During a meeting with “representatives of Egyptian society” held earlier this month, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi claimed that Armed Forces had made progress in stabilizing North Sinai, forcing militants to retreat considerably.
The president acknowledged that the battle is not over. He urged people to stand behind the military and police, reminding the public that security forces were risking their lives so that Sinai could become “purely Egyptian.”
But a visit to the border town of Rafah in March paints a different picture. Mada Masr sat down with 38-year-old Sinai resident Saeed*, who has resided in the Rafah’s Imam Ali neighborhood his entire life. The Egyptian government constructed the neighborhood in the mid-1980s as part of an urbanization plan to solidify Egypt’s claim to Sinai after signing the Camp David Accords in March 1979 and to incorporate people living in the valley into Egypt’s economy.
The neighborhood houses several state institution’s regional headquarters, including the Military Intelligence office, which was attacked on September 11, 2013, when an explosion rocked the city. Seven armed forces members were killed in the blast and more than 18 were injured, including six civilians. Continuous gunfire rang through the air in the two hours following the blast, as Armed Forces members stationed at military checkpoints clashed with militants.
Salwa, Saeed’s sister-in-law, was injured in the crossfire when her hand was struck by a bullet that pierced the front door. She now suffers nerve damage for which she is undergoing medical treatment.
The explosion, which was later claimed by the Sinai-based militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdes, was preceded only days before by the commencement of a large-scale, joint-counterterrorism operation conducted by police and Armed Forces with aerial coverage provided by military helicopters. In a statement, the Defense Ministry called the effort to curtail militant operations the largest military campaign conducted in Sinai since the 1973 October War.
For the following year, militants leveled several attacks targeting security forces stationed in the area, with the most notable incident occurring in Karam al-Qawadees on October 24, 2014. The attack, claimed by Ansar Beit al-Maqdes – the organization had started calling itself the Province of Sinai by this time after vowing allegiance to the Islamic State – left 33 military personnel dead.
After the attack, Egyptian authorities began creating what they have referred to as buffer zones in the Rafah border region shared by Egypt and Gaza. The Armed Forces attempted to a destroy a network of tunnels putatively used to smuggle arms and militants between the two territories by constructing a 500-meter deep trench and establishing a 14 km long buffer area. The military had already evacuated and destroyed houses within 1 kilometer of the border.
After the Armed Forces implemented the first phase of the buffer zone initiative, Saeed’s home directly overlooked the Egyptian-Gaza border. The initiative took on an air of futility as the attacks continued – the tunnels ran 1 kilometer belowground, rendering the deterrent trench ineffective. In a large-scale attack, militants targeted the main military base in Arish, North Sinai’s capital city, in January 2015, leaving 30 soldiers dead and 80 injured.
Security operations only increased in frequency and force along the border, the border where Saeed and his cousins’ homes are located.
“If they would take those that are guilty and leave the innocent, I would report on them all, but they take the good with the bad,” Saeed says. “[Security forces] used to search my house at least two or three times a week and every time I had to flee, fearing that they would detain me or assault me, as happened with my younger brother.”
Saeed and his five brothers live next to each other in houses that are separated by only a few meters.
He says security forces came to his house in July of last year, looking for his younger brother, Suleiman. Security forces entered Saeed’s house by mistake and when he told them that he was Suleiman’s brother, they directed to guide them to his brother’s house and Saeed complied. Once there, the security forces arrested his brother, later subjecting him to torture to elicit a confession that he worked in the tunnels. He was eventually released after security forces could not find any corroborating evidence.
“I had to hand in my own brother to save myself,” Saeed explains.
In the same month, Saeed says that after Armed Forces discovered a tunnel leading to his cousin’s house, they razed five of his cousins’ houses in one day.
“Yes, some of these houses have tunnels but don’t demolish the house, detain and punish the guilty ones. Don’t punish the whole family for the mistake of one member,” Saeed says.
Saeed describes the military as unfamiliar and disrespectful of the area’s traditions. For example, he states, the military has mistaken huts built as extensions to homes, which serve as traditional guesthouses, as terrorist cells. The Armed Forces have disseminated photos depicting burned huts as successfully destroyed insurgent strongholds.
For close to two years, security campaigns and raids continued and with it, the suffering of Saeed and his family, until they decided to leave their houses and move to Rasm village, an area west of Rafah that fallen under the Province of Sinai’s control.
“I came here and felt like a weight was lifted off my heart — at least I know that no one will violate my home in the middle of the night without warning, and that I won’t have to flee. I swear, if [the military] comes here, [the militants] would cut them to pieces,” Saeed says. “The military used to move around more freely and safely. Now, they need a big convoy of tanks and armored vehicles to access the area and, even then, they would sustain severe losses. Most roads are equipped with landmines waiting for military campaigns.”
Rasm is distinguished by its high location, providing a vantage point from which to survey the rest Rafah, making it a strategic position for militants and the Armed Forces.
In February, a military campaign entered the area looking for militants. Militants immediately opened fire on the Armed Forces. One soldier was shot by a militant station in an orange orchard that overlooks one of the main roads.
In response to the shooting, the military set fire to the orchard and destroyed everything that the fire left unconsumed, including agricultural equipment and the small huts wherein the orchard’s workers rested. The orchard originally occupied 50,000 square meters.
Days before, Selmy, Saeed’s 19 year-old cousin, was walking his eight-year-old brother to school for a mid-year exam. The school is located near a major Saturday market in Rafah. Unannounced, the Armed Forces attacked the market, while Selmy and his brother were nearby. Everyone at the market lay on their stomachs to seek cover. However, Selmy was hit by a stray bullet and died immediately.
