North Sinai has been one of the most-searched-for terms over the past few years, according to the Google search engine, particularly since the 25 January Revolution and later when millions of Egyptians revolted against the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in June 2013. Few people, however, thought about North Sinai on a daily basis before 2011. Now the area has become everybody’s daily business until further notice.
According to a statement by the security forces a few days ago, “the Air Force has targeted weapons and ammunition depots used by terrorist elements to target the security forces and civilian targets in North and Central Sinai.” These depots have been building up over recent years, but there have still been comments even in some parts of the mainstream press that instead of pointing to them for what they are has instead talked about an “insurgency” against “poverty, alienation and injustice” in North Sinai.
Needless to say, the situation is not as simple as that. Until a decade or so ago, most Egyptian people saw North Sinai as simply the location of pleasant beach areas at which they could plan to spend a few days in summer. Arish, the capital of the governorate of North Sinai, was known for its lovely beaches and had long been a popular middle-class vacation destination for many people.
Enjoying the sun, sand and the Mediterranean Sea along with some typical Arishi figs and peaches was the ideal retreat. Beyond this, little else was known about the surrounding area, and most people did not bother to delve too deeply into the local people’s lives. They were simply other citizens, though with a culture typical of that of the Bedouins elsewhere in Egypt.
Yet, elsewhere in Egypt was not as lawless as North Sinai. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, a US think tank, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, envisioned by the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty as a buffer zone to build trust and ensure peace between the two countries, has since become a haven for transnational crime and Islamist militancy.
Poverty and political alienation among the region’s native Bedouins have allowed armed groups to thrive, the US think tank says. After the Egyptian military reasserted its authority in July 2013 and cracked down on the Islamists nationwide, the militant groups escalated their attacks on the security forces and expanded their reach to cities along the Suez Canal and even to Cairo itself.
Understanding what has been happening in North Sinai is directly related to what happened in Egypt itself in 2013. The millions of people who took to the streets calling for an end to the rule of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi did not realise at the time that their revolt against the tyranny of this theocratic group would in future be related to North Sinai becoming a hub for terrorism.
In July 2013, Muslim Brotherhood leader and former MP Mohamed Al-Beltagui said on television that “what is happening in Sinai will stop the minute the army draws back and Mohamed Morsi is restored to power.” Despite attempts by Brotherhood apologists to justify what Al-Beltagui said, this comment could only mean one thing: that the Muslim Brothers were directly related to the terrorists taking North Sinai as a base for their operations.
The counter-operations carried out by the army in North Sinai have unified Egyptians belonging to many different ideologies. Even those who oppose the current political situation or those who accuse the government of being too sensitive to the opposition have announced their complete and unconditional support for the army and its operations in Northern Sinai.
Yet, some have expressed anger at what they describe as the “Egyptian army’s aggression in Sinai.” These people, mainly in the opposition media, supporters and sympathisers of the Muslim Brotherhood, and writers in Western media outlets, have claimed that the security forces’ launch of operations in North Sinai in order to eradicate the terrorist groups is “uncalled-for aggression”. There have been reports in some Western newspapers and in the Western media that have echoed the claims of Muslim Brotherhood media outlets operating from Istanbul or London and claiming that the Egyptian military is leading a “war against the innocent civilians of North Sinai”.
These writers have used words and phrases such as the “out-of-control Egyptian military,” and they have talked about “the military and the militants battling for control of the Sinai Peninsula.” They have claimed “civilian casualties resulting from the army’s aggression”, all of these comments reflecting either total ignorance or wilful betrayal.
Many Egyptians have questioned the objectivity and professionalism of some well-known human rights organisations when the latter ignore Turkish, Israeli, US, Russian, Iranian and other countries’ actions in Syria, for example, but consider Egypt’s attempts at restoring law and order on its own land to be “aggression” and “uncalled-for violence”. The US group Human Rights Watch’s recent accusation against the Iraqi Kurds, claiming that they carried out the “mass executions of detainees” against members of the terrorist Islamic State (IS) jihadist group is just one instance of the obscene double standards of some of these organisations. What Turkey has been doing in Syria is almost completely ignored.
Egypt might be going through internal political problems. Egyptians might be facing problems due to economic hardships. Thirty long years of deteriorating education and the failure to invest in human resources might be hitting hard at the heart of Egyptian society. The former Mubarak regime might have ignored the need to develop the Sinai Peninsula. All these things may be true. But what is definite is that the militants operating from North Sinai are not innocent civilians, and they not acting in the cause of greater autonomy.
Instead, the Egyptian army is carrying out an Egyptian people’s war against terrorism in North Sinai, a war that has cost thousands of innocent lives over the past few years since the Muslim Brotherhood president was ousted and his group classified as a terrorist organisation. The vast majority of Egyptian people back their army in the war against terrorism.
The writer is a journalist at Al-Hayat newspaper.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly