Who are the real victims of Sisi's war on terrorism in Egypt's Sinai?

Published June 23rd, 2015 - 07:37 GMT

A year into his rule, one of the most challenging files on the president's in-tray was militancy, which in Egypt has taken the Sinai Peninsula as its base.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi stepped into office 11 months after former Islamist president Mohamed Morsi was removed from power.

Throughout the first year of Sisi's tenure, much has happened in relation to militancy and the Sinai Peninsula and many have been caught in the crossfire.

There are "blameless dead and injured people" as a result of rockets from unidentified sources or stray bullets, Abu Mohamed*, a North Sinai resident said.

Morsi's ouster in July 2013 was quickly followed by a surge in militancy. His removal at the hands of the military was the cause of extreme polarisation, with society largely split between Morsi and Sisi supporters.

Egyptian authorities have declared a nationwide "war on terrorism", especially in the Sinai Peninsula since mid-2013. The security crackdown in the peninsula has been met with an intensified wave of militancy, mostly targeting security forces.

Abu Salama, a resident of Sheikh Zuweid, said that the developments witnessed during the past year in Sinai left no room for the practice of any social or sporting activities. He said that “children have been deprived of enjoying their childhood in light of the war on terrorism.”

"We’re [being ground] between the millstones; the security forces and the militants," he said. "We are scared, especially for our lives and the lives of our entire families. We could only chose to take the hardest decision; leave our houses and belongings behind."

The majority of the attacks which struck the peninsula during the past two years were claimed by the Sinai-based militant group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. The group pledged allegiance to Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria in November 2014, changing its name to 'Sinai Province'.

In October 2014 and January 2015, two deadly attacks claimed by the group in North Sinai left over 30 people dead each, including civilians.

BORDER ZONE AND EVACUATION

Shortly after the October attack, Egypt's cabinet issued a decision to clear 500 metres of the border area with Gaza of civilians, vowing to provide compensation for those evicted. The area was doubled to 1,000 meters in November, after discovering some tunnels in the peninsula over 800 metres long.

Security forces have been targeting tunnels dug up in the Sinai to connect it with the Palestinian Gaza.

Egyptian authorities say the tunnels are used to smuggle arms to militants in the peninsula, while Sinai residents argue that the tunnels provide them with a source of income as they use them to trade goods with the besieged Gaza Strip.

Abu Salem is among the Sinai residents of Rafah who were evacuated to make way for the construction of the "buffer zone". He told Aswat Masriya that security forces have so far destroyed a large number of tunnels. He added that "trading through tunnels has become a risk."

Egypt issued in April a legislation punishing those who dig or use border tunnels for communication with foreign countries by life in prison.

Apart from the forced eviction, many families have fled their homes to escape "the hell of the war on terrorism," Abu Mohamed said.

The Sinai resident said there are large numbers of citizens arrested though they have nothing to do with the militancy in Sinai. They must be releases so long as there is no evidence to incriminate them, he said.

TOLLS

No official figures have been made public on how many lives have so far been lost to the militancy, but the numbers run in hundreds.

In the past seven months alone, between late October and the end of May military announcements show that 866 suspected militants were killed by security forces in the North Sinai cities of Rafah, Sheikh Zuwied and capital al-Arish.

A military official said the security campaign has "positive results" in the "war on terror". But there remain numbers of armed people and they are spread across the Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah regions "because they know the nature of the terrain", he said.

The military source added that it will take time before the rest of those who pose as a threat to security forces can be "eradicated".

The military has not provided figures on how many security personnel died in the period between late October and May.

A Sinai-based policeman said "terrorist attacks" have left a large psychological impact on military and police personnel because of the killings of people "we were personally associated with".

"They are the fuel for the colleagues to continue … the war on terrorism in Sinai," he added.

According to a report released in May by the government-appointed National Council for Human Rights, at least 2,500 were killed in the period between June 2013 and December 2014. The toll includes 700 security personnel and 1800 civilians, including 1,250 Muslim Brotherhood members.

This 19-month period starts one month before Morsi’s ouster and includes the first six months of Sisi’s rule.

SERVICES AND FACILITIES

The dire security situation which ensued since Sisi took post has had its toll on the area's services and facilities, said Abu Hussein from Sheikh Zuweid. He said that the security threats have deterred workers operating in the area as they fear for their lives against armed militants. He cited shortage in water, electricity, gas and telecommunication services.

Militants stepped up their attacks on the peninsula in May, targeting a vehicle transporting prosecutors to court. The attack left three prosecutors killed, alongside the car's driver.

Within the same week, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis called for further attacks on judges in an audio recording.

The developments prompted the authorities to issue a decision moving the North Sinai Court to the canal city of Ismailia.

The decision had a huge impact on Sinai's citizens, Abu Salama said. He added that it burdens citizens with extra costs as they would need to travel to another governorate to issue paper work.

NEGOTIATIONS

In the fight against militancy, the military is finding cooperation from Sinai residents, who are either providing information to security apparatuses or monitoring the movements of armed individuals, the military source said.

Abu Salama meanwhile noted that dozens of Sinai tribal youth were killed by militants accusing them of cooperating with security forces.

Residents of the Sheikh Zuweid region found on August 20, 2014 the decapitated bodies of four civilians.

In a video allegedly released by the Sinai-based Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis last August, the group claimed responsibility for the beheading of the four civilians, accusing them of providing intelligence to Israel.

Similar executions of civilians have been repeatedly occurring since then, gripping the lives of dozens of residents.

New means for tracking gunmen and dealing with them without impacting unarmed civilians must be sought, said Abu Mohamed.

"We must open the floor for dialogue through the residents of the area," he said. "Some members of Ansar are relatives of those residents. [They must be used] to know their opinions and present such opinions to the security apparatuses."

Abu Mohamed stressed the importance of involving tribal leaders in calling on "extremists" to retract. He added that they should be allowed to go back "to the right track" without being pursued by the authorities.

But the military does not consider negotiating with militants. The military source said negotiations can take place with a group or a class with certain demands.

However it is not reasonable for the target to be to set up an Islamic state inside Sinai and for the alternative to be negotiations, he added.


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