Once Egyptians achieved the near-impossible task of ridding themselves of the oppressive Islamist Muslim Brotherhood (MB) regime that rose to power in the wake of the Arab Spring uprising, they knew they were in for a vicious battle with the Islamist faction.
Egyptians had been willing to give the MB a chance to govern; after all, they did promise a life of prosperity on earth and paradise in the thereafter. However, the three elections that followed the Arab Spring in 2011 clearly indicated that people had begun to see them for what they really were and support for the Brotherhood waned. Muhammad Mursi won the presidency in June 2012 with a very narrow margin; the election results are still being contested in court. The severely declining support for the MB drove Mr Mursi to make a grab for sweeping powers in November 2012 and put an end to all possibility of democratic practice. Efforts to Islamise Egypt were steaming ahead and, fuelled by a nosediving economy, Egyptians declared rebellion. On 30 June 2013, exactly a year on Mr Mursi in office, some 33 million Egyptians took to the streets demanding the downfall of the president and the MB regime. The military gave Mr Mursi a 48-hour ultimatum to resolve the crisis, but he arrogantly rejected it and, on 3 July, was overthrown.
Egyptians knew they were in for a vicious battle with the Islamists, a battle against terrorism that Egypt could not afford to lose. The MB made no secret of this: once Mr Mursi was overthrown the MB leader Sheikh Safwat Higazy promised Egyptians “terrorism you never thought existed”. Another MB leader, Muhammad al-Biltagui threatened that, “there will be peace in Sinai only once Mursi is back as president”.
The people are steadfast
The MB kept their word. Egypt, has been fighting Islamist terrorism ever since, but Egyptians are unapologetic. If anything, the MB viciousness serves only to steel public will against them. The Sinai Peninsula especially has seen fierce battles between the Islamists, strongly supported by the Palestinian MB off-shoot of Hamas, and the Egyptian army. Islamist al-Qaeda-like groups had begun to entrench themselves there in the Mursi days when there was a lot of talk that the then president would offer Sinai as an alternative homeland to the Palestinian people. This was one of the major reasons for Mr Mursi’s downfall. It offered strong evidence of his intention to turn Egypt into part of an Islamic pan-world caliphate; this did not sit well with Egyptians who in the main part cherish their ‘Egyptianness’ and favour a moderate version of Islam.
During the period from February 2011 to October 2014, the Islamists waged 92 terrorist operations in Sinai. Since July 2013 the Egyptian army has been waging a fierce battle against Jihadis in Sinai. Dozens of Egyptian soldiers have lost their lives, and dozens of civilians have been caught in the crossfire. North Sinai, at the northern tip of which lies the 14km-long Egypt Gaza border, has become a dangerous place to live.
Queuing for the ferry
I recently paid a short visit to al-Arish, the capital of North Sinai. I travelled from Cairo to Ismailiya to catch the ferry that crosses the Suez Canal to the Sinai Peninsula. In Ismailiya I joined the crowds queuing for the ferry. Before the overthrow of President Mursi it was easy to cross the canal. Back then the al-Salam Bridge was in operation, but it had to be closed in the wake of terrorist threats. Now the only way to cross is by ferry.
The passengers were unhappy with the long wait. The ferry can only carry 10 to 15 vehicles a time, and the passengers and cars have to go through rigorous security checks before boarding. Everyone knows that this is to make sure that no arms or contraband find their way to Sinai, but the arduous process is frustrating and the passengers raise their hands and ask God to avenge them against the terrorists who have turned their lives to hell.
Two hours on we were finally on our way across the canal. In only two days’ time a horrendous car bomb would be detonated at Karm al-Qawadis near Rafah, claiming the lives of 33 Egyptian soldiers and injuring 25 others, but there was no sign yet of the carnage to come.
The first thing that met our eyes once we started out on the road was the encouraging sight of heavy equipment working on the New Suez Canal project, digging the new course and paving new roads. After that we crossed several security checkpoints where armoured vehicles stood surrounded by mounds of sand and large rocks as defence against possible terrorist attacks. On both sides of the road nothing was to be seen but the desert and a few homes and camels belonging to local Bedouin.
It took us two and a half hours to reach al-Arish. Despite the serene beauty of the town and its legendary palm-dotted beachfront, the frequent terrorist operations have left an oppressive mood. We headed for the guest-house of the church of the Holy Virgin—which has not escaped terrorist attacks—where Father Raphael Moussa was waiting for us. He had sent someone to facilitate our entry to the area around the church, which is under tight security. The way to the church ran through an obstacle course of sand mounds, while soldiers were stationed on top of the building to spot anyone approaching and direct a searchlight on him—I say ‘him’ because no woman has yet dared approach—and ask him to stop and show his identity card. Inside the guest-house were more armed officers who were in constant contact with those outside.
