The families of 10 young men killed recently in the governorate of north Sinai are demanding an investigation into the deaths, rejecting the government's claim that the 10 were members of a terrorist group who died in a shootout with security forces.
The el-Arish families say many of the dead had actually been abducted by the government — in some cases months ago — and the government is trying to cover up the Interior Ministry's complicity in their forced disappearances and deaths.
The Interior Ministry announced the deaths Jan. 13, claiming the young men were with Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (Wilayat Sinai), a terrorist group affiliated with the Islamic State (IS). The ministry’s statement said the men had opened fire on security forces as they neared the men’s hideout in a house in el-Arish. The ministry said the group previously had killed eight policemen in two attacks on security checkpoints in el-Arish.
The families met Jan. 14 and released a statement saying they refused to meet with the interior minister and demanding that northern Sinai parliament members resign. They also demanded the immediate release of people who have been detained or forcibly disappeared, saying the government can't be trusted. The families also want to know "the fate of the bodies of our children" and threatened to escalate the situation by calling for civil disobedience.
The Interior Ministry did not respond to the allegations against it.
Security forces have been clashing with armed extremists in the Sinai Peninsula, who increased their attacks following the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated former Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, in the wake of massive protests against his regime in July 2013. The el-Arish families are calling for daily meetings to be held to resolve their issues and address the longstanding crisis.
Yehya Hussein Ayoub, a lawyer and spokesmann for the Arish Tribes Committee, said the public prosecutor and the National Council for Human Rights have been presented with documents regarding the men whom the Interior Ministry said were killed in the shootout. Ayoub said the documents prove instead that some of the men were forcibly disappeared. In a Jan. 22 press interview, Ayoub called for an investigation into the incident to expose the responsible security leaders. Such an investigation has yet to be launched.
Sinai activist and journalist Mona al-Zamlout said the el-Arish families wouldn't resort to civil disobedience, as they had threatened. Rather, she said, they hope the threat will pressure the police to acknowledge the rights of the men who died. On Jan. 23, she posted on her Facebook page, “This was a fit of anger, but it is almost over.”
On Jan. 18, following a meeting in the town of Sheikh Zuweid, about 25 miles from el-Arish, 10 tribal sheikhs and several north Sinai governorate families rejected the el-Arish families’ statement. They said they object to any measures or calls that serve armed groups and harm the public interest.
Ibrahim al-Arajani, the sheikh of al-Tarabin tribe — one of the tribes that rejected the el-Arish families' statements — called for “reuniting and supporting the army and police in the war on terrorism.” He said in a press statement, “The families' feud with the state will only strengthen terrorists and harm Sinai and its citizens.”
However, a number of locals from Sheikh Zuweid told Mada Masr they rejected the statement made by the tribal sheikhs. "Some individuals with connections to the state are responsible for releasing the statement, which does not represent our town’s people,” Mada Masr quoted locals as saying.
Hussam Rifai, a parliament member representing el-Arish, said it is dangerous for security forces to overlook the murder of Sinai civilians. He told Al-Monitor he submitted an urgent report to parliament two days after the clashes, asking parliament to form a fact-finding committee to examine the issue and verify the el-Arish families’ accusations against the Interior Ministry. But plans for the committee remain vague, as parliament hasn’t officially announced its formation.
Rifai said he is staying in contact with the el-Arish families to keep the situation calm until the investigations are over. He voiced his solidarity with the families.
Salah Salam, a member of the National Council for Human Rights in North Sinai, said, “The Arish men’s case is confusing. There are two stories, one from the Ministry of Interior about their affiliation with a terrorist group, and another one from their families, who deny any such affiliation.”
He told Al-Monitor, “Several families submitted a request to the public prosecutor to investigate the issue,” and he himself received 650 requests from Sinai families to present to the Presidential Pardon Commission, which was formed in November. The requests call for the release of prisoners facing charges that have not been proved.
Rifai noted the need to revisit security forces’ behavior toward Sinai families, as security forces need the support of each Sinai citizen to face the terrorist threat there. “We appreciate the efforts of all loyal policemen, but we must take new measures to facilitate crossing from and to Sinai and to expedite the investigations in the cases of the forcibly disappeared,” he said. Rifai said there are no specific statistics on the forcibly disappeared in northern Sinai.
“We support any security measure to fight terrorism, even if it is too strict," he said. "But we ask for civilians’ needs to be taken into consideration.”
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