Kareem Raafat
July 5, 2019

Nine civilians were killed in the North Sinai Governorate last week, after a shell hit their house in the area south of Sheikh Zuweid. Seven of them owned the house, the other two were kidnapped by the ISIS offshoot Sinai Province a month ago. They were released minutes before the attack and took shelter in the house.

This incident summarises the suffering of the people in Sinai. They are either killed by rocket-propelled grenades from “unknown” planes, displaced by the Egyptian government from the strip adjacent to Gaza, or are kidnapped and murdered by terrorists.

Origins of the dilemma

Since its return to Egyptian sovereignty in 1982, and throughout the reign of Hosni Mubarak, Sinai has been poor and marginalised. With the exception of tourist resorts which are mainly located in the south, most of the peninsula has been excluded from the state’s development plans. Basic services such as electricity, water and sanitation systems have been largely insufficient or non-existent.

Following the tragic Taba and Nuweiba bombings in October 2004, authorities launched a brutal crackdown in North Sinai, resulting in the arrest of some 3,000 people, as the Egyptian security services had almost no information about the perpetrators. The wives and children of the suspects were taken hostage to pressure them to surrender. Many suspects were tortured. Since then, people living in Sinai have been treated as a security threat, and were always presumed guilty until proven innocent.

2013: beyond usual suffering

Since 2012, Egyptian security forces have been waging a war to root out terrorist groups operating in Sinai. At the same time, terrorist groups have been trying to tighten their grip over the peninsula, and even tried to seize control of Sheikh Zuweid in 2015. Because of this war, suffering has increased, especially in the northern areas, which since 2014 have been under emergency law continuously, and are under curfew for 11 hours a day.

The suffering we are talking about here goes beyond what has taken place before. According to international and local reports and testimonies, widespread violations are committed in Sinai, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, abductions, torture and forced displacement.

In a recent, lengthy report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that since the conflict erupted between the military and terrorist groups in Sinai in 2013, thousands have been arrested, hundreds disappeared, tens of thousands forcibly displaced or fled their homes because of the ongoing violence.

HRW accuses the army and police of committing large-scale abuses during the war on terrorism, including systematic and widespread arbitrary arrests of children, forced disappearances, torture, extrajudicial killings, collective punishment and forced evictions. The army is also likely to have launched illegal air and ground attacks that have killed many civilians – including children – and used civilian properties for military purposes. In addition, the army has recruited, armed and directed local militias that are implicated in serious human rights violations such as torture, arbitrary arrests and taking advantage of their power to exact personal vengeance.

These accusations were based on the testimonies of people in Sinai as well as news leaks. For example, in May 2018, a video was revealed of men wearing uniforms, identical to that of the Egyptian Army, who opened fire on a child in Sinai despite his pleas. The Egyptian Army did not comment on the video or deny the incident.

In April 2017, another video clip was circulated showing people wearing Egyptian Army uniforms executing unarmed civilians in the battlefield, after a brief interrogation by a bearded person in a military uniform. He was speaking a dialect similar to that of North Sinai. Following the execution of two people, weapons were placed next to each of them, to be photographed later.

Amnesty International said its analysis proved the video is authentic, and that members of the Egyptian armed forces are responsible for at least seven unlawful killings, including the close-range shooting of an unarmed man and a 17-year-old child.

These violations are not only committed by the security forces. According to the publications of Sinai Province, the organisation has killed many citizens from Sinai who do not agree with their extremist religious views, or those who may be thought of as collaborators or sympathisers with the government. In its report, Human Rights Watch documented that Sinai Province killed, kidnapped and tortured hundreds of Sinai residents. For example, in June 2019 they captured at least 11 civilians in ambushes in North Sinai.

This extraordinary suffering has been exacerbated by the unprecedented deterioration of basic services in North Sinai. According to residents’ testimonies, electricity, water and internet services are cut off for days. Moreover, after the start of Operation Sinai in February 2018, cities in North Sinai have been suffering from a severe shortage of food and fuel that continues until today.