Many questions popped into my mind as soon as I received permission to prepare for the visit. I sought to verify foreign media reports, based on Sinai sources, on civilians dying in the crossfire, and to ask questions on how this could be avoided. I wanted to inquire on when the battles there will stop for Sinai to become a land for investment and real development, following neglect and terror lasting for over 30 years. How do people live in Sinai amidst all those battles? Many and many questions I wanted answers to during my visit with the Egyptian and foreign media delegation.
El-Maliz turns into an international civilian airport
The trip began from Almaza Airport. Before taking-off in helicopters en route to El-Maliz Airport, Major General Mohsen Abdel Nabi, head of the military’s moral affairs, spoke to us about what will happen during the trip, assuring that we will be free to move around and write. This was an unprecedented behaviour by the armed forces based on our experience. However, his words were clear: “Write what you see, and we will not intervene.”
The trip to El-Maliz airport took 50 minutes. It has completely changed from what it was 15 years ago, when my military service ended and I headed back to being a civilian. There was extraordinary activity inside. I learned right away that construction works were worth over EGP 200m, to turn the airport into an international airport to serve civilians visiting Sinai as well as the industrial zones that will be built
Orascom’s engineer, Alfred Labib, who is in charge of the project, told me that the company called in over 500 workers to complete it in a record time. He said that a 200 person passenger hall is being established, in addition to three runways. One of them will be 3 km long, and 50 metres wide; the second will be 3,350 metres long and 60 metres wide, while the third will be 3 km long and 40 metres wide. The first phase is expected to be delivered by the Sinai Liberation holiday on 25 April.
I asked him whether he felt safe moving back and forth from Cairo. He said he felt no danger at all, and never faced a life-threatening situation. He also said the people he works with felt the same. He added that El-Maliz is an airport which Orascom is developing, as they have several contracts developing and constructing several government and military airports.
Returning from raids
I barely finished talking to the engineer, to find two aircrafts returning from raids. The officers let us speak to them. I asked them my most important question: What do they do if they find civilians during a raid? Their clear answer was: Withdraw immediately without action. They said they then wait for information about terrorists moving outside the boundaries where civilians are, or for another security force to evacuate civilians safely.
The pilots’ words reflected their confidence that terrorism in Sinai has been broken, and that it is only a matter of time before Sinai returns back to normal. They also said they work with minute devices that makes monitoring, targeting and executing at utmost precision. The claimed they have a history of ‘zero error’ and any talks of civilian casualties are false.
Al-Awsat to expand
Cars that looked similar to prison trucks, but were different from the inside and out, were waiting to transfer us via Al-Awsat road to Battalion 101 in Al-Arish.
The cars were beige in colour, with a metal cage covering to protect us from rockets and bullets. We were told they are equipped to secure transitions of soldiers and officers in operations territory, and during their transition to any mission site, or raids via Al-Awsat road, which runs through Sinai from Ismailia.
Inside, there were two AC units and seats for over 30 people, in addition to a TV screen, an internal headset for cassette, a radio and a telephone to communicate with the driver.
We had thought at the beginning that we will not see the streets in Al-Arish, and that we were not allowed to open the cage until we reached our destination. However, it was not like that. The driver, who volunteered to serve in the army and was born in Sharqeya, told us that the trip would take three hours. He told me that Sinai is back under the military’s control. Our companion in the cage told us the same, and he let us open the door while the car was moving for us to see the road, which has changed entirely since the time I had last seen it.
Before I left Sinai it was a narrow road that was barely big enough for two cars to pass in both ways, if they were taking care not to clash, with sand accumulated by the wind on both sides. The road was being widened now and the works will be finished soon, so the road will be big enough for four cars to pass on both ways.
Three hours were spent on Al-Awsat road, which had earlier witnessed vehicles with black flags with no one to deter them, with people ostentatious with their power. We saw none of them whatsoever, but we felt that they had been controlling this road one day, like what has been said in media. The road was safe now, enabling us to reflect on our memories when we were soldiers in the army.
Inside battle preparation point
We reached to the operations field and the battle preparation centre. Inside Brigade 101, I felt I was watching one of the documentaries about the achievements of our heroes in the October War. Total readiness for confrontation at any moment was the spirit of our soldiers.
