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HRW report on Sinai is 'full of holes', experts say

Ahmed Eleiba , Thursday 30 May 2019
(Courtesy of the military spokesperson's Facebook page)
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Views: 4882

‎“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." ‎


Repeated allegations‎

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.

Misleading narratives

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."‎


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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."‎

‘‎Forced expulsions’

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.”

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