July 10, 2020 — Once again, bloody stories blend with those of the coronavirus in North Sinai. Since the beginning of July, eight civilians have been killed and four others injured in attacks carried out by the Province of Sinai — the Islamic State affiliate in the peninsula — against the villages of Joura and Abou Tawila near Sheikh Zuwayed. Meanwhile, the coronavirus is still dominating the conversation as it has continued to spread, reaching all the way to the village of Nakhl in central Sinai.
Eight civilians were killed and four others were injured, most of whom are Tarabin and Sawarka tribesmen, in three armed attacks by Province of Sinai last week.
The latest of these attacks occurred on July 6. A group of Province of Sinai militants attacked the village of Abou Tawila east of Sheikh Zuwayed. The village is home to the Ergani family, which belongs to the Tarabin tribe that has led the contingent of Sinai tribes fighting alongside the government against the Province of Sinai under the umbrella of the Union of Sinai Tribes.
Three government-aligned tribal fighters were killed in the attack and two others were injured, according to a statement released by the union and confirmation provided by medical and local sources to Mada Masr.
According to local sources in Sheikh Zuwayed who spoke to Mada Masr, the attack began when Province of Sinai militants wearing suicide vests stormed an office where union tribe militants gather and opened fire. One of the Province of Sinai militants was killed, while another managed to escape under cover fire provided by militant elements in the area, according to the sources.
A few hours after the attack, the tribal union released a statement announcing that it had thwarted “an attempt to enter the Ergani neighborhood in Abou Tawila to kill local forces supporting the Armed Forces and their bases in the area.”
The statement also asserted that the Armed Forces had played a role in repelling the Islamic State militants, with soldiers stationed near the site of the attack providing “intense fire.” While the statement asserted that 12 militants had been killed or injured in the attack — a claim supported by photos of purported Province of Sinai casualties — the photos only featured one body photographed in different locations from various angles.
A few hours later, the union released another statement, in which it boasted that its response to the attack would not come in a statement but would be “seen.” Businessman and Union of Sinai Tribes head Ibrahim al-Ergani called on Province of Sinai leaders in the districts of Moqatta and Lafitat — in the south of Sheikh Zuwayed — to surrender by July 11.
The Province of Sinai claimed responsibility for the attack on July 7 through a statement released by the Amaq News Agency, the Islamic State’s media arm. In the statement, the Islamic State-affiliated group asserted that a security detail had attacked what it called an “awakening of apostasy” in Abou Tawila, killing four people, including Eid Gomaa al-Ergani, whom the union’s statement did not mention among the casualties of the attack.
According to local sources who spoke to Mada Masr, Province of Sinai militants kidnapped the member of the Ergani family from his farm in the village as the attack on the office was underway. Several hours after, his severed head was found on the outskirts of the village.
Sifting through the skewed accounts from both sides, what is notable about the attack is that two of the tribal union militants who died in the attack were from the city of Arish. The union’s acknowledgement of their death serves as public confirmation regarding Arish youth fighting under the union’s umbrella.
The July 6 attack was the second against the village in two days. On the morning of July 4, armed militants approached the home of Shaaban al-Ergani, who is union head Ibrahim al-Ergani’s brother. In the ensuing clashes with tribal fighters, one member of Ergani’s security detail was killed and Shaaban and two others were injured, according to a statement released by the tribal union. The Province of Sinai claimed responsibility for the attack, making it the second time the group has attacked the tribal union head’s family. The Province of Sinai also kidnapped and decapitated his nephew in May.
While the Tarabin fighters faced attacks in Abou Tawila, the Province of Sinai also moved on the village of Joura south of Sheikh Zuwayed, which is home to members of the Sawarka tribe, some of whom have also worked with the Armed Forces.
According to local sources, a well known community judge was shot and killed by militants following dawn prayer. When neighbors rushed to the scene, militants opened fire on them as well. One man was killed and his son later died in Arish Public Hospital from gunshot wounds.
Many civilians have been killed as a result of the conflict between the Province of Sinai and the Egyptian military in recent months. The most notable incident came when Province of Sinai militants attempted to kidnap a villager in Qabr Umayr in mid-May. When locals confronted them, however, violence broke out and three civilians were killed and eight others were injured.
While both the Province of Sinai and Union of Sinai Tribes have released statements on the recent attacks, there has been no comment from the Egyptian Armed Forces. Additionally, there has been little media coverage of the attacks. The discrepancy between this absence of coverage and the attention casualties among the Armed Forces receive has sparked anger among North Sinai residents.
