The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
After decades of relative calm, El-Arish, the capital of Egypt’s North Sinai province, has become a recruiting ground for the Islamic State (ISIS). On January 9, the group declared responsibility for attacks on two checkpoints in the city that left eight police personnel dead. Four days later, the Egyptian ministry of the interior issued a statement on the death of ten men whom it described as terrorists. In an operation broadcast on Egyptian state television, they were killed when security forces stormed their hiding place in retaliation for the ISIS attacks.
The images startled several prominent Bedouin families in North Sinai, who recognized six of the men as locals who had been arrested and taken from their houses about two months earlier. The families believed that the police had taken their sons out of their jail cells, placed them in an apartment, and killed them in cold blood to convince Egyptians that the country’s security forces were effectively combatting terrorism.
At a meeting of these families on the following day, representatives decided to refuse to attend a meeting that had been arranged with Minister of Interior Magdy Abdel Ghaffar, whom the families dubbed an adversary. A subsequent list of demands from the meeting included the immediate release of all prisoners from North Sinai who were being held in custody pending investigations and who had not yet received court sentences. The council, no longer trusting the security of any prisoners in the hands of the Egyptian security forces, pledged to begin a campaign of civil disobedience if the prisoners were not released.
Since this is a tribal area, large Bedouin families represent the bulk of business, wealth, and residents. If the heads of the families decided to stop cooperating with the police and the army, for instance, the security services would be put in an awkward and difficult situation. This is the reason security is keen on good relations with the families.
Residents of El-Arish are right to be worried. After the ousting of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, hundreds of Egyptian Islamists returned from Afghanistan and hundreds of others were released from prison. These Islamists believed it was the start of a new era. Many chose to gather in North Sinai. Immediately after former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was removed from power in 2013, the Islamists started operations against security in the area. Ahmad Wasfy, the head of the army division known as the Second Egyptian Army, assured Egyptians that military operations in Sinai had been extremely successful and would soon be over. Sinai would be a terrorist-free area.
More than three years later, terrorist attacks on security personnel and checkpoints persist. Areas have been forcefully evacuated, residents internally displaced, and the Egyptian army has lost much of its popular support as ISIS has lodged itself in Sinai.
In a simple house in El-Arish, I was received by Sheikh Ali al-Deeb, whose son, Abdul Ati, was one of one of the young men who were announced dead by security forces. “My son was killed unjustly,” the old man said, fighting back tears. “On October 8, my nephew came to me screaming that my son was arrested. He said they were in the street towing a car that had broken down when security took my son and his truck.” When Deeb went to the police station to ask about his son, “they denied any connection to the arrest and said it could have been the Islamic State. Then we found his truck inside the El-Arish police station. We returned wondering how they could have denied holding my son while having his car in their possession!” Once he had confirmed his son’s location, Deeb said, “I thanked God he was in the hands of the security. At least I knew where he was. I never imagined that my son’s life would end at their hands.”
I also met Ashraf Hefny, the spokesman for the People’s Committee for El-Arish. “Many of our youth are arrested without any prior investigation, and others are disappeared forcefully,” he said. “But for the state to kill six young people already under arrest and call them terrorists when the whole city knew that they had been in the state’s possession—this is unprecedented.” He added, “We just want to be part of Egypt. The state is trying to separate us from it.”
Ever since Sinai was returned to Egyptian control after the peace treaty with Israel, Egyptian authorities have eyed its residents with skepticism because of fears that their loyalty remains with the Israelis rather than Egyptians. Sinai residents are prohibited from joining any senior post in the state. They cannot work in the army, police, judiciary, or in diplomacy. Meanwhile, no development projects have been undertaken in North Sinai the past 40 years. The villages of Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed have no schools or hospitals and no modern system to receive potable water. They depend on rainwater and wells, as if it were the Middle Ages.
The three main cities in North Sinai (Rafah, Sheikh Zuweid, and El-Arish) have been isolated from Egypt to the extent that no Egyptian citizen is allowed to enter North Sinai unless he or she is a resident as verified by a national identity card. Checkpoints have become a major burden; one can spend three hours waiting for entry, with no explanation. Many of El-Arish’s streets have been closed off by the military, and hundreds of acres of olive groves were forcibly grazed down. The state claimed that the groves were hideouts for terrorists. In addition, the security services cut off Internet communications for the entire city for 12 hours straight every day during my week there. The city’s streets are lined with piles of garbage. After an attack in which ISIS torched garbage collection trucks, the state decided to penalize citizens by not sending replacements.
The population trusts the army less by the day as it cuts off communications and services, sieges the city, bombs villages, and displaces residents.
Until recently, El-Arish has been relatively spared from armed clashes between the state and ISIS. But many of the residents of Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah have fled as fugitives to El-Arish as a result of the continuous military operations in those areas. But now, it is normal to hear the sound of gunfire throughout the evening. The army has been heavily bombing south of the city, which, a military spokesman said, was meant to liquidate terrorist strongholds.
Over the years, the Egyptian state has tried to buy the loyalty of Sinai’s Bedouin tribes by turning the role of tribal chief into an official government position. But rather than allowing the tribe or village to appoint its head, the state does it. In turn, the official chief is no longer the true leading figure of a family or a source of confidence. “A blind man leading a blind man” is how Safwat Gelbana, a leading figure of El-Arish’s Gelbana family, described the situation. “The appointed chiefs of families tell the state what it wants to hear and may bring back instructions from security to the people but are they really capable of containing any trouble? I doubt it.”
Without powerful chiefs, the residents of Sinai are stuck between a rock and a hard place: the army and ISIS. Although religious, the population by and large rejects ISIS’ rhetoric and holds the group responsible for increasing misery. On the other hand, the population trusts the army less by the day as it cuts off communications and services, sieges the city, bombs villages, and displaces residents. When residents turn in a terrorist to the army, they are slaughtered by ISIS with impunity. If they remain silent, military intelligence may arrest them and demolish their homes, sometimes while they are still within them.
No Egyptian citizen is allowed to enter North Sinai unless he or she is a resident as verified by a national identity card.
An example of this sad dynamic took place on November 10. At midday, two cars stopped in a square in downtown El-Arish. Five armed men jumped out. They dragged out of the car a man in his forties and dumped him on the ground with his hands tied behind his back. They murmured something that bystanders were not able to decipher. They then shot the man in the head and left shouting “Allahu Akbar!” and “Glory to Islam!” The bystanders approached the man’s body to discover it was a well-known trader from El-Arish.
With difficulty, we managed to talk with one of the man’s close relatives, a young man who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. The victim “was the owner of a furniture company, and he supplied office furniture to army units in El-Arish,” the man said. “He did not lead the army to members of ISIS. He merely traded with the army, but his punishment was getting killed on the street in broad daylight. The army did not lift a finger or even promise to find the perpetrators.”
The angry young man addressed the state. “You detain us, call us traitors, bomb our homes, and yet do not trouble yourself to find who kills us if we cooperate or trade with you,” he said. “This oppression and injustice you are inflicting on the people of Sinai will only result in creating a fertile environment for recruiting members for the ISIS. You have turned Sinai into an incubator for terrorism. You have only yourselves to blame.”