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The perils of taking a bus to work in Sinai
Two accounts of getting to work in North Sinai reveal the unpredictability of daily life amid conflict between militant groups and security forces
 
 
 
A warning sign in Arish's Salam district
 

In the early hours of August 9, several Nasr Salines Company employees boarded buses across various locations in Arish, North Sinai, heading to the company headquarters in the west of the city.

The buses passed six security checkpoints before leaving the confines of the city, when something unexpected happened.

“After crossing Midan checkpoint, near the Hosseini area, we were shocked to find a group of militants had set up their own checkpoint on the International Road,” a company employee recounts, speaking to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity. “They stopped our bus. One of them came aboard and asked to see everyone’s ID cards. He was holding a list of individuals wanted by the militant group.”  

The same day, a woman traveling on a different bus from Arish to Ismailia passed through the same checkpoint, manned by Province of Sinai militants.

Both passengers recount being intercepted by eight long-haired militants, dressed in military-style camouflage outfits, with an SUV and motorcycles. But their stories played out differently, highlighting the unpredictable nature of such attacks in North Sinai.

Fate was on the side of the travelers in the second bus, the woman says, speaking to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity. She later learned that many of her fellow passengers were police officers, who would have been valuable prey for the militants had their identities been revealed. After they were permitted to pass through the checkpoint, one of the officers called his colleagues to warn them about Midan checkpoint, saying, “There is a militant ambush nearby.”  

Passengers aboard the Nasr Salines Company bus were not so lucky. When it was intercepted, the militants asked one man, Hossam, to get off the bus. They started beating him viciously, according to the employee. “We tried to intervene, and asked why they were attacking him,” he recounts. “They told us he worked for the military. They bundled him into their SUV and allowed us to continue on our journey.”

Shortly after arriving at the company headquarters, employees disembarked from the bus to find that the same militants had broken into the premises.

According to another worker, also speaking to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, two militants remained on watch outside, while the remaining six militants demanded to be shown to the office of the company’s manager, who is a retired Armed Forces officer. He was not on site, as he had traveled to Cairo one day earlier.

“The militants surrounded the guards that watch the headquarters overnight, most of whom are bedouins. They also demanded their ID cards, and compared them against their list of names,” the second employee recounts. Two of the guards were kidnapped and forced into the SUV along with Hossam.

Gunfire was heard at one point outside the headquarters and one of the militants shouted, “Get down! Get down!” in a distinct Sinai accent, the worker says. “We went outside and saw four bodies lying in the road. Moments later, the militants vanished down the road with the three people they had kidnapped.”

The men that were shot dead were a lieutenant and three commissioned officers from Bir al-Abd police station. The officers were traveling to Arish Security Directorate to process personal documents, when they met the lieutenant by chance and he offered them a lift in his car.

On August 10, Reuters reported that the Islamic State’s Egypt affiliate, Province of Sinai, had claimed responsibility for an attack on a police car in Arish that killed four police personnel.

The militants released one of the three after several days. The other two were found on the evening of August 23, when a car dumped a large sack in Attalawy Square in Arish and immediately sped away. Two heads, belonging to Hossam Mahmoud al-Naggar, the Nasr Salines Company employee, and a young man from the Jairat tribe, were found inside.

Attalawy Square has become the site of frequent executions by Province of Sinai militants. Dozens of civilians have been killed there, accused of cooperating with Egypt’s security forces and the military.

On August 25, immediately after Friday prayers, Province of Sinai militants stopped passersby in the Husseini area again and asked for their ID cards. They kidnapped three people from the same tribe and transported them to the south of the city.

As is often the case after such incidents, security forces launched a campaign to find the suspects, which disproportionately affected civilians in North Sinai. Following the attack on the Nasr Salines Company in early August, employees refused to return to work, one staff member says, saying they expected security forces to raid the headquarters and arrest a large number of workers as suspects.

This was the case just a month previously, when two militants stole an SUV from the company. When the vehicle became stuck in a sand dune they abandoned it. An armored vehicle arrived moments later. The next morning, security forces arrested six staff members, according to the employee, later releasing four of them. Two remain in detention on suspicion of involvement.

Translated by Aida Seif al-Dawla

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Mourad Higazy