In mid-June, the Operation Sinai 2018 logo and the #Sinai2018 hashtag that had been displayed on the top left corner of Egyptian satellite television channel screens since the military campaign’s February launch disappeared, and were quietly replaced with a #StandWithEgypt_ExploreAndInvest hashtag.
Then, on Thursday July 26, a group of journalists and correspondents from several Egyptian and international publications arrived in Arish, accompanied by Armed Forces Spokesperson Colonel Tamer al-Rifai. The group attended a conference at the governorate headquarters during which Governor Major General Abdel Fattah Harhour showcased the development projects that have recently started in North Sinai.
Following the conference, the group toured 23 of July Street in the center of the city and spoke with residents. Later, they traveled to the city of Bir al-Abd, approximately 80 km to the west of Arish, where they toured its seaside center.
The logo’s disappearance from television screens and the journalists’ visit signal a fundamental shift in how the media is being mobilized to cover the military campaign, focusing less on the operation and increasingly on affirmations of stability. This change of course is mirrored by on-the-ground reports from North Sinai that the stringent security measures that have taken a toll on the governorate’s residents in recent months are also being loosened. Together, these developments suggest that Operation Sinai 2018, a campaign which was billed to eradicate militancy on the peninsula, has ended or is drawing to a close.
Days before the operation started, local sources told Mada Masr that military reinforcements in Humvees, armored vehicles and personnel carriers were deployed to the brigade stationed at Hassana, the central Sinai city closest to Arish. At the time, a security source also told the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that “security and military equipment [were recorded] arriving in Arish, Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafah sites at a higher rate.”
Many of these vehicles and armaments, however, started to vacate Arish in early July, according to eyewitnesses who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity. Another local source corroborates their reports, adding that dozens of military vehicles were seen leaving North Sinai via the Ismailia-Awga Road in the direction of the Ahmed Hamdy Tunnel, which connects the peninsula with the mainland.
Meanwhile, a security source tells Mada Masr that the Interior Ministry recently started granting officers 15-day leave again, a privilege that was suspended when the police and their reserve forces in North Sinai were put on full alert with the launch of Operation Sinai 2018.
The emergency measures that the Health Ministry implemented in concert with the curtailing of police personnel’s leave, affecting hospitals in other Suez Canal governorates as well as those in North Sinai, were also lifted two weeks ago, according to a medical source.
At the start of the campaign, the ministry assigned a number of general and orthopedic surgeons to posts at hospitals in Suez Canal-adjacent cities, informing them that they would be held accountable before the military ruler if they failed to comply with the compulsory service order.
But with the recent ministry directive, doctors who had been assigned to work in hospitals along the Suez Canal, especially in Ismailia, were told that they were no longer on standby, and that they are free to move back to their hometowns, with the exception that they may be recalled.
Travel out of North Sinai was banned by the security bodies in early February, effectively sealing off each city. In early March, almost a month after the commencement of the operation, travel was allowed in and out of the governorate, but residents had to secure documentation ahead of time. Anyone who wishes to travel out of North Sinai is still required to provide a copy of their national ID card at the governorate headquarters, after which a security check is run on the applicant. A list of those who are approved for travel is then published on the governorate’s official Facebook page, and busses are commissioned to transport them.
The only exceptions are on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, which the security apparatus designated as days for free travel in early July. Since then, citizens have been permitted to travel by bus or car without prior registration.
The relief residents felt with the announcement of this news was short lived, however, as drivers soon hiked prices to as much as LE100 or LE150 for a trip out of the governorate, to the western bank of the Suez Canal. Bus drivers, on the other hand, say that they had no choice but to raise the fares, as fuel stations were closed, and they could only get their fuel supply from the black market at several times the regular price.
With the crackdown on transport in and out of cities at the start of the operation, fruit and vegetables soon came to be in short supply, and fishers were banned from sailing out to sea, further compounding food scarcity in the governorate. Fuel stations were closed, private car owners’ gas supplies were cut, entire neighborhoods were enclosed and entry in and out of them was barred for weeks. For weeks, the governorate was isolated from the outside world, as telecommunications networks and internet services were disconnected for throughout the day and for most of the night.
