Less than a warzone

Mohamed Soleiman is a resident of Masoura, a neighborhood in the Sinai border town Rafah. Last Saturday at dawn, he was awoken by the sounds of shooting next to his house.

When he stepped out into the street, Soleiman hid in a deserted school to witness the attack on the military checkpoint next to his home. “There were two land cruisers and a Toyota. They drove past the checkpoint and directed their rocket-propelled grenades at it. They were all masked — about 10 people. They had military clothes on,” Soleiman tells Mada Masr.

A resident came out to check what happened, Soleiman recounts, but an army officer screamed, telling him to go back inside. “Then he went with others to carry an injured soldier. The whole thing took 10 minutes.”

Holes in the minaret of the adjacent mosque are scattered relics of the attack. A soldier is stationed inside to look over the whole town. He frowns when Mada Masr tries to take a picture.

Like other military and security posts in Sinai, the Masoura checkpoint was not attacked once or twice, but three times. The first attack happened weeks after the January 25 revolution broke out. Another attack occurred in 2012. The attackers are always the same — unknown masked gunmen.

The same description applies to the attackers of the Central Security camp in Ahrash, near the Gaza border, also on Friday. The camp — an easy target due to its position on a downslope — was attacked previously in May, but also on other occasions before 2012. “They surrounded the camp from all four different sides. For three whole hours, there was fighting,” a soldier mumbles nervously, wringing his hands.  

Apart from his nervousness, there is little to suggest that this was a battlefield for hours just two days ago. From above, the camp looks intact. An air of calm has fallen over the area at large, contrary to media coverage that portrays it as a reckless warzone, where terrorists bomb security posts right and left, night and day.

On Sunday, the Interior Ministry issued a statement reporting the death of four of its men in attacks in Sinai on Friday.

Reports of violence in Sinai have intensified since Islamist President Mohamed Morsi was deposed on July 3. Attacks on checkpoints have become a daily news item for local media.

However, the actual connection of these incidents to Morsi’s ouster remains unknown.

There has been no evidence of organizational ties between militant groups operating in Sinai and the Muslim Brotherhood; there are, in fact, reported ideological rifts with these groups, some of which condemn the Brotherhood’s compromised commitment to the Islamist project.

But Islamists interviewed by Mada Masr in Sinai do not rule out that these incidents could be a violent reaction to Morsi’s ouster, provoked by rage at the military’s eradication of what would have been the beginning of an Islamic project.

The scope of this reaction is yet to be seen, but many in Sinai also foresee deliberate exaggerations by the military to justify their consolidated grip on power. For them, many facts reported in Sinai are imaginary — the only essential fact is that the peninsula is a tool in a power play between Islamists and the military.

Just a year ago, shortly after Morsi took power, 16 soldiers were killed in an ambush in August 2012. To date, little is known about the attackers, but the incident empowered Morsi to sack the top leaders of the military council with which the Brotherhood maintained a strained relationship. Morsi appointed a new Armed Forces Chief Commander, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. In May 2013, seven soldiers were kidnapped in Sinai, amid popular outcry against Morsi’s inability to control increasing militancy in the peninsula. The incident is widely seen as one of the nails in the coffin of his presidency. A month later, he is out of power, effected by a statement read out by none other than Sisi himself on July 3.

In Sheikh Zuwayed, a town near Arish, a gathering of Islamist forces was held last Sunday to reject the military move. “This army and this deep state and those remnants of the old regime are all against Islam. There is no legitimacy without Sharia,” says Abu Mahmoud, a member of the Islamist Ansar al-Sharia group.

“No to democracy. No to secularism. Yes to Islamic Sharia,” he shouts out, surrounded by fellow Islamists carrying black flags with “There is no god but Allah” signs inscribed on them.  Around him, chants rose, “What do you tell Sisi? Islamic, Islamic!”

Asked whether this is a pro-Morsi gathering, Abu Mahmoud is quick to say, “We are not here to talk about the Brotherhood. We are here to talk about Sharia. The Brothers haven’t applied Sharia, and Morsi didn’t talk about Sharia. But he is persecuted just because he represents an Islamic project.”

Like other Islamists, Abu Mahmoud thinks Morsi is not an ideal president and democracy is not a preferred practice. But democracy brought Morsi to power, and he represented the beginning of what could have been the longed-for Islamic nation.

