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Sinai: Between security solutions and media rhetoric

Egyptian television personalities have been suggesting solutions to the Sinai security problem since Friday, when at least 33 members of the Armed Forces were killed and over 27 others injured in armed attacks on the Karm al-Qawadees checkpoint.

Strategists took to several satellite television channels within a few hours of the fatal attacks, debating the issue in often exasperated tones.

Pundits appeared to agree on several actions, such as evacuating residents from certain parts of North Sinai, immediately declaring a state of emergency, trying those accused of terrorism charges in military tribunals, and implementing strict security measures across the country to confront what they describe as a “plot to sow chaos.”

But when it comes to how to avenge the fallen soldiers, the television hosts themselves have often gone to far more brutal extremes than their — often retired — military guests.

“I don’t want a single dog to protest on university campuses, or any other place. May those who speak of human rights be burned! Stop patting them on their backs, we request military trials for terrorist leaders. I don’t want just trials, I want to see blood and corpses in retribution against these terrorists,” said Ahmed Moussa, the host of the “At My Responsibility” television program.

Retired military general Sameh Seif al-Yazal was that night’s guest on Moussa’s show, which airs on the Sada al-Balad channel owned by businessman Mohamed Abul Enein.

Mostafa al-Bakry, host of the television show “Truths and Secrets” that broadcasts on the same channel, struck a similar tone. Bakry spoke of those who instigate terrorist attacks in the mainstream media or on social networking sites, adding that such “instigators deserve damnation, while we have the right to combat them.”

He called for a return to the heavy-handed policies of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, and the state-sponsored political crackdowns of 1954.

“Democracy and nonsense, this does not work for us here,” Bakry warned. “I wonder about those malevolent people, those liars and hypocrites who keep talking of revolution and human rights. Are they not ashamed of themselves?”

Television hosts, military analysts and strategists alike suggested security measures that are nearly identical to those that would later be decreed by the National Security Council (NSC).

The NSC declared a three-month long state of emergency in North Sinai, accompanied by daily curfews from 5 pm to 7 am. The border with the Gaza Strip has also been closed indefinitely.

Security analysts and specialists largely focused on the importance of evacuating residents from their homes and lands in North Sinai, so as to grant security forces the ability to confront armed militants operating there.

Yazal confidently spoke of the military’s ability to “wipe out terrorists from the region by evacuating citizens from their homes.” His proposal was supported by retired military generals Mahmoud Attiya and Talaat Mosalam in their phone calls to the privately owned ONtv Live channel.

Brigadier General Magdy Bassiouny, former deputy to the interior minister, insisted that authorities must not wait for consultations, dialogue or an understanding with local residents of North Sinai before evacuation.

“There is no need for understanding when it comes to the country’s national interests,” he asserted. “After all, this is for their interests and security.”

Going even further, General Mohamed Mokhtar Qandil claimed the aim of evacuating North Sinai’s residents was not merely to protect local residents from attacks, but to prevent civilians from harboring armed combatants.

“People in Sinai are collaborators with terrorists, and they do not cooperate with the military,” he insisted. “These so-called innocent residents are the ones harboring and protecting terrorists.”

Qandil went on to blame the Armed Forces for not using airstrikes in their fight against terrorists.

When asked about the likelihood of civilian casualties in the event of airstrikes, he responded, “Victims are victims. What are we to do when our people are dying?”

“How are we going to have people leave their homes and farms?” Qandil continued in regards to the process of evacuating civilians from their North Sinai homes. “If the residents fear for their well-being, then they will leave. When everyone knows they will be hit by airstrikes, that their homes and farms will be demolished, then they will leave.”

In the same vein, television hosts Moussa and Bakry, along with retired generals Yazal and Attiya, were all in agreement to refer Sinai’s suspected terrorists to military trials. They pointed to Article 204 of the recently passed Constitution, which grants the military’s judicial system jurisdiction over civilians accused of assaulting or harming Armed Forces personnel or infrastructure.

