After a terrorist attack killed at least 33 soldiers in North Sinai on Friday, Egypt’s battle with terrorism took center stage on security, media and foreign policy fronts.
On the security end, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued a state of emergency and curfew decree in Sinai for three months, as military operations have been stepped up in the peninsula. Residents close to the Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed areas have reported sounds of explosions on Sunday and Monday.
Local media have also reported the establishment of a 14-kilometer buffer zone along the Rafah border area in the aftermath of the attack, in an attempt circumvent the traffic of arms and infiltrators through tunnels. The buffer zone will lead to the displacement of residents of the area.
A 25-year-old Sinai-based journalist from Sheikh Zuwayid says that he has witnessed the long-term evacuation of the area, which has consistently been denied services. The buffer zone move was part of this plan, he tells Mada Masr, anonymously, for fear of retribution.
On Monday, Sisi also issued a new law expanding the Armed Forces’ role in maintaining security by referring certain cases to military courts, such as those pertaining to attacks on vital facilities, including electrical towers, gas pipelines and railroads. A campaign against military trials was born following the 2011 revolution and became a core revolutionary activity in the protest movement.
Mohamed Zarea, a program head of the Cairo Center for Human Rights Studies, thinks that measures taken by the government since the Friday’s attacks don’t necessarily contribute to combatting terrorism. “What happened in Sinai is a product of security failure. The responses to it are sheer excuses for more oppressive measures,” he says.
Zarea gives the example of the expansion of the military tribunals’ jurisdiction decree and says that, according to the Constitution, attacks on military establishments or personnel are prosecuted in military courts. “The attackers in Sinai can easily by tried in military courts if they are arrested since they killed soldiers. Why then expand the law to include other establishments? How does it serve counter-terrorism?” he asks.
He alludes to the three-year sentence handed on Sunday to 23 defendants accused of protesting illegally and the imprisonment of 20 others on Tuesday, including prominent activist Alaa Abd El Fattah, also on protest-related charges, as facets of a crackdown justified by the threat of terrorism.
Meanwhile, news of foreign powers expressing support and solidarity with Egypt’s fight against terrorism have featured prominently in the local media this week.
US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel learned details about the attack from his counterpart, Sedky Sobhy, in a telephone conversation on Monday, the privately owned Al-Masry Al-Youm reported. Hegel condemned the attack, the newspaper claimed, and the Pentagon issued a statement sending condolences to Egypt.
Egypt has been calling for US support in its counter-terrorism efforts, in the wake of the latter’s suspension of support between October 2013 and April 2014, in response to Egypt’s crackdown on dissent.
In his June visit to Egypt, US Secretary of State John Kerry met with Sisi where they discussed preventative measures to terrorism. It is believed that the penal code amendment increasing penalties on receiving foreign funds is a product of deliberations between the two leaders.
US-based analysts believe that security and counter-terrorism is a priority in US-Egypt relations, particularly Sinai’s security, despite some showcased concern on the crackdown on political dissidence.
Foreign Minister Sameh Shoury also met with UK Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday in London where they discussed the important of joint efforts to combat terrorism as an international crisis.
“International players have no long term approaches to the region. They just look under the knees, see crisis and respond to them immediately,” Zarea says. “For them, the main concern is to end the chaos in Syria and Iraq, and for that to happen, Egypt needs to stay stable. What they don’t realize is that we can become Syria and Iraq on the way.”
On the media front, several media institutions took it upon themselves to defend the military and the regime’s fight against terrorism.
The Egyptian Radio and Television Union issued a statement following a meeting held on Saturday where they pledged the media’s commitment to fight terrorism and to stand behind the Armed Forces in this battle. The statement represented the voice of major privately owned television channels including CBC, Al-Nahar, Al-Hayat, ONtv, Al-Qahera Wal Nas, Dream TV, Sada al-Balad, Al-Tahrir and Al-Mehwar.
Similarly, newspapers editors convened on Sunday to issue a statement of support for “all measures taken by the state in combatting terrorists and protecting national security.” The meeting included editors of the state-run Al-Ahram, as well as the privately owned Al-Watan, Al-Shorouk and Al-Masry Al-Youm.
Just as these statements were issued, several incidents of censorship came to light, including the removal of TV host Mahmoud Saad from his live show on Al-Nahar channel, and his replacement with Khaled Salah, editor of Youm7 newspaper and strong military supporter.
In his new post, Salah interviewed Aly al-Sayed, chief editor of Al-Masry Al-Youm, who reiterated his newspaper’s support of the state. “It is not shameful to lose part of our freedom at this time for Egypt to succeed,” Aly told Salah. “Egypt is at a time of war and any country uses any tool of intervention at times of war,” he added.
For Zarea, this is no strategy to fight terrorism. “The strategy to combat terrorism is rather a strategy to fight liberties.”
Ultimately, Zarea believes that all measures believed to be taken by the state and its supportive media to combat terrorism may not be sustainable. “Closing up the public sphere is detrimental to civil society, but won’t necessarily curb militant groups which thrive in underground work.”