Every day, as the sun set over Arish, the most populated part of the governorate, signs of life would noticeably disappear: People deserted the streets due to the curfew and shops closed down.
The three-day presidential election that was held in March brought about a marked change in this situation.
On the first election day, the security authorities allowed vegetables and other food supplies into the city. The markets were stocked and the food shortage alleviated. There were no more long lines by the Armed Forces National Service Projects Organization’s vending vans, which had been the only source for all food items in the governorate. The situation remained largely the same up until the time of publishing.
Commercial goods also made a reappearance in mid-May, when a process was established to allow vendors to bring goods into the governorate, by liaising with the Arish Chamber of Commerce. This has noticeably boosted activity on 23 of July and 26 of July streets in the city center.
However, food and good supplies have yet to work their way to the villages on the outskirts of Arish and Sheikh Zuwayed, or to the residents of Rafah who did not evacuate their homes with the establishment of the security perimeter.
From the Eid holiday in June up until the time of publishing, the most notable activity has been on the sidewalks of Arish’s main streets, where vendors have set up shop.
As thanaweya amma exams concluded in early July, Arish beaches became a prime destination for residents, especially on Thursdays and Fridays. Dozens of young men leased cafés along the corniche by the beach from the Arish City Council and started to operate them for the summer.
The decision to allow natural gas-powered taxis to resume work inside Arish also helped bring the city back to life, as its center was once again connected to its remote areas like the suburbs of Salam and Masaeed, and Bahr Street. The availability of taxis also means that business has been booming for the restaurants and cafés in these areas, especially those lining the seaside.
The North Sinai governor recently announced that fishers would be allowed to resume fishing in Lake Bardawil, while the entire outer coast would remain closed to sailing, in accordance with an earlier order from the Armed Forces.
The most notable of the measures brought in with Operation Sinai 2018 was the establishment of perimeters around neighborhoods, and the regular searches of residents’ houses carried out by security forces who seized their mobile phones.
These raids mainly targeted neighborhoods on the outskirts of Arish, where members of the militant group Province of Sinai were alleged to retreat to after carrying out attacks on citizens and security personnel in the city center.
Some areas were completely sealed off for two weeks, during which all houses and open spaces were liable to be raided at random by security units, each affiliated with a different authority. Mobile phones would be seized from all residents. And dozens of men — particularly young men — were arrested as suspects then released later from whichever police station or military headquarters they were taken to.
While these crackdowns have long been commonplace in the North Sinai capital, after the start of the military operation, security forces also started burning down and demolishing the homes of those they accused of being fugitives. During the demolitions, which were carried out mostly in the neighborhoods of Aal Ayoub, Karm Abu Njeila, Fawakhariya and Safa, residents were prohibited from retrieving any of their personal belongings or furniture.
The practice of seizing phones ended in early June, according to residents, even though raids continued to be carried out in Abi Saqal, Izba and Atef al-Sadat. By mid-June, security campaigns and demolitions stopped altogether, and police personnel started to return phones to their owners.
By the end of July, pedestrians and cars were once again able to make their way through military checkpoints, and in and out of the city of Arish, most notably the Kunaisah checkpoint on 23 of July Street in the city center and the Attalawy checkpoint, midway down Assiut Street.
While some security measures in the governorate have abated, others remain in place, chief among them the restrictions on fuel that have left private cars sitting idle. Access to fuel is only granted to those who have been approved to travel or who have a permit issued, especially to those transporting patients receiving medical care.
Craftspersons and day laborers are still facing hardship due to the severe toll the operation and its attendant security measures took on commercial activities, construction especially.
Those selling construction equipment, plumbing supplies and paints were the most severely affected, as many of their goods were banned from Arish, including water pumps and tanks, kerosene, paint thinners and other painting supplies. Their trade ground to a halt in early February, compelling many of the largest merchants to liquidate their businesses in Arish and move them to Cairo.
Against this backdrop of seeming deescalation, the Armed Forces announced on Sunday that Egyptian troops and security forces killed at least 52 alleged militants in recent days.