In an air-conditioned café in central Cairo – one of the many uniform international chains that beckon brightly from street corners on the city’s traffic-choked roads – Saed Ateek , a slight man with a broad smile and slightly receding hairline, shrugged nonchalantly: Well yes, he did know at least one of the leader of Sinai Province quite well.
“Shadi al-Manaei grew up in a town close to mine, I used to see him at tribal meetings. Look, he was just a normal guy, like all of us.”
Ateek, a man in his mid-30s who sports a fashionable grey T-shirt and expensive-looking watch, hails from Shabana, a small Bedouin border town in northern Sinai, not far from the Israeli-Egyptian border. He belongs to the Sawarka tribe, the second largest of the Bedouin tribes that populate the deserts of Sinai.
Today, though, Ateek’s home has been turned into “a war zone:” His village is almost deserted, 90 percent of its inhabitants have been forced to flee, he says.
He sighed and shook his head: “It’s a ghost town now.”
‘They know how to disappear!’
And that is in part due to men like Shadi al-Manaei, largely Egyptian Islamist militants who have been active for years in Sinai and staged a full-blown uprising against the Egyptian state following the ousting of President and Muslim Brotherhood member Mohammed Morsi by the army in 2013, following mass protests against his rule.
The main militant group Ansar Bait al-Magdis, which recently pledged alliance to the leader of the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” (IS) and now goes by the name of Sinai Province, has carried out repeated deadly attacks on security forces mainly in Sinai, killing hundreds of soldiers, but also claimed responsibility for attacks in Cairo.
The army, in turn, has responded with crackdowns and curfews and launched large-scale attacks against the militants, which it claims have killed more than 500 militants so far.
Sinai Provinces’ fighters – whose number Middle East Analyst Zack Gold, a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, puts at between 300 and 700 active fighters – emerge from their hideouts in the desert to launch attacks or set up temporary checkpoints, only to melt away again into the desert they know so well.
Ateek scrolled through his white smartphone to show a grainy picture of a four-by-four car, almost completely buried in the sand: A storage place for weapons and supplies, he said and grinned wryly. “These guys know how to disappear without a trace.”
Given that there are few employment opportunities in Sinai – unemployment runs high in the region, as does drugs and arms smuggling – IS can draw on a support base of local helpers, Gold says. “They will watch out for police for say 50 dollars or lay down IEDs.”
For decades the government has failed to develop the peninsula, leaving much of the region and its mostly Bedouin population to its own devices, which includes excluding them from the country’s mandatory military service: The few resources that have been directed towards northern Sinai, have been mostly mismanaged and squandered in corruption, according to a source who until this summer worked for the governmental Sinai Development Authority and chose to remain anonymous.
That, the man told DW, was fuelling resentment – and militancy.
Gold agrees: “Many Bedouins do not feel like they are part of the Egyptian state. After all, they are not treated as if they are Egyptians.” That is why it is not surprising, he says, that the Bedouins “have on many occasions looked the other way and not been willing to turn on those groups for a state that does not seem to care much about them.”
The government’s response to the Islamists’ increasingly sophisticated attacks has been harsh: Egyptian forces have evicted some 3,200 families in a campaign of mass demolitions on the border with the Gaza Strip in violation of international law, Human Rights Watch recently reported, with mostly inadequate compensation.
Satellite images published by the New York-based human rights group showed entire blocks of buildings in the Rafah area razed to the ground.
Authorities contend that adequate compensation was paid and that the clearing of a kilometer-wide strip along the border with Gaza is necessary to eliminate smuggling tunnels running under the border to the Gaza Strip, which the government says the militants use.
They have also imposed strict curfews and roadblocks, coupled with frequent power cuts and telecommunications blackouts. Earlier this week, the authorities extended by three months the state of emergency imposed on the towns of Rafah, Arish, Sheikh Zuweid and the surrounding areas, which were introduced a year ago after a major attack on a checkpoint.
“They’re suffocating us with so many security measures”, a student in her early 20s who lives in Arish, northern Sinai’s largest settlement with a heavy army presence, complained: “Look, where once it used to take five minutes to go to, now it takes more like 30.”
Northern Sinai has been virtually off-limits for foreign journalists since 2013, so DW interviewed her and other residents on the phone and via Skype.
Revenge killings and disappearances
It was normal, another resident who is in his 30s told DW, to see cars piled high with furniture leaving the city. There was a palpable fear in the air, he added. “Everyone’s suspicious of everyone – anyone could be an informer either for the army or the militants.”
Both sides have been targeting alleged collaborators – and residents talk of ongoing forced disappearances and revenge killings.
Back in Cairo, Ateek had his own gory story to tell: Some 10 months ago a close friend of his, he told DW, was abducted. A few days later, his mutilated corpse was dumped outside al-Tagey’s house. His friend, he said, “was just too outspokenly against IS.”
For his is a close-knit community, Ateek says, where everyone knows who supports the militants – and who, like Ateek, doesn’t: He’s a well-known activist, who works with local youths, trying to convince them not to join the militants.
Ateek says he is constantly on the move, never spending more than a couple of nights in one house. “I fear for my life,” he told DW, his voice calm and measured.
He’s not sure he’s safe in Cairo, either: Another friend of his from Sinai was recently shot dead in front of his house not far from the café where he is sitting.
He is sure Sinai Province was behind the shooting. He shrugged, maybe remembering the IS leader he used to know: “I never thought they would be so vicious,” he said.
Heba Farouk Mahfouz in Cairo contributed to this report.