We were warmly received and the simple meal we were offered tasted like a banquet. Our rooms, clean and simply furnished, offered a welcome respite from the tense surroundings and climate we had sustained all day.
Making themselves at home
On the following day we went to the town centre. The most common memories the residents shared were about the destruction that followed the Arab Spring and the stepping down of longtime President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. Islamist Jihadis held sway over the region and, during the Mursi time in office, it practically became ‘home’ for them.
A young taxi driver told us about the notorious attack against the town’s Second Police Station in July 2011, some six months into the Arab Spring. He said a procession of 40 SUVs flying the black al-Qaeda flag shot at the police station, killing five soldiers, three civilians, and injuring 25. One of the big problems when standing up to terrorism in al-Arish, he explained, was that a terrorist could be living there normally yet took part in the bombings or shootings and then returned home. These terrorists were hard to uncover, he said.
Another longtime resident of Arish said that conditions were today relatively stable compared with the time when Mr Mursi was president and directly after he was overthrown in July 2013. Efforts by the army to maintain peace made a lot of difference, he said, but people still felt insecure on account of the sporadic bombings and shootings. “The children are terrorised,” he told us. “Many residents of North Sinai, especially those who lived in the towns of Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayid on the Egypt Gaza border, have left.”
The border has been the scene of continuous clashes between the Egyptian Armed Forces and the Hamas-supported Jihadis of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and Ansar al-Sharia. The Islamists appear from time to time on the streets distributing leaflets threatening whoever cooperates with the police or the army.
Hard for Christians
Copts living in Sinai were in for especially hard times; they suffered doubly at the hands of the Jihadis for being both Christian and well as Egyptian. The church of the Holy Family in the border town of Rafah was torched in the first days of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising. Other churches were later burnt, including Mar-Girgis’s (St George’s) in al-Arish.
Masked Islamists riding motorbikes or driving in Rafah shot at Coptic homes or shops. They distributed fliers that demanded: “Nusranis (a derogatory term used to denote Christians) pack and leave the land of Islam. You have 48 hours to do so, if you don’t there will be no one to blame but yourselves.” Many Copts left town in terror. Others whose livelihoods were closely linked to the town sent their children away to relatives and themselves stayed on.
Fr Mina Abboud Sharobim, 39, was killed on 7 July 2013. His car was stopped by masked men; he was dragged out and shot at several times. Four days later Magdy Lamei Habashy, 63, was kidnapped and a ransom demanded from his family who were poor by any standards, but a few hours later he was bound with chains, beheaded and his body thrown near the local cemetery. Another Copt, 37-year-old Hani Samir, was shot and killed by masked men as he stood in front of his house in al-Arish.
Dozens of Copts have been kidnapped for ransom, which obviously offers the terrorists a lucrative means of financing their operations. All the Copts in Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayid—some 17 extended families—left town. According to one Copt, Fadya Abdel-Sayed who, with her family, was among those who left, 120 Coptic families left al-Arish.
A common complaint was on account of the hard times where trade and business are concerned. Last summer, the pristine beaches of Arish saw practically no tourists; and rampant crime drives away business.
The closure of al-Salam Bridge poses another serious problem to residents, especially since it is the only way petrol and vital goods can cross into the region. The shortage of petrol has led some gasoline station owners to dilute it with water, a very serious crime with harsh consequences for car owners.
During my short stay in al-Arish there occurred a terrorist attack in which two armoured vehicles were bombed; six soldiers died and another five were injured. All communications were cut for five hours until the police and army had combed the district to hunt down the culprits.
Residents were understandably livid with the terrorists. They followed the news by the minute and were relieved when they knew the culprits had been killed in the ensuing battle. They insisted that the terrorists were receiving foreign funding and were getting back at Egyptians for overthrowing the Islamist government, and they demanded that the tunnels leading to the Gaza strip be fully destroyed in order to stop the flow of arms to the Jihadis in Sinai.
Now, following the Friday 24 October bombing, a state of emergency has been declared in Sinai, and a 1.5 – 3km deep buffer zone established on the Gaza border. This has meant blowing up all buildings in that zone, including homes in Rafah that housed tunnel openings, as well as the church. It is another huge sacrifice that Egyptians are paying for overthrowing the Islamists. Yet Egypt is unrepentant and holding its ground.
5 November 2014