“What is happening in the Sinai will stop the moment that President Mohamed Morsi El-Ayat is restored to power,” proclaimed Mohamed El-Baltagi from the podium at Rabaa El-Adaweya in July 2013. The Muslim Brotherhood leader’s famous remark, which echoed across local and international television channels, ushered in a new wave of terrorism in Egypt, instigated by the Muslim Brotherhood against all who supported the 30 June 2013 Revolution and against the Egyptian judiciary, security agencies and army in particular.
That event is inseparable from the many other developments in the region amid the security breakdown, strife and civil warfare that followed the Arab Spring revolutions and the overthrow of the governments in many Arab countries. Terrorism surged as never before amid this turmoil. ISIS burgeoned and Al-Qaeda resurfaced in many areas of the region, such as North Sinai, an ideal environment for terrorist activity in light of the security breakdown, the porousness of the northeastern borders, which were punctuated by hundreds of tunnels, and the consequent ease of communications with extremist groups in Gaza.
The tunnels also became the main conduit for highly profitable illicit trade which gave rise to a class of nouveau riche in North Sinai’s tribal society. Conservative and traditional mores helped cement the symbiotic relationship between this class and the terrorist organisations which facilitated the prevalence of “religious law” over tribal laws and customs as well as civil law. Simultaneously, in view of the nature of kin relations, there arose a large and multifaceted network that included beneficiaries among the civilian population and that was determined to defend itself, a determination fuelled by the thirst for revenge against the state. The entire dynamic generated a perfect brew for the proliferation of extremism and terrorism.
The Egyptian army worked to fight these developments in campaigns from Martyr's Right to Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018 (COS 2018). Ahram Online covered some of these operations on the ground and interviewed innumerable sources in different parts of North Sinai and, in the course of this coverage, we formed numerous observations, not least of which concerned the creed of the Egyptian Armed Forces. The principles of this creed could be seen in practice frequently, from the way the army worked to keep civilians out of the crossfire and away from the danger zones, as occurred when it relocated portions of the civilian population away from the border zone in preparation for the measures necessary to secure the borders, to ensuring that due process is followed with suspects, most of whom are released. The Armed Forces itself has issued periodic statements confirming its role in this regard.
As we bear the foregoing background in mind, the recently released Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on the Sinai is no exception to its predecessors and remains consistent with the determination to portray conditions there in a manner that defies both the realities on the ground and logic in the framework of the contextual situation in the Sinai. The report strikes a melodramatic tone as it reels out groundless narratives from purportedly local sources who all reiterate the same thing. Even the report's title betrays its politicised nature. As Brigadier General Khaled Okasha, director of the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Thought and Studies, observed, “This type of report from Human Rights Watch, one of the main organisations that address this subject, takes the attitude of the Egyptian opposition and dresses them up in the verbiage of rights advocacy.
“With regard to the narratives, it throws professional standards out the window. These narratives are derived from telephone calls made to selectively identified sources in order to compile a series of fabrications that have no bearing on the truth. These narratives reflect the attitudes of people whose material interests were jeopardised by the return of government control and the rule of law to the Sinai, people who thrived economically from the illegal activities at the border."
Okasha, who is also a member of the Supreme Council to Combat Terrorism and Extremism, adds that the figures cited in the report are unfounded and unreliable, which "reflects an unwillingness to contact Egyptian government sources in order to obtain proper official data and to treat it honestly and transparently."
By way of background, the HRW report writes that the Egyptian Armed Forces have been battling Islamist insurgents in the Sinai for years in a conflict that was intensified by events in the Middle East as a whole and by the Egyptian government's long neglect of development in the Sinai. Indeed, as the world knows, for many years Egypt has been contending with terrorist attacks and activities, targeting army and security forces and civilians not just in the Sinai but throughout the country. COS 2018 was launched in order to purge the Sinai of terrorism, but this operation was designed not only to confront terrorism militarily but also environmentally by means of a comprehensive strategy for the development of the Sinai.
The report goes on to accuse the army of conducting arbitrary arrests that include children, torture and enforced disappearances. Here the HRW outdoes itself, claiming 50 cases of arbitrary arrests of which 39 are probable enforced disappearances in unknown locations. Military spokesman Colonel Tamer El-Rifai, in an official statement, has dismissed the allegations, noted how they are unverified, and stressed that the army and government have taken all measures to comply with international human rights standards.
The HRW claims to have documented 14 cases of extrajudicial executions. Yet, rights organisations are permitted to monitor Egyptian prisons and none of these have documented any of the cases mentioned in the HRW report, which can only mean that the report relies on incorrect information. All suspects implicated in terrorist acts are treated in accordance with Egyptian law from arrest through prosecution.
The HRW report also documented gross violations committed by the ISIS affiliate Sinai Province, which has attacked, abducted and tortured civilians and beheaded captives. The terrorist group often carries out these attacks against civilians in revenge for cooperating with military and security authorities, and as a means to prevent others from cooperating with the authorities.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s role in supporting terrorism
The report noted that the conflict in the Sinai escalated in the wake of the overthrow of President Morsi in 2013. The report's use of the term "conflict" here is inappropriate. The only way to describe what is happening in the Sinai is a war against terrorism and, specifically, the numerous terrorist groups and militias that have been identified by intelligence agencies and that systematically target civilians and vital government facilities. We should add that intelligence agencies also have ample evidence of outside support for the terrorist groups and militias in the Sinai, from funding, arms and equipment to intelligence, equipment and personnel. The evidence, which has come to light in the course of the operations, also points to certain agencies and entities that facilitate the transport of terrorist operatives to certain countries with the aim of destabilising them.
