores have closed down since mid-August in Sheikh Zuweid Square after a suicide attack took place in front of the police station located there.

by - Sinai activist Mostafa Singer

During the first week of March, activists reported the deaths of at least four civilians, including a child. In one of these incidents, a man named Ahmed Eid attempted to take his daughter, who was stung by a scorpion, to the hospital. But they were prevented from passing through a checkpoint on their way there, and were both shot dead when Eid’s attempts to reason with the soldiers failed, and he ignored warning shots.

Alexandrani explained that the exact number of deaths is difficult to ascertain due to technical difficulties, adding that arbitrary disappearances, abductions and torture are also taking place. Numerous calls by Al Jazeera to reach the army’s spokesperson and the North Sinai Police headquarters over the past few weeks to verify these claims were unanswered. Colonel Ahmed Ali told the IRIN news service in December that military forces “take great care of civilian lives” and that the army “wishes to hinder civilian lives as little as possible”. 

But many in the peninsula disagree. Those living in the area between al-Arish, Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid claim that their lives have become a shambles since the military-led counterinsurgency campaign intensified.

Violators of a curfew running from 4pm to 6am – imposed six months ago in certain districts – are shot at by snipers, said an activist who asked not to be named, fearing reprisals. According to many, attempting to carry out urgent errands like trips to the hospital can be fatal.

Cut off from the world

The curfew and the blocking of main squares has disrupted the economy. “Hundreds of stores have closed down since mid-August in Sheikh Zuweid Square after a suicide attack took place in front of the police station located there. The same goes for al-Mosora Square in Rafah and the Maleh Square,” Sinai activist Mostafa Singer told Al Jazeera.

Cuts in communication networks from 5am to 6pm every day for the past five months, have also hurt many small entrepreneurs and isolated the region. According to activists, merchants are unable to carry out essential transactions, employees are paid late due to paralysed money transfer systems, and some people have lost touch with the world beyond the peninsula. 

Many olive farms, on which some families rely for income, were torched by the army for fear that outlaws use them as hiding spots. Images circulating on social media show children who no longer go to school, because their parents fear for their safety, playing with weapons left behind from battles. 

About three months into the operations, Egyptian Defence Minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi apologised to residents of Sinai for army operations that “may be inconveniencing them” and promised to “compensate them for [damaged] land or buildings that collapsed”. Tanks and Apache helicopters have been used in military operations, pounding smuggling tunnels and homes that allegedly harbour fighters. Families speak of children psychologically hurt by the sounds of raids, bullets and missiles. Others weep over the loss of loved ones, their homes and property.

Ansar Beit al Maqdis targets Egypt’s security

Singer said half of Allviat village, in southern Sheikh Zuweid, has been totally destroyed by repeated military raids. Up to 80 percent of residents have reportedly abandoned the area. Admitting that Egypt is targeted by “terrorism”, Singer blamed what he described as the decades-long abandonment of the peninsula by the Egyptian government.

After Israeli troops withdrew from Sinai in 1982, following 15 years of occupation, the peninsula was subjected to three decades of marginalisation by the government of ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The peninsula’s population of around 338,000, most of whom are Bedouin, complain of being treated like second-class citizens.

The area was barely developed by the state, except for its south, which was transformed by Mubarak’s businessmen into upscale tourist resorts. Northern Sinai offered few job opportunities other than a handful of cement factories.

The 2011 revolt made many hopeful for change, especially when the government announced plans to transform the peninsula into an international economic hub, exploiting its strategic location between the Mediterranean and Red seas. But a planned Suez Canal Corridor project, which would have included multi-billion-dollar investments in northern Sinai, was stymied by political unrest, and hope died out as the security situation deteriorated.

Polarising effect

The military operations have had a polarising effect on those living in Sinai. One resident supportive of the operations, who asked to be referred to by his initials, “SA”, said they are “essential to put an end to lawlessness which we have gotten sick of and has disrupted our lives. Let them do whatever it takes”.

“MA”, another backer of the military operations, said: “Aren’t there innocent soldiers and police officers dying as well? So what if innocent civilians suffer for the sake of Egypt being terrorist-free?”

But others disagree. “The state is widening the circle of violence, not containing it, through the arrest and killing of many innocent people as well as destroying their homes,” argued one Sinai resident who asked to remain unnamed.

Echoing this opinion, another Sinai native said that “measures taken by the state, involving inhumane treatment of residents, erase any trust between the people and security authorities”. He explained that his dying mother was unable to fulfil her final wish to see her son, who was unable to come because the roads were blocked.

Source: Al Jazeera