El-SHEIKH ZWAYYED, Sinai — The Sinai Peninsula has witnessed a significant surge in attacks by armed militants targeting military security facilities in El-Arish and elsewhere over the past month, raising concerns over the effectiveness and methods of Egypt's military campaign in the region and its attempt to keep strict control of the message.
Egypt's military said the attacks in El-Arish were in retaliation for the detention of a number of suspected militants on Sept. 16. The violence followed dozens of armed jihadists attacking the peacekeeping mission base at El-Gora, a town 37 kilometers southeast of El-Arish, two days earlier.
A Sinai armed group named the Salafist Jihadist Group took responsibility for the El-Gora attack, saying it was in reaction to an American-made video insulting the Prophet Muhammad — that also triggered violent protests across the Middle East and North Africa last week. The group also claimed responsibility for the attack on the Egyptian military Sept. 16 during its raid on the village of Al-Muqataa, near the border with Gaza. Two armored vehicles were destroyed and a helicopter’s surveillance camera was damaged during that attack.
“[The attacks were] a reaction to the military’s inhuman terrorizing innocent civilians,” the group said in an online statement.
Egyptian military officials say they are in control of the situation.
“Air Force units continue to track down and follow the movement of criminal elements in preparation for further raids by military and police forces,” said Col. Ahmed Ali, Egypt’s newly appointed military spokesman who said one soldier was killed and six injured in the attacks.
Even so, the official statement failed to give a clear assessment of where the military campaign stands but emphasized that “media outlets should refrain from publishing any information but official statements.”
A few hours after the press conference, an Egyptian reporter covering the Sinai received orders from his newspaper to refrain from reporting anything critical of the military operation, he told Al-Monitor. “My editor did not explain but I believe the newspaper received those orders the government and the military whose performance was harshly criticized and statements were doubted,” said the reporter who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared losing his job at the local top-selling independent newspaper.
“This is equal to the former regime’s press ban, which they used to impose whenever they were in trouble or about to be caught in a scandal,” the reporter added.
Sinai residents were as mocking of the military spokesman as they were of the campaign itself. Col. Ali is now nicknamed Al-Sahhaf, after Mohamed Saeed Al-Sahhaf, Saddam Hussein’s information minister who led a misinformation and propaganda campaign via Iraqi national television before and during the 2003 US invasion.
“I am an ordinary Bedouin that never had any animosity toward the authorities,” said Kraiem Abu Rugba, 26, a self-proclaimed jihadist, interviewed in the town of El-Sheikh Zwayyed, 35 kilometers from El-Arish, and just a few hundred meters away from heavily armed security checkpoints. “This military operation turned me into a fugitive and now everyone thinks I am Sinai’s most dangerous terrorist.”
El-Sadat, Abu Rugba's village, was raided by 16 armored vehicles, several military SUVs and dozens of heavily armed personnel on Aug. 19.
He wasn't home, he recalled. Instead, security forces dragged his younger brother Talab from the house in his underwear and ravaged through 15 houses in the village. "Even the older men and women were strip searched and humiliated,” he said.
He accused Egypt’s military of relying on counterfeit intelligence provided by hired informants who are usually criminals.
“They adopted the same filthy policies of Hosni Mubarak’s state security — they only reinforced it with machine guns and military helicopters,” he said. “I work closely with Islamist Courts that are always against the criminal acts of the police and their informants. They targeted me because I am always against the drug dealers and criminals hired by the police as informants.”
“If their intelligence were reliable, why are they still being attacked in major cities a month after the campaign started?” Abu Rugba added.
His younger brother was released after being questioned by prosecutors, and remained in custody for more than two weeks despite three release warrants signed by the prosecutor’s office, according to Abu Rugba.
Meanwhile, Abu Rugba and three other brothers are on the most wanted list — one is 13 and another 15 years old.
“If we sensed any justice in this military campaign, I would turn myself in immediately," Abu Rugba said. "But how do you expect me to cooperate with those who raided my house and humiliated my family in a similar way to Mubarak’s police.”
Residents of tribal community were not the only ones outraged by the recent military operations in Sinai, or critical of them.
“The latest events proved how weak and debilitated Egypt’s national security is, there has been absolutely no security grip over Sinai — this was clearly proven over the past few weeks,” said former Air Force Gen. Mohamed Okasha, who led a squadron of fighter jets between 1967 and 1973.
“When President Morsi flew to Rafah and announced that he would personally take charge of the operation, we felt a bit optimistic. But our optimism has diminished with the withdrawal of reinforcements after Israeli complaints, wavering statements by the military, unconvincing numbers of deaths among armed militants – and most recently, it became as scandalous as armed militants attacking the authorities in the heart of a major city, El-Arish.”
“Morsi’s government now resembles Mubarak’s government and military with their lack of transparency and deceptive information,” he added.
In the border town of Rafah, residents say the military, which they had hoped would take over during the uprising that forced Mubarak out of office, is now hated because of adopting the former regime’s exceptional and at times brutal security measures.
“Initially, I was happy that a military campaign would finally bring back that stability we have been missing for years," said Ibrahim El-Menaei, deputy chairman of the Arab Tribes Union, an association preserving tribal heritage and attempting to resolve community issues in Sinai. "But I was shocked to hear those lies being spread on local and international channels, not to mention the poor and confused performance we are seeing here on the ground.”
“The authorities will never be able to maintain security without trusting and gaining the trust of citizens," he added, speaking from his house in Mehdeyya, a village south of Rafah regularly described by the military as a stronghold of armed militants. "They should know that imitating the former regime, attacking homes and detaining innocent civilians is not the way to gain that trust.”
“If they continue with these policies," he added, "they can forget about the Sinai.”
Mohannad Sabry is an Egyptian journalist based in Cairo. He has written for McClatchy newspapers and The Washington Times, and served as managing editor of Global Post's reporting fellowship "Covering the Revolution" in Cairo as well as a contributor to its special reports "Tahrir Square" and "Egypt: the military, the people." Sabry has also worked as a field producer for several TV news shows including PBS NewsHour and Frontline. Sabry, born in Saudi Arabia and raised around the world, returned to Cairo in 2001 and has been covering Egypt since 2005.