Egypt’s neglected Sinai enduring state of emergency until terrorist attacks abate

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A handout picture released on October 25, 2014 by the Egyptian Presidency, shows the funeral for 30 solders killed the day before in the Sinai, at the Almaza military airbase in Cairo. (Photo: AFP-Egyptian Presidency)

By: Ahmed Shabaneh

Published Monday, October 27, 2014

Egypt’s Sinai has suffered long years of government neglect that have led to the proliferation of armed groups trying to impose their Islamic principles on the region with no consolation for its people who have been disregarded by the state for 30 years.

Sinai – Imposing a curfew and a state of emergency in northern Sinai is nothing new for the people there, especially that they have been living under “an actual curfew” for nearly a year while security measures undermine their livelihoods in the villages and cities of Rafah and al-Arish. Instead of fighting terrorism, the Egyptian army’s plan destroys any chance for young people in Sinai to make a decent living and keeps them prisoners inside their homes.

The residents of Sinai do not deny that for three years, what they call “takfiri groups with black flags” have tried to impose the law of “survival of the fittest.” They have pursued and even killed whoever opposes their presence. At the same time, they do not hide their sense of despair from “army raids that have claimed the lives of innocent civilians.” Besides, the state did not try to improve services for the people of Sinai or strengthen their resolve, they say.

The latest ambush in Karm al-Qawadis between al-Arish and Sheikh Zuweid was the onset of a new crisis. Abdel Hadi, a tribal elder, said that “the ambush was a multi-stage attack that lasted for 20 minutes at a security checkpoint overlooking an intersection between four side roads.” He told Al-Akhbar: “Sophisticated firearms and mortar shells wrang out in southern Sheikh Zuweid for such a long time that it made residents of neighboring areas endure a miserable night, especially that the security personnel of the Interior Ministry forces carried out raids looking for the perpetrators of the massacre in people’s houses.

As such, Abdel Hadi does not believe that the solution lies in displacing people from their land and property. “Instead, there should be more investments and more development so young people can be part of national projects and not take part, whether by force or by choice, in destroying Sinai any more.”

Another facet of this crisis is cutting off all means of communication and the internet in the Sinai peninsula. This means “real death” for the residents, says tribal member Hajj Abdel Azim. He pointed out that Israeli networks become the alternative to Egyptian networks when the latter are cut off.

Abdel Azim explains that the Israeli Orange network has become the primary outlet for the whole northern Sinai area. He reveals, based on information he has, that “the majority of bombings are detonated through phones connected to this network,” that is why “disrupting local communication is not a very successful strategy in facing armed groups.”

During curfews that begin at 5:00 pm and end at 7:00 am the next day, residents of al-Arish, Sheikh Zuweid and the Egyptian side of Rafah close down their shops and commercial centers and stay at home while security armored vehicles pass through neighborhoods to warn residents.

About the details of the curfew, the governor of northern Sinai, General Abdel Fatah Harhur told Al-Akhbar that a state of emergency will be imposed from the area in the east beginning in Tel Rafah, through the international border line until al-Awja and “westward from the west of al-Arish beginning in al-Midan village until Mount Halal based on presidential decree No. 366 of 2014.” The state of emergency will continue, according to Harhur, for three months “or until further notice.”

Security sources told Al-Akhbar that northern Sinai security forces closed the international road as part of the state of emergency regulations and reserved it for military vehicles and tanks before opening it up again to residents as the armed forces intend to evacuate the area adjacent to the border with the Gaza Strip in the next phase. The sources explained that the evacuation is part of the army plan which includes building a barrier deep into the ground all along the border with Gaza, which is about 13 kilometers (8 miles). “It is a wall that will be hard to penetrate or build any tunnels through.”

According to the new plan, more static and moving ambushes by the army and police will be executed with the support of sophisticated weapons in addition to more aircraft flyovers to constantly comb the border area and inside Sinai. The same sources revealed that security reinforcements have arrived in northern Sinai and they include special forces, security leaders and “more humvees but ground operations have not been launched yet as they await decisions from Cairo which will determine the nature of the security campaigns based on ongoing developments.”

In the meantime, the scene of the attack continues to be inspected and all the small body parts believed to belong to the suicide bomber who carried out the attack collected. These body parts will be sent for DNA testing to determine the bomber’s identity. The engineering unit began “demolishing the area along the border after closing the Rafah crossing in front of Palestinians” and it is supposed to coordinate with border guards to fill up a number of tunnels.”

Commenting on the situation, researcher in Islamist movements Mansour Abdel Karim said the crisis in Sinai is multifaceted, which made it “a hotbed for the Ansar Bait al-Maqdis group.” Abdel Karim told Al-Akhbar that Egypt today is facing “a jihad of open fronts which is difficult to isolate in the entire region and not just in our country. There are failed communities and residents whose movement can not be controlled,” explaining that “the goal of these operations is to make the army feel as though it is under siege.”

He went on to say: “Ansar Bait al-Maqdis is operating on Egyptian land and has arms caches. When we blame Gaza we oversimplify the problem.” However, he did not rule out the possibility that “there is coordination between jihadi salafism in the Gaza Strip and members of the organization who have a media committee in the city of Khan Younis.”

Sinai in northern Egypt has witnessed 47 terrorist attacks that have targeted army and police forces, leaving 168 dead and dozens wounded since February 2011, the month former President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown.These numbers are based on official data and security and medical sources. The data is based on 45 months of violence beginning a month after the January 25 Revolution until the most recent attack that took place last Friday.

These figures span four different administrations of the country. They are the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or SCAF (February 11 - June 30 2012), ousted President Mohammed Mursi (June 30 - July 3, 2013), former President Adli Mansour (July 3 - June 8, 2013) and current President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi (June 8 - till now).

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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