Egypt’s Sinai is a ‘Land of Fear’

Following the ouster of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi on July 3, the northern parts of the Sinai peninsula have been plagued with violence and economic problems.

al-monitor People check the scene where a car bomb exploded in near the port town of El-Arish in Egypt's Sinai peninsula, July 24, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Stringer.

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Sep 25, 2013

The Sinai, especially its northern part, has rarely witnessed a state of stability. This Egyptian peninsula, located between the Suez Canal to the west and Palestine to the east, has constituted for long years an object of desire for many regional and international parties.

Sinai is currently experiencing a new phase of instability. This strategic region is facing all forms of violence, after it was transformed into fertile ground for different terrorist groups that are present and coexisting in it.

On the road from Cairo to the northern regions of the Sinai, all passengers are taken by a subtle fear. Everyone tries to hide this feeling by listening to the recitation of Quranic verses. The voices of sheikhs emanating from cell phones are mixed with those on the radio.

The ride, which normally takes five hours, nowadays needs seven hours. This is not because of heavy traffic on the Egypt-Sinai road, but rather because of the tight security measures in addition to the confusion that resulted from closing the Suez Canal Bridge approximately two months again. The closure of the bridge means that everyone crossing over the Suez Canal must rely on ferryboats.

At the checkpoints manned by the armed forces, a state of alert reigns. Cars and passengers are thoroughly inspected. These checkpoints, however, are not safe enough to protect the soldiers themselves.

Checkpoints seem completely exposed. A number of soldiers, not exceeding five, each hold a rifle to shield against expected death. Despite this, they are always smiling. It may be a smile of hope, concealing the slogan of “Duty comes first.”

Throughout the trip, a woman keeps talking about her fear of returning to the Sinai. She talks about the daily horror the residents are going through inside their homes. “No one feels safe. We are waiting for death at any moment.” She then adds with grief, “If we were not in need of work, we would not have come back.”

In the city of El-Arish, the first stop of the trip, people are constantly talking about recurrent killings targeting civilians as well as army and police forces.  

According to residents, violence has spread in an epidemic and mysterious way after the ouster of former President Mohammed Morsi, who espoused Islamist ideology. They feel helpless when it comes to protecting themselves and their families against the incessant stray bullets. The majority of El-Arish’s residents do not have any means to protect themselves. They only close their doors and rely on God first, and the nearest checkpoint second.

Before the amendments to the curfew that took place a few days ago, curfew started in the northern cities of the Sinai at 6 p.m. Yet, it was actually implemented at 4 p.m., given the expansive reaches of the province.

Although the curfew is applied in a somewhat lenient manner in El-Arish, as is the case in other crowded areas in Egypt, the story is totally different in the northern cities of the Sinai, including those adjacent to El-Arish. Citizens are not allowed to wander about after 4 p.m. and travelers are not allowed to enter the city after 6 p.m., which has left a large number of people stuck on the roads.

The outskirts in  northern Sinai, such as Rafah and Sheikh Zuwaid, are struggling with the worst security. According to the map of armed groups, the border cities are witnessing a dense presence of three jihadist groups — Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, whose mission is to fight Jews and whose elements are deployed in many border cities; the Salafist Jihadist Movement, with 90% of its members located in Sheikh Zuwaid; and the Mujahedeen Shura Council, with 70% of its members located in Sheikh Zuwaid and Rafah.

Most of the army checkpoints that are deployed on the road between the cities of El-Arish and Sheikh Zuwaid have been attacked more than once during clashes with Salafist jihadist groups.

The main square in Sheikh Zuwaid has been completely closed due to repeated clashes there. A few meters away from the square lies the city’s police department. The building exemplifies the security situation, with its semi-ruined walls riddled with bullet holes and mortar shell markings. There were three snipers positioned on the roof while police officers were inside the building.

“We are scared. If we go out we will die,” said a resident in the Sinai, who symbolizes the state of all the people of the region, which has become paralyzed since the ouster of Morsi and the beginning of terrorist attacks.

In the city of Sheikh Zuwaid, all doors are closed. Indeed, 90% of shops surrounding the police department in the Qawasimah neighborhood have been damaged. No one dares to reopen them, as attacks could occur at any moment. Nevertheless, the owners of these shops are obliged to continue to pay the monthly rent amounting to 1,500 Egyptian pounds ($218).

Trade is paralyzed and most consumer goods are not available. Moreover, people are living in terror, as they are afraid of being killed by stray bullets fired by the army or internal forces during clashes with extremist groups; this is not to mention the curfew imposed from time to time.

Hashem Abu Bakr, an employee in the courts, said, “We now rely on salary advances; those who have little sustenance share it with their neighbors. Most of us do not dare go out of the house for fear of gun shootings and sometimes we are banned from leaving our homes due to strict security measures. Even employees have not been paid their salaries for two months and some of the residents had to sell their cattle for half price to repay their debts.”

“We are not upset with the army, but it sometimes fires randomly killing a lot of people,” said a woman in her 50s, carrying a child. Indeed, one of the residents of Sheikh Zuwaid , who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that his 70-year-old father was shot by internal security forces snipers as he was heading to the pharmacy at 4:30 p.m. Given his old age, the man did not hear the warning of officers and received a bullet in the head.

The children of the Sinai are also living in a state of fear because of the terrorist operations. Many children have been suffering from nighttime seizures and some neurotic cases.

Moreover, people are concerned about the deficit in daily supplies, as the truckloads of supplies are facing great difficulties in reaching the northern Sinai from Cairo. Sometimes, the most basic goods — such as flour, oil, sugar and salt — are not available.

“There was a decision to extend August’s subsistence supplies for 10 days, as the ministry failed to provide the sufficient quantities," a resident said. "However, we were surprised to learn that the decision was canceled. We ask the supply officer about the cause of the crisis, he said that the August allocation was nine tons but only two tons were supplied.”

This is what caused prices in the northern Sinai to rise by about 50%. The price of a loaf of bread has reached 1.25 pounds [$0.18], as bakery owners have been losing tons of flour on a daily basis.

People have become terrorized to the extent that taxi drivers are refusing to transport soldiers, even if they are wearing civilian clothes, for fear of being targeted.

“We are afraid that we might be targeted as well, while transporting soldiers,” said Mohammed al-Atarach, a resident of the Sinai.

At 3 p.m. sharp, As-Safir’s tour in Rafah and Sheikh Zuwaid ended suddenly. The curfew was about to start.

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