North Sinai: Egypt’s silenced land 

Taha Sakr
7 Min Read
The situation in the North Sinai town of Sheikh Zuweid has stabilised, after the town witnessed one of the toughest battles between militants and the armed forces on Wednesday. (AFP File Photo)

A strict media gag is still being imposed on military operations carried out inside the Sinai peninsula, especially those conducted in the North Sinai governorate that witnesses clashes between state security forces—represented by the Armed Forces and the police—and the Sinai Province—a group that is now affiliated with the Islamic State and gained prominence following the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi in 2013.

After more than two years of clashes and attacks between state security forces and the Sinai Province, the situation is still not clear. One of the primary reasons for the persistence of this lack of clarity is the shortage of available media information due to the absence of media activity inside the peninsula. The state has heavily restricted the flow of information pertaining to military activity and the current life of North Sinai ‘s inhabitants. Journalists face difficulties entering North Sinai to collect information freely and cannot rely on state cooperation in disseminating correct and reliable information. Thus, the exact nature of the conflict in Sinai remains ambiguous.

According to article 45 of the terrorism law issued in August 2015, the Egyptian government prohibits the publication of news stories the diverge from the official narratives issued from state security apparatuses represented by Armed Forces and Interior Ministry spokespersons.  If a journalist violates this direct, she risks a fine of EGP 200,000 to EGP 500,000.

“The court also has the right to issue a one-year suspension to anyone who violates the law,” according to the article.

“Being a journalist inside North Sinai is a crime. Once you are observed with a camera, be sure that jail is waiting you. There is no existence for information sources inside the peninsula,” North Sinai-based journalist Ahmed Abu Drea told Daily News Egypt.

However, Abu Drea must find a mechanism to access information. He asserted that the absence of quick official information released from state security forces after any attack plus the restrictions imposed on him that prevent him from reaching any incident site pushed him to rely heavily on other sources of information. These alternative sources include ambulance authorities, especially in attacks that result in causalities.

“State security forces officials deliberately hide information about the exact number of their causalities and exaggerate the number of IS militants they kill,” Abu Drea stated.

Abu Drea was placed in jail for 30 days in 2013 after he was arrested for photographing army troops engaged in an identification sweep inside North Sinai. He was charged with publishing false news that is contrary to official narrative.

“The media gag imposed is meaningless and contributes to worsening the situation. People should know and be aware of what is going on in Sinai,” he stated.

The North Sinai journalist has resorted to disguise to circumvent the media gag. He recently asked a fellow journalist to disguise himself as a North Sinai resident to freely enter the region.

However, the state’s control of the flow of information does not only affect the dissemination of information to domestic or international parties. Residents of North Sinai villages and cities told Daily News Egypt that they suffer from long-term disruptions in telecommunications and internet services due to ongoing military operations executed against the Islamic State-affiliated militants.

“Recurrent cuts to telecommunication and internet services push us to travel long distances to finish simple needs. To this day, I cannot finish my ID application due to internet suspensions even though this action has recently decreased,” North Sinai resident Abdeklbassat Al Sawarka told Daily News Egypt.

By suspending internet and telecommunications services, the Egyptian state is attempting to cut off militants’ communication. However, the residents of Sheikh Zewaid village are caught in the military’s broad net, Al-Sawarka explained.

Despite the grave interruption, residents seem to under the military’s action. An anonymous resident told Daily News Egypt that tribes are fully cooperating with Armed Forces to defeat Islamic State militants and understand that telecommunication suspension is necessary to limit the many attacks. This cooperation has taken the form of intelligence gathering and, in some cases, direct military engagement.

However, in many cases the Armed Forces have alienated potential allies.

In October 2014, residents living within 500 metres of the Egypt-Gaza border were told to leave their homes to allow the Armed Forces to establish what it describes as a “secure zone.” In the evacuated area, the Armed Forces dug a trench to attempt to eliminate tunnels that ran underneath the Egypt-Gaza border and were used to smuggle arms between the two territories.

The evacuation measures were undertaken in two phases. The first was completed in November 2014, displacing nearly 1,000 families. According to Sinai Governor General El-Sayed Abdel Fattah Harhour, 837 houses were demolished in the first phase, which clear 500 metres along the border.

After finalising the second phase, a total of 1,044 houses of1,220 counted houses were demolished in the 500-metre stretch of land.

While the state attempts to limit halt all forms of communication within and outside North Sinai, Sinai Province continues to provide glimmers of what is happening. While this information often precedes that published by state media, its accuracy is unclear.

Without media access and credible reports from ostracised local residents, the extent of the conflict remains unclear.  The public is left to guess at the relative danger of videos or photos published by the Sinai Province that show what appear to be seized Armed Forces’ tanks and weaponry. And in rare cases, soldiers that the Ministry of Interior has reported killed in action, will appear in a Sinai Province video, ghosts of the media gag.


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