An unprecedented meeting took place in Arish on Saturday involving many of the city’s families and youth who threatened civil disobedience following the issuance of a statement by the Interior Ministry on Friday, announcing the killing of 10 young men from the area. The ministry accused them of carrying out terrorist attacks in the city.
On Sunday evening a large funeral was held for 20-year-old Bilal al-Naggar, whose body was the first to be returned to his family. The remaining bodies are yet to be released from the Ismailia General Hospital.
Six of the young men’s names were announced in the statement. While the ministry claims they were terrorists killed in an armed exchange with security forces, citizens of Arish contend that they were innocent, and had been arrested arbitrarily and in were custody for months.
According to the ministry’s statement, security forces stormed a militant hiding spot in Arish, killing 10 individuals involved in last week’s attack on a security checkpoint in the area which killed seven police personnel and one civilian. The six identified in Friday’s announcement are between 18 and 27 years old, and the ministry claims the other four have yet to be identified.
The meeting on Saturday was marked with a confrontational rhetoric which is uncharacteristic of Arish families. They have generally been occupied with tribal interests and steered away from collective action, even as the situation in the city has deteriorated in the past three years since the increase in militant activity and the launch of a punitive military operation in 2013.
The gathering was attended by hundreds, and concluded with the drafting of a list of decisions posted on the social media accounts of several attendees. The citizens wrote that they refuse to meet with the interior minister, labelling him “an adversary of the city,” and demand the release of detainees who haven’t received a judicial verdict “as we can’t trust anyone with their lives.” They also demand the resignation of North Sinai’s representatives in Parliament, threatening civil disobedience if the authorities don’t comply.
One of the young participants in the meeting, who spoke to Mada Masr on the condition of anonymity, said that the family leaders who usually coordinate with security to contain crises didn’t expect the results of the meeting. The attendee stated that the heads of the families had already arranged to meet with officials, including the interior minister, on Sunday, and speculates that they called for the local meeting in order to increase their leverage by demonstrating the extent of people’s anger.
However, contradicting local traditions, the young people attending the meeting confronted the elders. They rejected the planned meeting with the minister and imposed a more extensive list of demands than the leaders were aiming for.
Footage of the meeting circulated online shows a packed hall and strongly worded speeches, including a speech by local political leader Ashraf Helmy, who demanded the city be completely vacated of the Interior Ministry’s forces, which he accused of carrying out extrajudicial killings.
The participant said, “the circle keeps getting smaller. People used to hear about violence in Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed and in remote areas, now they feel that the danger can reach anyone.”
Several other citizens of Arish told Mada Masr that the killing of the young men was the straw that the camel’s back for many who preferred to stay silent throughout the difficulties of the past years.
Living conditions have deteriorated significantly in the urban center of North Sinai where a curfew has been imposed for over two years, and which has seen an increase in militant activities since forced evacuations began in parts of Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed in 2014, causing an influx of migration into the city.
The increased militant activity was paired with an increase in oppressive security measures, including the establishment of checkpoints, house raids and random arrests. The effect of Egypt’s ongoing economic crisis is also amplified in the region, where limitations on the passage of vehicles and products has caused shortages and exaggerated prices.
Another young man from Arish told Mada Masr that the Interior Ministry’s statement hit the city particularly hard, despite the prevalence of news about random killings and arrests, because the young men mentioned were personally known by a lot of people. He said this eliminated their ability to deny injustice or accept the authorities’ narrative.
“People have accepted that the state considers them traitors, but now they see the authorities killing them and making their children go hungry,” said Ashraf Ayoub, a local leader from the family that hosted Saturday’s meeting.
Member of Parliament Hossam al-Refaie agreed: “The incident has made people terrified for their children who are detained, especially with the recent increase in detentions.” He added that he would comply with the people’s demands for his resignation should his current efforts with authorities not prove fruitful.
Local initiatives also emerged in the wake of the killings, with the aim of documenting all cases of forced disappearance in order to ensure the safety of those currently detained by the state.