Analysis

Egypt's War on Terror Threatening to Become a War on Sinai Bedouin

The peninsula's residents live under the threat of terror on the one hand, and the military crackdowns on the other

Bedouin children ride their camels during the Al Suez camel race in Ain Musa, 140 kilometers northwest of Cairo.
REUTERS

“Either you help us, or you help us.” That was the nonchoice Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi gave to the residents of northern Sinai. There is no other option, and if they complain about the army’s heavy-handedness, he said, “You haven’t even started feeling its hard hand.”

To really understand the Middle East - subscribe to Haaretz

This is what he told them in January in response to an attempt to shoot down a helicopter carrying Defense Minister Sedki Sobhy and Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar near the El-Arish airport, and there have already been more than just verbal threats. Ten days have passed since Sissi launched Operation Sinai 2018, which is aimed at clearing the peninsula of terrorist, jihadist Salafi Muslim organizations, Islamic State and Al-Qaida operatives and other wanted men. It’s an open-ended operation, and Sissi has adopted the strategy used by the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan — flooding the territory with large forces including tanks, other armored vehicles and planes.

Every day the army issues an official communiqué that details that day’s accomplishments. In announcement No. 9, for example, issued Saturday, Egyptians were told that the hideout of eight terrorists had been destroyed, four terrorists were killed, a vehicle on which a machine gun had been mounted was destroyed, military sappers neutralized 45 explosive devices and demolished 158 warehouses containing weapons, communications equipment, large quantities of explosives and seven tons of drugs; 408 people were arrested.

Military secure worshipers outside Al Rawdah mosque during the first Friday prayer after an attack in Bir Al-Abed, Egypt, December 1, 2017.
\ MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY/ REUTERS

While these details are indeed impressive, there still isn’t a clear and comprehensive strategic plan for Sinai, or at least northern Sinai, where most of the terror groups are concentrated. What is clear is the cost the operation is exacting from the residents of the region. El Arish and Sheikh Zawid have been under strict closure since the operation started. The army is forbidding the fishermen of El-Arish to go to sea and the Suez Canal crossings that link Sinai with Cairo have been closed to civilian and commercial traffic; only military vessels are allowed to pass, and the army has become the sole supplier of food and medicine to the area.

The internet and social networks were also closed down for several days, and some remain closed. In some neighborhoods in El Arish the army does house-to-house searches, confiscating cellphones and computers. There are permanent and temporary checkpoints throughout the city and supermarket and pharmacy shelves are emptying. School and university classes have been suspended, on the order of the military, and hundreds of people seeking to return to their homes in Sinai are being held up at the border crossings and aren’t being allowed into residential areas.

Palestinians seeking to return to Gaza have been stuck on the roads for over 10 days, and an area of five kilometers around the El Arish airport has been turned into a “sterile” area, from which civilians have been removed and are now seeking other places to live. The fear is that the army plans to expand the sterile area and keep it totally free of civilians, as it has done on the Rafah-Gaza border.

To help find housing solutions, a group of young people started a Facebook group called “The Group of 20 — The Temporary Popular Committee for Managing Crises in Northern Sinai,” which posts messages like, “There are four empty apartments in El Arish for those who cannot leave the city,” “A businessman is offering to host those being delayed in his factory,” “Two ambulances are available for emergencies,” and “Businessmen are prepared to donate food to those in need.” Members of the group even wrote a letter to the district government asking him to make it easier for students to travel.

One of the serious problems is the increase in food and drug prices by tens of percentage points within a few days. According to the reports, a kilogram of tomatoes has reached 20 Egyptian lira and a tray of eggs now goes for 60 lira. Prices of other basic items like sugar and baby food have also skyrocketed, as supplies are running low. The army is trying to organize food distribution and punish merchants who are price-gouging, but the increased demand and uncertainty over how long residents will be facing these difficult conditions are causing panic and making management of the situation difficult.

To counter these reports, government media outlets are trying to portray the situation in a more positive light, stating that soldiers “behave fairly and politely” while searching people’s homes; that they “treat the women and elderly nicely, and one of the soldiers even kissed an elderly man on the head and didn’t make him get out of his chair,” as one resident told the Al-Dostor newspaper.

These reports aren’t doing much to reassure the residents of El Arish and Sheikh Zawid, who have been living for years under the threat of terror on the one hand, and the military crackdowns on the other. On their Facebook pages they recall that “The part paid by the Sinai Bedouin during the October War [the Yom Kippur War] was no less than that of the Egyptian military forces.” And an announcement by the Committee to Protect El Arish condemned Sissi’s threats. “A-Sissi’s declarations are not just a clear threat, they invited Egyptian citizens to attack Sinai residents as if they are not also Egyptian citizens.”

It seems that no one still believes the promises that Sissi made at the start of his term to rehabilitate and develop Sinai. All they can hope is that the war against terror doesn’t turn into a sweeping war against the Bedouin.