They spoke with obvious spontaneity about their confidence in eliminating terrorism and restoring security on Sinai’s streets. They also said that they have been wronged when they were accused of targeting and hitting civilians. They asserted that they have intelligence bodies and elements that tell them what is on the ground, and where the danger elements are concentrated. The soldiers responded to the questions we asked the pilots in El-Maliz airport, saying that after they confirm the presence of terrorist elements in a specific place, they send someone to evacuate citizens from the area in order to be able to target these elements without killing innocent people. If they learn there are citizens in the vicinity of operations, they work on attracting the targeted elements outside those areas, or wait until these elements move to places in which they can be hunted in, describing terrorists as mice that are unable to confront.
I saw many police officers and army soldiers getting ready to immediately attack those who are threatening their own security and the streets’ security. They talked about their children and their relatives who were waiting for them to hear the stories of tournaments and to realise the reality of situations on the battlefield.
I did not feel that there was a difference between soldiers and police officers; they’re all alike. All of them spoke with the same confidence and boldness. They are all aware of their duties and know that on the battlefield they’re all responsible for each other’s life where there is no room for error or retreat.
They talked about their children; they were all young, some of them were newly married. They talked about how much they miss their families, about their love for their country and their willingness to sacrifice their lives for the homeland. They also talked about their influence on their younger relatives who wished to join them.
I asked them if they wished they are not serving in those inflamed sites, but their response was that they already have the right to appeal and request to be moved away from battlefields, but they prefer to stay and defend the land of Sinai. They also said that fear and cowardice are not among the traits of the armed forces heroes.
Captain Ahmed told me about his two sons Omar and Marwan, while Yahya Refai, a soldier, told me about his desire to get married after completing his military service which ends in a year.
Soldier Mohammed Zaki will be working on his father’s car three months from now, where he will have completed his military service. On the other hand, Captain Hatem sees his daughter, Judie, infrequently; when clashes subside and he could get a holiday – they call holidays “permission of absence”.
Commander of the Second Field Army and the right of the martyr
We were interrupted by the arrival of Staff Brigadier General Naser Mohamed Ali Assi who was supposed to answer the most important question about how elections will be held in Sinai, in general, and in confrontation lands in particular. This is because succeeding in securing elections is an important indicator to what is being said about the control of the army over every metre in Sinai.
He said that everything will take place as planned and no one will be able to intimidate voters. We will fully secure the electoral process, he added. That said, we moved to the second question: When can we enjoy Sinai again and spend a part of the summer in Al-Arish? His answer to all my questions was that it is safe. He also offered that I accompany him on a tour in Sinai on our own; he even told me that I can move by myself in Sinai in order to be sure. Terrorism mice have been eliminated, he added.
He said that the first phase of Martyr’s Right Operations ended and achieved its results and that the second phase includes developmental works for Sinai development projects. He also said that the armed forces was able to eliminate a large number of terrorism heads in Sinai and the remaining will be uprooted without prejudice to any innocent civilians.
He said that the elimination of terrorism will take time, even if the situation improves dramatically. More accurate information is being collected about Mount Halal where terrorist are said to be hiding. The armed forces eliminated a large percentage of tunnels. Dealing with tunnels is done according to the nature of each tunnel, some are bombed, some are flooded with water and others are demolished using demolition equipment.
As per the border he said that the buffer zone now stands at 1 km in depth of the border. He also said that a new Rafah is currently under construction and that the occupancy rate in the border was little. In addition to that, all those who have been evacuated from the boarder have been fairly compensated, he said, stressing on the fact that the people of Sinai are collaborators with the armed forces and this is what helped them to restore security.
Before we leave the battalion back to the airport to return to Cairo we met sheikhs and a number of Al-Arish residents who ensured us that life is going normally and that they suffered plenty before the army eliminated terrorist elements. They also said that life returned back to normal in Sinai and that they’re waiting for the development they were promised because they are an integral part of the nation.
On the way back the sun had already set and stillness prevailed. We thought that our return, if not impossible, would be difficult. Unlike what we expected, it was easy and quick and we did not feel danger at any moment. Our only question on the way back from the trip, which lasted nearly 12 hours, was: When can we go back to celebrate the long-awaited Sinai development projects? Especially after the president has allocated EGP 10bn for the development of Sinai.