July’s mobilization by the Province of Sinai comes against the backdrop of a series of deadly attacks launched in April that have targeted gatherings in Sinai villages, including Joura, Qabr Umayr and Abou Tawila in the North and Gifgafa, Hema and Baghdad in central Sinai. In turn, Tarabin and Sawarka leaders have escalated the mobilization of tribal youth in preparation for a battle against the militant group’s stronghold in the village of Barth.
The battle was expected to begin in May, according to declarations by tribal leaders. However, the buildup ultimately fizzled after the tribal union announced that two of its militants had been killed in the districts of Barth and Agra south of Rafah.
The escalation in violence has been met with condemnation from residents who remain in the villages at the center of the conflict, as their homes have increasingly been cordoned off behind fortified security checkpoints, which have also been targeted by Province of Sinai militants.
The chain of fortified checkpoints to the south and west of Sheikh Zuwayed has had the largest impact in the conflict between the state and militants, as it has limited the Province of Sinai’s movements south of the city. However, the situation seems to have shifted recently, as the group has found loopholes in the security cordon. Province of Sinai militants are now wearing clothing similar to what Armed Forces officers wear, a method the Islamic State group mentioned in the statement claiming responsibility for attacking Qabr Umayr in May. The militants have also begun launching their attacks in the early morning to take advantage of the fog cover.
In addition to the security situation, the coronavirus pandemic has added to the suffering of the people of North Sinai. One by one, the virus is infiltrating cities across the governorate. It recently reached the city of Nakhl in the depths of central Sinai. The city reported its first positive case at the end of June, according to a statement by the Health Department. That patient died a few days later, according to a medical source.
According to the North Sinai Health Department’s figures released on July 3, there are a total of 60 coronavirus cases in the governorate, in addition to 13 deaths. The rate of infection increased throughout the month of June along with the daily death rate, sparking worries among locals about the state of the health sector.
The situation inside Arish Public Hospital received particular attention, as locals repeatedly complained that governorate’s largest hospital was not admitting patients and even refused to conduct examinations. North Sinai Governor Mohamed Abdel Fadil Shousha denied these reports in an interview with North Sinai Radio on July 2, stressing that there is a special department for isolating coronavirus patients without transforming it into a quarantine hospital.
At the same time, the governor said that the hospital introduced new measures in its workflow. Admitting non-coronavirus patients is now based on priorities determined by medical teams, the governor said, describing it as a “kindness to citizens” due to the fact that “patients can contract the virus inside the hospital after they are admitted.”
As pressure mounted on Arish Public Hospital and coronavirus cases increased, locals called for the reopening and rehabilitation of Arish Fever Hospital. Located south of the city, it shut down years ago as the conflict between the Armed Forces and the Province of Sinai intensified.
However, the North Sinai governor explained that the fever hospital is now within the buffer zone around the Arish airport, which was established in the wake of an assassination attempt on high-ranking Egyptian officials, and will not be back in operation. Additionally, the governor stated that the hospital was severely damaged when missiles struck it and instead the government was looking into building a new hospital.
Prime Minister Mostafa Madbuly previously announced that fever and chest hospitals will be rehabilitated across the country to receive and admit coronavirus patients. However, Shousha’s statement points to the fact that North Sinai will not benefit from these measures. As a result, pressure will continue to mount on Arish and Bir al-Abd hospitals dedicated to quarantining coronavirus patients in a governorate of 456,000 people.
Aside from the rise in daily new cases and deaths, the people of the governorate expressed their fears about the beginning of high school exams and the upcoming college senior year exams. The exams threaten to spread the virus via college students and high school proctors from outside the governorate, which would increase its spread.
The people’s fears nearly materialized on June 26, when the Sheikh Zuwayed Health Department announced that an observer was suspected to have contracted the virus. The observer was transferred to Arish Hospital where he was tested. Two days later, the tests came back negative.
However, residents’ fears resurfaced when posts spread on social media that several students at Sinai University had contracted the virus.
Two university officials told Mada Masr that there are no coronavirus cases among students. But five students in the School of Oral and Dental Medicine were suspected of having contracted the virus after their temperatures were taken as they entered the exam hall. They were quarantined and examined by university medical teams. It turned out they showed no symptoms except fever. The students clarified that they came to campus from the neighborhood of Masaeed on foot. The three-kilometer journey in the heat is probably the reason behind their elevated temperatures.
According to the two sources, the students were transferred to Arish Public Hospital after sitting for their exam in isolation. There, they were tested, and results revealed they were not infected with the coronavirus. The hospital issued them medical reports attesting to their negative test results so that they may sit for the rest of their exams.