Since North Sinai became a battleground for the fight between militant groups and the military three years ago, the city of Arish has managed to maintain a degree of normalcy. While it falls within range of the declared military operation in the area, the capital of the governorate has been protected from the grimmer fate of its eastern neighbors – Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed – due to its urban nature and distance from militant strongholds.
Located 50 km from the border, Arish has seen attacks by militants, heavy military presence and exceptional security measures, including a curfew since 2013, but residents say that lately they are starting to feel the brunt of the ongoing war more than ever.
On March 19, 15 policemen died in a terrorist attack on a checkpoint in the residential area of Safa in Arish, in an operation claimed by Ansar Beit al-Maqdes, the militant group that has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. The incident sparked an unprecedented security campaign in several neighborhoods across the city.
In April, security forces placed the Safa neighborhood and surrounding areas under complete lockdown, cordoning the area off and prohibiting the residents from leaving their houses for three days. During this time, forces conducted house-to-house searches and made arrests amid continuous heavy firing, according to residents.
Mohamed*, a 28-year-old worker in a Sinai cement factory who lives in Safa, describes how his whole neighborhood was temporarily turned into a military zone.
He says the neighborhood woke up on April 3 to find all roads blocked, and soldiers in the street asking them to turn around and go back to their homes. When he was leaving for work, soldiers told Mohamed to return to his residence, where he had to stay for the next three days.
Security forces repeated the pattern in several other areas during the following week: Berket Halyma, Masaeed, Zohour, and part of the corniche.
Each area was on lockdown for a day, where residents had a taste of life under siege.
“Placing neighborhoods under siege is something that we heard about in Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafah, but never in Arish. People are shaken, now it seems we’re on track to becoming a ghost town just like Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed,” says 33-year-old accountant Mansour, who witnessed the lockdown in Masaeed.
Located on the western corner of the city, Masaeed is known as one of the safest neighborhoods in Arish, with a high percentage of outsiders, including students.
Mansour says that the residents were shocked, not just by the security operation, but by the extent to which militants had penetrated the city. He says this is the first time that militants were able to conduct a military attack on foot in a residential Arish area.
However, this is not the first large-scale attack by militants in Arish.
Despite being a haven for people fleeing Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed, the turbulence in the peninsula has left a mark on Arish in the last three years. In January 2015, the largest security facilities in Arish were hit in successive attacks, leaving 29 dead right in the midst of the Dahya area in the north of Arish, adjacent to key security establishments.
Since the heavy security sweep in the city, terrorist attacks continued. On April 6, assistant head of security in North Sinai, Yasser Hafez, was injured in an explosion in Arish targeting a military tank he was in. On Monday, two people were killed and eight injured in an attack on a security bus.
Besides the lockdown, security raids on have become common.
On the second day of the lockdown on Safa, two soldiers and an officer knocked on Mohamed’s door. They asked him to step back and came into the house, asking to see his and his brother’s IDs and asking them what they do. They conducted a 15-minute search of the house and left.
Ahmed, a third-year engineering student living in Masaeed found soldiers at his doorstep one morning in the apartment where he’s staying with other students. The soldiers asked them some questions before telling them not to leave.
Residents say that the military conducted the searches in a respectful manner, but the step still made them worry about the fate of their city.
“The security treats us well, but there’s fear everywhere, they’re threatened all the time, and we’re not used to this. We’re not used to the sound of explosions,” Ahmed says.
Shortages in services are also reaching a critical point in the city. Residents have been complaining of a water shortage that affected the whole city in the last few weeks. They have also had to cope with long communication blackouts, which have been ongoing since 2013. These blackouts are used by security as a way to combat explosives that are triggered by phone lines.
Mobility has also become increasingly difficult.
Mohamed from Safa says that, due to increasingly rigorous checkpoints, his commute to work on the outskirts of Arish, which used to take an hour, now takes three to five hours. Similarly, Ahmed, the student, avoids the main roads leading to his university and opts for side streets instead.
“Last year things were OK, but now it’s becoming tough. Now we hear that the terrorists are coming our way and we see the same things that we used to hear about in Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed happening here,” says Ahmed.
Four residents told Mada Masr that they blame the increased militant activity in the city on groups fleeing Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafah and moving their activities to Arish.
The last two years have witnessed a considerable exodus from the two cities where the ongoing violence, lack of services and collapsing economy have made life close to unbearable. In addition to voluntary relocation, the government has so far evacuated a one-kilometer area in Rafah on the border to create a buffer zone with Gaza in an attempt to stop underground smuggling. A large percentage of people evacuated moved to Arish.
Just a few years ago, Arish was a popular touristic destination for Egyptians and foreigners alike, with its pristine beaches overlooking the Mediterranean.
Meanwhile, Ashraf Ayoub, founding member of the Socialist Egyptian Movement “January,” who is from Arish, sees some developments in how security is dealing with this escalation.
Despite complaining of violations of the rights of residents, Ayoub says there is a rare step in the right direction.
“There are some successes now – they started to move with a plan, instead of just setting up checkpoints,” he explains, adding that recently gathered intelligence is leading to a more targeted security approach.
On April 14, the head of North Sinai Security Sayed al-Habbal took a tour of Arish, making visits to forces on the ground to raise their morale. However, phone lines were down in the whole city for the duration of the visit, a palpable sign of fear accompanying the general’s tour de force.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of sources.