The last time Mohannad Sabry, an Egyptian journalist who has reported extensively from the Sinai Peninsula, reported from North Sinai in June 2015, he received a phone call from a source telling him that every military checkpoint east of el-Arish was stopping vehicles, with instructions to arrest him.
“Does that make me, as a journalist, a terrorist in their eyes? Or as dangerous as a terrorist?” Sabry wondered. He left the area and has not returned.
These checkpoints are part of Egypt’s security apparatus as the military battles an insurgency in the region. North Sinai is the main theatre of Egypt’s ongoing “war on terror” against Wilayat Sinai, considered the most potent branch of the Islamic State group outside of Syria, Iraq, or Libya.
In his recently published book, Sabry suggests that the Egyptian military is more concerned with preventing information from coming out of Sinai than it is with tackling terrorism in the sparsely populated but strategic peninsula.
Under Hosni Mubarak‘s 30-year rule, Sinai was subject to strict limitations on access and reporting.
Following the toppling of Mubarak in 2011, Sabry was able to travel into the peninsula regularly, returning with insights into tunnels and smuggling networks, economic deprivation and neglect, growing Islamist militancy, and Egypt’s nascent “war on terror”.
Now, under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Egyptian authorities have attempted to re-impose a total blackout on independent reporting from Sinai.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) conducted a census among journalists in Egypt following the introduction of an anti-terror law in August 2015 that criminalises reporting on terrorism that deviates from official government statements.
“They told us that ‘journalism is over in Sinai’,” said Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa coordinator. “They [said] ‘the only reporting we can do is to follow the army’s story. Anything else is a prison wish.'”
Ismail Alexandrani, a journalist and researcher focusing on Sinai, was arrested in November 2015 and faces charges of publishing false news and belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is now a banned group in Egypt. Saeed Abuhaj, of the Sinai Media Centre, has been held in prison without trial since November 2013, according to the CPJ.
Many Sinai-based journalists, activists, and residents are also afraid to speak, caught between threats from both the military and the armed fighters in the region.
‘the only reporting we can do is to follow the army’s story. Anything else is a prison wish’.”]
For press freedom groups, the Egyptian state’s position on Sinai is just the most extreme iteration of a nationwide crackdown on freedom of expression.
“There is one simple and clear reason for the blackout in Sinai, which continues to become increasingly hostile and hermetic. It’s because the current Egyptian regime does not want the crimes it committed in Sinai to be exposed,” said Sabry.
Sabry has documented serious human rights violations by Egypt’s military in Sinai in his book, including the indiscriminate shelling of civilians, the destruction of houses and land, arbitrary arrests, and widespread – and increasingly brutal – torture. Entire settlements have been erased – including the Egyptian side of the city of Rafah.
The military has imposed frequent curfews, road closures, and lengthy communication blackouts across North Sinai. “One of the reasons [the military] don’t have any kind of proper intelligence coming from the community is that they are stifling that community,” claimed Sabry.
The Egyptian authorities are keen to control the narrative in its “war on terror”, said Zack Gold, a non-resident fellow at the Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East. “The military is really concerned about morale … They want to give the Egyptian people and troops statements of hope and reassurance.”
The “war on terror” also has implications for neighbouring Gaza and Israel, and beyond. After Israel, Egypt is the biggest recipient of US military aid, and US law prohibits military aid to security forces that commit gross human rights violations. “And yet,” Mansour said, “the Egyptian government’s narrative is the only one being told about how this military equipment is being used”.
The blackout on reporting can obscure failings as the battle against Wilayat Sinai drags on, despite repeated military offensives.
There are indications that the military may be adapting its tactics to some extent. The recent Operation Martyr’s Rights employed elite troops with some success in a more sustained counter-insurgency campaign.
The reporting blackout may also benefit Wilayat Sinai, as their violence against local communities often goes unreported.
The lack of independent reporting makes it difficult to gauge the level of support for Wilayat Sinai among the local population, and to what extent the state’s tactics are alienating a generation of Sinai civilians. It could also reinforce misconceptions and prejudices among the wider Egyptian population.
For decades, the Egyptian government and much of the media labelled Sinai’s mostly Bedouin population as smugglers, traffickers, drug dealers, traitors or terrorists.
The current government has said that it recognises the need to work with the local population and provide a development programme for the region. Grievances from economic neglect and police brutality – which have been ignored by successive Egyptian governments – have been a factor in fuelling crime and militancy, according to Gold.
“There’s no broad constituency for giving more developmental aid and assistance to North Sinai, because the connection isn’t made between meeting these grievances and lessening militant recruitment,” Gold said.
The Egyptian authorities have stated that they have plans to develop Sinai, although critics say there has been little in the way of meaningful action. Meanwhile, the government continues to insist that they are close to “eradicating” the armed fighters.
Justice Minister Ahmed Al-Zind defended the anti-terror law in comments to AFP news agency. Egyptian authorities did not respond to requests for comment on this article.
Before the press blackout went into effect, Sabry spent months on the ground in Sinai engaging in small talk with residents before they trusted him enough to open up on sensitive issues.
Now, this type of reporting is no longer possible, and the voices of ordinary Sinai residents are mostly going unheard.
Sabry left Egypt just before his book was published to promote his work in a series of book tours and lectures, but he now fears arrest if he returns to Egypt.
“Nothing in the Sinai will change,” predicted Sabry, “not the military’s position, nor the political or security turmoil, without exposing the whole story and the ugliness of that story and taking it apart piece by piece”.