The report is worded in a way to disassociate the escalation in the Sinai from former President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. This is misleading and compels us to once again remember the obvious implication of El-Baltagi's remark that the violence in the Sinai would stop once Morsi was reinstated. To this we should add the declaration of another Muslim Brotherhood leader – Safwat Hegazi – from the Rabaa El-Adawia podium: "Whoever sprays us with water, we'll pray with blood."
Strategic expert and political analyst Dr. Abdel-Moneim Said told Ahram Online, "Egypt is fighting a war against terrorism. It can't bring along someone from the outside to watch, especially in view of the irregular nature of this type of war." He adds, "There is something almost funny when reading reports such as that by HRW. When one hears a Muslim Brotherhood figure in the press citing rights advocacy to support his argument, one's mind goes to HRW. The reverse is also the case, when those organisations cite 'reliable sources' you can be pretty sure they are Muslim Brotherhood. It's kind of an echo chamber of distorted narratives."
Said pointed out that HRW was only one of many organisations and think tanks in the US that opposed Egypt and, particularly, the Egyptian army as a matter of principle. "There is a widespread ignorance about Egypt there and, specifically, ignorance as to what the role and the history of the Egyptian army means to the Egyptian people. This helps explain why many, if not the majority, of those organisations' information is influenced by individuals hostile to the government in Egypt, especially the Muslim Brotherhood.
They tend to see it as a moderate, liberal group like some Christian associations in Europe and the Muslim Brotherhood takes advantage of this. As a result, we're faced with a proliferation of narratives based on a party that has its own prejudices and HRW is the rights organisation that most relies on Muslim Brotherhood narratives. You also find individuals such as Michele Dunne, who worked for a while at the US embassy in Cairo and who was eventually refused entry into Egypt and therefore developed such an antagonistic attitude that she formed a group called 'Egypt Task Force' to serve as a platform for voices hostile to Egypt. For this reason, her organisation might also receive funding from countries and other entities hostile to Egypt."
Calls to suspend military aid
There has also been a renewed call for the suspension of military and security aid to Egypt, which is most likely a response to Egypt's strategy of diversifying sources of arms. Egypt recently signed a deal with France to purchase 24 Rafale jet fighters. The Russians have supplied Egypt with a number of MIG-35 multipurpose fighters that are outfitted with 30 mm artillery cannons and are equipped to carry an array of missilery. The fighters are said to be superior to the US-made F-35s. In addition, Egypt has agreed to purchase from Russia 12 Su-30 jets. At the same time, Egyptian-Chinese military relations have grown closer with recently concluded agreements for cooperation in military training and defence manufacturing. It is no accident that the renewed call to suspend military aid to Egypt coincides with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's call for sanctions against Egypt if it buys the Russian Su-34s.
"The diversification of arms sources is a strategy that emanates from an objective assessment of Egyptian national interests," explains Said, who added, "A balance of mutual interests has also governed the Egyptian-US relationship during 40 years of military cooperation and peacekeeping. The two countries have common strategic goals and interests, to which testify the resumption of the Bright Star military manoeuvres, among other things."
The HRW report charged that the army forcefully expelled tens of thousands of people from their homes in North Sinai, swept up thousand in arrests, and secretly detained hundreds. The figures here are derived from the Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms, a political organisation founded by the Muslim Brotherhood in August 2014. In this section, the HRW totally ignores context, namely the terror operations, attacks against civilians and the anarchy in the Sinai perpetrated by the terrorist groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremist groups.
The same applies to the claim that the Armed Forces are carrying out military operations in residential neighbourhoods. In addition, such claims are clearly intended to undermine the developmental efforts to which the Armed Forces is contributing in the framework of COS2018. The Armed Forces are helping to carry out 312 development projects in a variety of spheres in order to improve the standards of living of the people in the Sinai and create job opportunities. The actions that the Armed Forces have taken to destroy the terrorist infrastructure have helped generate the peace and stability needed for development efforts to take root and grow.
The HRW claims are full of holes, according to Brig. Gen. Okasha.
"They ignore, firstly, the measures that the government had to take in particularly sensitive areas, such as the borders; secondly, the care that government showed to the civilian population's needs as it carried out such measures; and, thirdly, the actions it took to compensate for damages. Around EGP 900 million was paid out to everyone whose homes had to be demolished, even if those homes were barely hovels. The people were compensated in other ways, too, such as with plots of land. The army and government has clearly been guided by the principle that the civilian population should be insulated as much as possible from harm and damage in this exceptional situation, which is essentially an arena in the war against terrorism."
Okasha added, "At the time when terrorism in that area reached its peak, there were repeated calls from the public as well as from some experts to evacuate some of those areas. However, the political leadership explicitly rejected such calls and remained firm in the conviction that the inhabitants should remain where they are and that work should be done to improve their circumstances and standards of living. The government, accordingly, committed to bearing the material costs of supporting and providing aid to the people where they live. Terrorism was gambling on intimidation, expulsion and weakening local communities. The government was determined to return them to normalcy by ensuring that schools held their exams on time, that elections were held and that other ordinary routines could carry on. After all its care to ensure the best for its people and that law prevails, surely this is not the type of government to resort to the methods alleged by the HRW report.”