However, some commentators whose voices aren’t heard on satellite programs have pointed to the long-term consequences of such approaches.

Ismail al-Iskandarany, a political sociologist and specialist in Islamist movements, warns that “any attempts to displace residents under such politically charged conditions will create a generation that opposes the state and its policies.

“Scenes and images of the mass displacement of residents will stick with these people, just as the scenes of displacement stuck in the collective memory of the Palestinians after they were forced from their lands and homes during the 1948 War. Parallels would be drawn between the policies of the Egyptian military and those of the Israeli occupation forces, as happened with the displacement of Nubians [in Upper Egypt] from their homes and lands,” he suggests.

Adding that “displacement would be an injustice that would not be reversed,” Iskandarany continues, “You cannot compare the current situation with the displacement of residents from the Suez Canal cities during the 1967 War, when Israel was bombing their homes. An evacuation of the local populace was required in order to protect them.

“However, the current situation in Sinai is very different. We are talking about the evacuation of an entire region in order to expand military operations against [the armed militant group] Ansar Beit al-Maqdes. This is a totally different situation.”

Iskandarany explains that “terrorists would be the primary beneficiaries from such an act of mass displacement. Such evacuated areas would become their breeding grounds following the evacuation of residents.”

There are already areas in North Sinai near the border with Gaza and Israel that have been already been evacuated and are currently acting as breeding grounds for terrorist elements, he points out.

Critics like Iskandarany have come out in favor of alternative proposals, including increased cooperation with local residents so as to regain their confidence.

Such strategies had been put forth by locals since 2012, when they sought to maintain civilian-manned neighborhood watch groups in order to confront terrorism with patrols to safeguard their villages, Iskandarany says.

These locals had called on the state’s security apparatuses to provide them with assistance and coordination of their efforts. They specifically asked that their patrol vehicles be marked with distinguishable colors so that security forces would not accidentally target them. Furthermore, residents and their popular committees called on security forces refrain from their arbitrary searches and raids.

However, though some security officials looked favorably on this cooperative initiative, it was by and large rejected by local security chiefs.

Iskandarany believes that such initiatives represent missed opportunities for security coordination in North Sinai, which could have benefited the army in its struggle against terrorism.

Instead, recent army operations in the region have caused otherwise avoidable collateral damage, he argues.

He points to two separate incident in August when Armed Forces fired mortar rounds against militants stationed in residential quarters. Two mortars were reported to have missed their intended targets and instead down on civilians’ homes, killing six people and injuring seven others — mostly women and children.

Ahmed Abu Deraa, a reporter for the privately owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm (AMAY), says that “all the eye-witnesses and locals said that these shells were fired by the army by mistake, but the army didn’t admit to having carried out any of these strikes.”

In fact, a number of army operations have missed their targets, Abu Deraa claims.

In another preventable case of collateral damage and mistaken identity, military troops opened fire on a car at a checkpoint near Sheikh Zuwayed which resulted in the death of a woman and the wrongful arrest of the driver.

Iskadarany claims that military spokespeople initially sought to blame the victims, then retracted their statement, finally remaining silent about the whole incident.

He questions how prepared the Armed Forces really are to successfully confront armed terrorist elements in Sinai.

“We can see a pattern of mistakes that leads to ongoing fatalities amongst the army and police forces, such as the means of transporting conscripts and leaving them to travel unguarded throughout Sinai during the holidays,” Iskadarany says.

He points to the similarities between two armed attacks on conscripts based in Sinai. In August 2012, some 25 conscripts were killed while on a bus transporting them to their hometowns for vacation. In June 2014, four conscripts were killed in a similar mode of operation.

Furthermore, Iskadarany points out that the army’s checkpoint at Karm al-Qawadees is a fixed position that resembles a military encampment, with soldiers’ tents pitched out in the open.

“We need new strategies and tactics that are capable of confronting armed terror groups,” he argues, “tactics that evolve and develop along with those of armed elements.” 

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