Unlike other groups in Sinai, Ansar al-Sharia is not known for violent attacks. But in these circumstances, Ansar al-Sharia understands the logic behind violence and expects it.  

“There are clashes between the military and people. Groups like Majlis Shurat al-Mujahedeen and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis are here to fight Israel. But if the army and the police attack Muslims, they will attack back,” Abu Mahmoud explains. “These groups have given the Egyptian Armed Forces an ultimatum to stop its attack on Islam.”

After which, Abu Mahmoud claims that these groups will attack the military.

Besides the two groups he mentions, the Salafi Jihadi movement is the third group known to be violent in the peninsula. Majlis Shurat al-Mujahedeen and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis have an international outlook, with the former inspired by Al-Qaeda, and the latter having a branch in the bordering Gaza strip. The Salafi Jihadi movement, meanwhile, is more local and known to include militants from across Egypt, and not only from Sinai.

“Sisi’s decision made us lose control over our children in Sinai,” contends Asaad al-Beik, the head of Ahl al-Sunna Wal Sharia group in Sinai. Beik is one of the Islamist sheikhs with whom military officers typically converse to mediate with the more militant groups. He explains that in his last meeting with military officers, he warned them of a possible complete loss of control over militant groups.

“I told the head of the Second Army:  ‘You’ve made these groups lose their temper. These groups are now saying, we are here’,” he says.

Voicing the same concern, Marei Arar, who was a close associate of Morsi and former cellmate of top Brotherhood leader Khairat al-Shater, says the military could have resorted to other courses of action rather than ousting the elected president altogether. The ouster, he claimed, is putting the military at an impasse.

Arar has been on the forefront of the mediation for the release of the seven kidnapped soldiers, and one of the people through whom Morsi took pride in having faithful interlocutors in Sinai, unlike his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.

Arar now asserts that it is harder to control militant groups.

The ability of sheikhs from less militant groups, such as Arar and Beik, to mediate with militant cells has not been verified by Mada Masr. But they are deemed to be at least an important gateway to information for the military.

“It is a war of information,” explains Mostafa Singer, a seasoned Sinai-based journalist. “The army has no ability to collect information about these groups, especially since they operate in a guerrilla manner.”

The military’s failure to handle militancy in Sinai goes as far as militants conducting operations and going back to their villages to sleep at home, Singer explains. They don’t seek hideouts, and unlike military claims that the Halal Mountain, in mid-Sinai, is their greatest refuge, Singer claims that the mountain, with its exposed topography, has been useless for them.

The Operation Eagle campaign launched by the army in 2011, which was publicized as a massive counter-attack by the state on Sinai’s militants, is commonly looked upon with skepticism by Islamists in Sinai. For them, the campaign did not manage to do anything beyond spreading military propaganda in Cairo. 

A policeman involved in the campaign, who asked to remain anonymous, says that he was deployed on the outskirts of the mountain and hence couldn’t see the details of Operation Eagle’s unfolding. “I watched videos about the campaign like regular citizens did, but I don’t know the details because the operation was conducted by special forces. We were just deployed on the outskirts to secure the operation,” he tells Mada Masr.

Similarly, news about a robust military deployment on the ground following the kidnapping of soldiers in May was not visibly corroborated upon Mada Masr’s visit at the time.

But the skepticism transcends military propaganda and extends to the level of militancy in Sinai in general.

Like others, Arar says much of what is reported about militant attacks in Sinai is fake and meant to justify the military’s power grip. “Is it normal that a checkpoint is attacked several times, and nothing is done about it? This is a conspiracy,” he asserts.

Arar went on to mock news reported earlier on Sunday that the gas pipeline running from south Arish to Jordan had been bombed. “The bombing was happening just as military Apaches were hovering in the sky,” he says. A year ago, the pipeline supplying gas to Israel from Sinai was bombed over a dozen times.

“This is a media campaign by the military,” Arar contends.

Later in the evening, Mada Masr spends time with a group of local journalists in Arish. As Apaches start hovering around at their regular late evening hour, one of the journalists receives news of attacks on three checkpoints south of Arish.  Minutes later, Mada Masr went to see the attacked checkpoints, two of which are stationed on the ring road out of Arish, and found nothing but soldiers sipping their tea in the calm evening breeze. The news of the attacks had already made it to media outlets in Cairo.


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