Summary: despite President Sisi’s claim that an ISIS affiliate has been all but eliminated, a brutal military clampdown continues, ensuring that North Sinai’s dirty war will grind on with impoverished local communities paying the heaviest price.
On Police Day, January 25, 2023, President Sisi announced that after over eight years of military campaigns in North Sinai governorate, after paying a steep price, Egypt is finally “finished with” terrorism. “We have been able to eliminate terrorism by a close to 100 percent,” he said.
Given that Sisi has announced victory several times before in his fight against Wilayat Sina’, the local Islamic State affiliated group also known as the Islamic State – Sinai Province or ISIS, it is hard to take his latest declaration at face value. What’s more, since the last time he said this in 2018 Egypt’s secret dirty war has worsened.
The last major ISIS attack came on December 30, 2022 on a police checkpoint in Ismailia when three police officers were killed. Ismailia is a strategically important city located near the midpoint of the Suez Canal. Ominously, it was the first such attack outside the Sinai Peninsula in almost three years.
The independent US news agency The Media Line argued the attack showed ISIS in Egypt was down but not out. Counterterrorism researcher Ahmed Soltan said it was meant as a statement by ISIS’s new caliph, Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Qurashi, that the group was still a force to be reckoned with following the death of the previous caliph, Abu Hasan al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, in Syria last October. He was killed when he or one of his fellow ISIS members detonated suicide vests after their compound was surrounded by the Free Syrian Army in the town of Jassem, Daraa.
Verifying anything about North Sinai is extremely difficult because the Sisi regime operates in complete secrecy there, journalists are forbidden and besides occasional leaks no independent information is publicly available. Anyone who reports on the war is liable to be immediately arrested, like journalist Ismail el-Iskandarani who was released last year after 7 years in jail.
Imminent victory, however, does not appear to be around the corner. The political, economic and social factors driving the conflict since 2011 all remain unaddressed. The current dire economic situation will create more insecurity. In the past whenever the Egyptian military has begun winding down its campaigns the insurgents have simply re-emerged and the rate of attacks has picked up again.
Although denying it, the regime has committed many human rights abuses in North Sinai which have also played a major role in perpetuating the war. According to human rights organisations these likely amount to war crimes.
On March 17, 2021 Human Rights Watch reported:
Between late 2013 and July 2020, the army destroyed at least 12,350 buildings, mostly homes, most recently in the al-Arish area. The army has also razed, ruined, and closed off approximately 6,000 hectares of farmland, mostly since mid-2016. The government has provided little information beyond broad claims in the media that the evictions and demolitions were needed for security in the protracted fight with the armed group Wilayat Sina’, a local Islamic State (also known as ISIS) affiliate responsible for attacks against military targets and civilians. Thousands of these evictions and demolitions appear to violate the laws of war, which prohibit such actions except for absolute military necessity or to ensure the security of the civilians involved.
The future of North Sinai remains the subject of considerable speculation.
Rumours have circulated for years about a land swap between Egypt and Israel that would see the Gaza Strip expand into Sinai, where a new Palestinian state’s airport and port would also be situated. Sisi has said North Sinai is off the table but he has already handed over territory to Saudi Arabia – two small Red Sea islands Tiran and Sanafir – in controversial circumstances and the forced evacuation of Rafah, which the military insists was done to enforce a “buffer zone”, looks like it could be part of this plan.
On February 13, 2023 the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights, a local human rights group, published leaked government maps that appear to reveal new information about what the regime has cooking up for North Sinai: more Bedouin forcibly resettled, more land expropriated to the benefit of the armed forces, and six metre high walls to be built around all the main cities in North Sinai – Sheikh Zuweid, Al-Arish and Rafah – similar to the Apartheid Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, surrounding, isolating and dividing communities without taking into any account the local situation on the ground.
To prop up the flagging economy, last year the government said it intends to privatise companies and other assets belonging to the Suez Canal Authority, allowing foreign investors or entities to control six strategic ports in Egypt including the port at Arish.
The land around Arish port had been publicly owned until 2019 when a presidential decree dictated “re-allocating an area… of state-owned private land in the North Sinai governorate, for the benefit of the Armed Forces, to be used in the expansion and development of Arish Port”.
Despite a rare public outcry at the end of last year that the government is “selling the Suez Canal” the regime pressed ahead anyway and in January Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly said the EGP 830 million Arish port development was part of “the strategy to develop Egyptian ports and raise their trading capacity… in pursuit of the sustainable development strategy of the Egyptian state”.
No official numbers have been announced but Middle East Eye reported last Saturday the Arish port development will entail the removal of around 21,000 local people living in residential areas in the surrounding area.
In the past few days, local Sinai residents have been protesting daily in front of the North Sinai governorate building in Al Arish hoping for either a cancellation of the development or compensation. One video showed a Port of Arish resident desperately appealing against being forcibly displaced. “Why are they throwing us into the streets?” he asks. “They come in tanks to demolish our houses. Why? Are we not humans?”
“Why is this taking place?”, he continues. “For the interests of Qatar, the UAE, Israel, Saudi Arabia or who? The country has been sold.”