In mid-November of last year, the military converted the Rasm school into its headquarters for another campaign, brining the security conflict with them. The school became a constant sight for gunfire during the time it was occupied by the military. Only after the military evacuated the building at the close of its campaign did normalcy return to the village. However, unbeknownst to the village’s inhabitants, several remained hiding in the school.
As life went back to normal, Hamdan, Saeed’s 11 year-old son went out with his friends to buy milk for the household as he routinely does. On their way, the kids saw the soldiers peering through the windows of the school. In fear, they screamed and ran away, pointing at them. The soldiers responded by firing their weapons in all directions. Moments later, Province of Sinai militants returned fire. Hamdan and his friends were caught in the engagement and a bullet struck the boy in the stomach.
Hamdan ran back to his house, holding his wound, where he met his father and two younger brothers.
“I was sitting with the kids in the hut. We were looking at each other as the sound of live fire rang to see who will get scared first, a game that I play with them to toughen them up against the sound of bullets which became a routine we have to live with,” Saeed remembers.
When Hamdan reached his house, his father couldn’t take him to the hospital as the gunfire still rang out in the air. He also could not call an ambulance because the phone networks were down. Saeed’s only relief was he could see the bullet had passed through the far right corner of his son’s stomach, missing vital organs.
An Armed Forces battalion arrived to reinforce the soldiers stationed in the school an hour later, engaging the militants once more before leaving. Three civilians who had been performing maintenance work on their farm’s water pipes were injured in the skirmish. Two of the men died immediately, while the third was transported to his house before being transferred to a hospital the next day. However, the hospital was not equipped with the proper medical equipment and the man died, unable to be treated.
Most streets in Rasm are booby-trapped. The Province of Sinai has placed improvised explosive devices throughout the school, warning parents to prevent their children from entering the building that previously served as a learning center. Tarek Ibn Ziyad, another neighboring school located three kilometers away, is also rigged with explosives. There is now nowhere for children to attend classes.
“Other schools are far from here and the roads are blocked and mobility is difficult. We can’t take them and they can’t go alone. Staying home has become the safest thing to do. Although, it remains dangerous,” Saeed says.
In May 2015, Armed Forces spokesperson Mohamed Samir announced the “results” of military operations in Sinai between October 25, 2014, and April 30, 2015. The tally revealed the death of 725 “terrorists,” the arrest of 1,873 suspects and 206 criminals and the destruction of 591 cars, 1,447 motorbikes and 1,823 militant hubs.
In September, four months later, the military spokesperson released statistics of another military operation, dubbed Operation Martyr’s Rights, in which the Armed Forces reportedly killed 526 militants, arrested 617 people and destroyed 10 militant hubs, 9 warehouses and 18 motorbikes in two weeks.
These campaigns come after years of sporadic militant attacks in Sinai before 2011, the number of which increased slightly after the revolution. The frequency and intensity of militant activity and subsequent security campaigns kept rising thereafter, reaching a peak after June 30, 2013, after the military-backed ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi, along with his Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government.
“The coup turned everything against us here. [Sisi] turned on Morsi in Cairo, then two days later he turned against us here. We were on perfect terms with the military — there was respect between us since the revolution and until the coup. When soldiers asked us for something we would go and get it ourselves. We would stop and give them a ride if we saw them on the road. In other words, the military had won us over, why would it turn against us? After the coup, the treatment completely changed, as if all the people in Sinai had become terrorists,” Saeed says.
“There was an unwritten agreement between Bedouin tribes and families before July 3 that regardless of what happens with Morsi, we will be on the military’s side. But the military didn’t understand that our endorsement of Morsi during the presidential elections was out of the proximity between religious rule and our Bedouin customs, and was not politically motivated,” he continues. “After the coup, the agreement changed. The trust between us and the military completely vanished, and will never return.”
Meanwhile, the Province of Sinai started emerging more powerfully, with news of the group setting up road checkpoints and executing people for collaborating with the Armed Forces.
Despite its gruesome violations, increased oppression from security agencies and deterioration of living conditions have given way to increased sympathy with the Province of Sinai militants within families and tribes in North Sinai. These residents used to help the military in the past, reporting locations of landmines and identifying militants to the Armed Forces. Residents now believe that the military has disregarded their good deeds.
The situation has changed now, Saeed says, and the might of the security campaigns has resulted in even more sympathy for the militants.
Some now look at the militants’ acts as revenge for the military’s oppression against them, with some civilians even joining the ranks of Province of Sinai insurgents.
“The inability to move within an area and only use aerial attacks and random shelling is a sign of loss of control on the ground. The Province of Sinai, on the other hand, is setting up checkpoints freely. They are the ones going after smugglers, imposing sanctions on them and confiscating the smuggled goods,” Saeed says.
During this conversation, Saeed received a phone call from a friend telling him the “Province” caught him trying to smuggle cigarette boxes in his car and subjected him to a LE50,000 fine, confiscated his car and burned the goods.
“The Province of Sinai has taken advantage of what the military has ignored, in an arrogant belief that terrorism can be eradicated using weapons alone. The military did not take into consideration that their actions would force people to sympathize with militants,” he says. “There isn’t one family in Rafah that hasn’t lost family members to the military. The militants were able to cleverly contain the people in a short time-frame, in a way that overshadowed the military’s attempts to control the area.”
*Names have been changed. The author of this article has chosen to remain anonymous for security reasons.