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Sinai: Buffer zone of mistrust

By Amr Khalifa When your skin is submersed in the azure blue of Sinai’s waters, you would never imagine that trouble in the Sinai governorate lurks beyond the beach. Sinai, a piece of heaven on earth, known internationally for its superior diving and snorkelling, has become a hotbed of insurgency that has put the Cairo …

Amr Khalifa
Amr Khalifa

By Amr Khalifa

When your skin is submersed in the azure blue of Sinai’s waters, you would never imagine that trouble in the Sinai governorate lurks beyond the beach. Sinai, a piece of heaven on earth, known internationally for its superior diving and snorkelling, has become a hotbed of insurgency that has put the Cairo government in political peril. The players include a former army man who lassoed the presidency with promises of an iron grip; a restive population, ignored and under attack; and a terrorist group that is well-versed in the dialogue of blood.

On 24 October, the latter group, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis (ABM) – though it has not formally claimed responsibility – likely delivered the harshest blow yet to new president Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi: 30 soldiers killed in 2 separate attacks. Shortly thereafter, the National Defence Council and Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) met; chief among their decisions was the construction of a buffer zone in northern Sinai, principally Rafah – which borders Gaza. The decision has created a tornado of differing views from laymen, analysts, and journalists alike. There are few certainties in Sinai, but this is one: the common denominator between all parties is the absence of trust.

“Palestinians are treated better by the Zionists” than Sinai residents are by the Egyptian army, Hamam Alagha, a 26 year-old college graduate and resident of the Rafah buffer zone, bitterly asserted in an exclusive interview.

Hamam, a self-described non-politicised Egyptian, has been living in the family home in Rafah, within 300 metres of the Israeli border, for the better part of 14 years; along with, at times, a family of four brothers and two sisters. Both furious and articulate, Hamam is the human face of a Sinai population overwhelmed by systematic disenfranchisement, governmental mistrust, and zero job opportunities. He explained: “Our simplest rights as human beings are violated. It takes me 3 hours for a 20 minutes trip from Rafah to Arish … they leave the terrorists and kill us.”

The notion of state terrorism is counter-balanced against ABM terrorism. Mainstream media – both western and Egyptian – focuses the light on the Egyptian regime’s fight against terrorism due to multiple reasons; chief among them a western agenda that echoes that of Cairo. But reality isn’t nearly as clear cut as the narrative promoted by Al-Sisi and cohorts with unfailing consistency that characterises anti-terrorism measures as simply taking the fight to militant/jihadi Islam linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Reality is never simple: Sinai tells a convoluted tale of nationalism with healthy dollops of victimisation, both political and economic, by a central government suspicious of the local population. Hamam refers to both aspects: “You will not find stronger national fervour than in Sinai”.

Yet, security forces have pre-conceived notions that continuously shine a suspicious light on the local – largely Bedouin – population. If you are from Northern Sinai and your national ID reflects this the mistreatment begins at any army or police checkpoint, explained Hamam. Even mid-interview, on Skype, he disappeared for 15 minutes and on his return told a harrowing tale. “There was an officer [at the door] with an order to evacuate the premises by 8am.” When Hamam replied that he hadn’t evacuated “even a pillow”, the officer’s retort was abrupt, aggressive, and demeaning – swear words deleted -“I’ll destroy all there is- with you in it.”

The construction of the buffer zone belies Al-Sisi’s previously stated position. Rather than a cohesive policy and a “presence” that Al-Sisi himself had espoused, the government has chosen to take a path that may divide the country as Al-Sisi alludes in the recorded talk leaked by Al Jazeera with his inner circle prior to becoming president. “You think it would be a problem for us to besiege Rafah, kick the people out and blow up all the buildings?” But Al-Sisi was keenly aware of the danger at hand: “In the end, you are creating an enemy against you and against your country.” The solution, in the strongman’s opinion, was “by creating national security through a presence, not fighting. A tank and a machine gun can do a lot for you, but in the end, these are your people.” Juxtapose this rhetoric with images of homes blown up all along the buffer zone – 110 homes have been exploded or bulldozed as of writing of this article.

This central contradiction does not escape analysts, deeply familiar with the region, that the 500 metre buffer may not be effective. “Buffer zone of 500 metres will simply mean those digging tunnels will have to dig 500 more metres,” argues Zack Gold, Washington based adjunct fellow for the American Security Project, specialising in Sinai and Egyptian/Israeli relations. While it is true that security cooperation with Israel has been on a strong uptick – “security relations are quite good” between Egypt and Israel explains Gold – the motivation behind the security option in Sinai is purely Egyptian.

The pursuit of this avenue will not come without its structural costs. The counterinsurgency narrative consistently suggests that central authority must have support of the local population to have any chance of contravening insurgency success. Except for some tribal leaders, politically connected to Cairo since the Mubarak era, anger is rule of the day.

If Hamam reflects general sentiment in Sinai, Cairo is in for the fight of its life. While a recent video shows members of Egypt’s army brutalising local residents – the bodies of the residents were reportedly later found – Hamam tells of tales of systematic abuse that speaks of the quagmire that is life in Sinai. The tactics of the army can be compared, on some levels, to those of their Israeli counterparts and the Palestinians they occupy.

Hamam tells a tale of injustice he encountered in his own circle in Rafah. Mohamed Abou Halawa, a 23 year-old Rafah resident, called Hamam a year ago help him set up his new cell phone. Hamam directed him to a man who could help. He finished at 2am and while heading home he was stopped at a military checkpoint. Days later Hamam saw Mohamed in local papers with four guns laid out on a table before him in a security photo. “He received a sentence of five years, later reduced to three years and has been in jail for a year,” says Hamam.

If you are a resident of northern Sinai, more often than not, this is “justice” and it is not an isolated incident. Nineteen year-old Mohamed El Nahal was leaving the family farm in Rafah in his truck containing “fertiliser and farm equipment” according to Hamam when he was stopped at a checkpoint. The young man, without any known political affiliation, was arrested for “monitoring army vehicles” and received a year in jail.

A buffer zone, possibly containing water-filled trenches, homes destroyed, people dislocated from their lives, and a bleak economic picture – stir it up – and what do the majority of Egyptians see? As far as many Egyptians are concerned “a den of terrorists and criminals”, argues Gold. At first look this may appear harsh but it is an analysis with its eye correctly in tune with mainstream perception. In fact, the government does little to correct such misperceptions because it needs the northern Sinai resident as the “other” to justify its haphazard security operation.

In the realpolitik, Al-Sisi “has enough political capital”, explains Gold. For young men hailing from Sinai, like Hamam, mandatory military service puts them in the impossible predicament of, possibly, having to enforce draconian army policies against their own communities. When asked hpw he feels about that prospect , Hamam paused, then replied: “I don’t know. Speechless. I hope I don’t have to.” This is the reality of life in the buffer zone: a twilight zone ruled by a triumvirate of fear, mistrust, and confusion.

Pictures of homes exploding in northern Sinai are, indeed, worth a thousand words. But Hamam’s words and the plight of thousands like him – the buffer zone includes up to 10,000 residents according to government reports – are worth a hundred thousand words. Should Al-Sisi’s government choose to remain tone deaf to its own earlier words, it will likely pay a gruesome price in instability.

Where rains of injustice fall, eventually the flood reaches the victimiser as well, Al-Sisi would do well to remember this when thinking of the buffer zone. Not a day goes by when Al-Sisi doesn’t “create more enemies”.

Amr Khalifa is a freelance journalist recently published by Ahram Online, Tahrir Institute, Muftah, and Mada Masr

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