Civilian deaths and unaccountability in North Sinai

As the city of Sheikh Zuwayed was cautiously celebrating the first day of Eid al-Adha last August, one family was subjected to a tragedy that has become all too familiar for the residents of North Sinai. While playing outside his home, Moussa Ouda, a 10-year-old boy, was shot and paralyzed by a stray bullet. Moussa would receive initial treatment in North Sinai and then Cairo’s Qasr al-Aini Hospital, before being moved to a nearby military medical center under presidential orders. 

According to statistics from the North Sinai Social Solidarity Directorate, an estimated 621 civilians were killed and 1,247 injured between July 2013 and mid-2017 by stray bullets and shelling. 

Unlike Moussa, however, few receive any media attention. 

Alongside its years-long battle with the Sinai-based affiliate of the Islamic State, Egyptian security forces have faced accusations of heavy handedness and rights abuses. A two-year Human Rights Watch investigation based on work by local activists documented extrajudicial killings, arbitrary mass arrests, forced disappearances, and widespread use of punitive measures by security forces. The Egyptian government’s reaction to the investigation was outright denial of all accusations and fierce attacks on investigators, a longstanding approach to any allegations of unlawful behavior in North Sinai presented by rights groups.

Though there has been extensive documentation of abuses in North Sinai by numerous rights organizations and activists, relatively little has been done to explore why Egyptian security forces continuously fail to act lawfully or to adequately protect civilians. Behind the systemic abuses are a litany of institutional deficiencies that continue to exacerbate the worrying humanitarian situation in Sinai. At the center of these deficiencies is a general lack of formal processes, which leads to misconduct or errors, and means that both the malicious and the accidental are consistently repeated in an environment of impunity. 

Tactical and strategic failures 

Persistent, decade-long training failures mean the country’s conscripted combat forces are tactically frail and ill disciplined, often prone to misidentifying civilians as legitimate military targets and resorting to erratic, unaimed automatic fire when under pressure. Combined with a propensity for random and celebratory fire in close proximity to population centers, this means avoidable civilian deaths and injuries during military operations have become a common occurrence. 

Though the Egyptian military has recently attempted to address training shortcomings through the introduction of supplementary troop pre-deployment packages, little has been done to address issues with how troops identify legitimate targets and how to deescalate situations which pose little actual threat. In fact, most Egyptian conscripts don’t receive any formal instruction on target identification or the importance of accurately discerning legitimate targets. The majority of their rudimentary training, according to soldiers interviewed by various media organizations, is focused entirely on basic rifle use and general military bearing. New training packages for Sinai-bound recruits are mainly aimed at bolstering small arms competency and repelling Province of Sinai checkpoint raids rather than tackling the tactical weakness that small units face, or introducing skills essential to complex domestic counter-insurgency operations.  

Egypt’s Air Force is also prone to horrible errors. On May 27, four civilians were killed and another eight injured in the village of Joura. According to testimonies from the injured and eyewitness reports, the casualties were the result of consecutive strikes by the Egyptian Air Force on a family home that was known to a nearby military checkpoint. Yet, the Armed Forces seems to have failed to share basic information, such as the locations of known civilian homes. In this case, rather than a result of an individual error, civilian lives were lost likely due to a preventable communications issue, in a clear example of how separate Egyptian military and security branches often operate within their own closed loops, rarely liaising with other units during operations.

These errors are symptomatic of wider structural issues that impede joint operations and needlessly endanger civilian lives. A willingness to use air strikes and major fire power to target suspected militant positions despite the presence of civilians in the vicinity showcases a problematic proclivity toward risk. These issues are compounded when strike targets identified in response to Province of Sinai attacks on security forces are based on proximity to incidents and characteristics that fit militant behavior, such as their presence in olive groves, rather than verifiable evidence. 

While the strikes have yet to be attributed to a specific combatant, it is likely that this dynamic has played out at least twice in the last few weeks. On October 12, local sources in the city of Bir al-Abd reported that an airstrike targeted a vehicle used by olive farmers from the village of Tofaha, killing nine people and injuring more than a dozen others. Earlier that day, an IED injured six soldiers on patrol in an armored vehicle. On October 19, medical sources told Mada Masr that at least four people were killed and 12 others injured when a missile fired from an unidentified source struck a house in the village of Abul Arag, south of Sheikh Zuwayed.

And even when force is not the primary mode of engagement, there is not necessarily more precision. According to figures collated by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, security forces in North Sinai detained more than 12,000 people from July 2013 to December 2018. These mass arrests and detentions can be partly attributed to the large-scale security sweeps that have typified military operations in North Sinai. Granted wide powers of arrest, Egyptian security forces have resorted to arbitrary arrests to compensate for their inability to ascertain the identities of Province of Sinai fighters and difficulties in cooperating with the local population.

Taking accountability for errors?

The heavy-handed nature of the military operations in North Sinai are having a negative effect on overarching security concerns. Internal displacements, civilian killings, and long-term absences of basic services are all sources of discontent for the area’s locals and have provided constant material for extremist organization recruitment. 

Nonetheless, the Egyptian government has continually defended the actions of security forces while pointing to compensatory monetary payouts to families of the deceased for “necessary” measures. Alongside leaderships’ inability or unwillingness to tackle long-standing institutional deficiencies, Egyptian troops have continually acted unlawfully without consequence. 

Troops implicated in extrajudicial killings haven’t been subject to any disciplinary procedures, and neither the military nor the country’s civilian judiciary have pressed for any legal action. The military itself does not have any material that trains soldiers on what their obligations are under the laws of armed conflict, the Geneva Conventions, or even domestic laws. 

While the Egyptian military and government’s reaction to accusations of misconduct over the course of Operation Sinai 2018 are predictable, they are also emblematic of enduring systematic aversion to responsibility.

Though more than 600 civilians have been killed and over 1,200 have been injured as a result of the ongoing battle between security forces and Province of Sinai, not one has had their cause of death or injury attributed to either side by government officials. Instead, all incidents have been blamed on fire or shelling from unknown sources. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch’s investigation reported several cases in which Egyptian officials attempted to coerce families of killed civilians into not blaming the military in official paperwork. The Egyptian military itself has refused to admit any role in any accidental civilian deaths or injuries resulting from operations.  

The Egyptian government’s inability to accept responsibility for misconduct and unwillingness to tackle institutional deficiencies has had a direct role in the exacerbation of an already serious humanitarian situation in North Sinai. Furthermore, purposefully or not, civilian casualties and arbitrary mass arrests are further alienating a local population that already has several historic grievances with the state. Without addressing these issues and wider socio-economic challenges in the peninsula, the Egyptian government may face prolonged insurgent uprisings, even if the local affiliate of the Islamic State is defeated.      

Egypt Defence Review 

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