As the acquittal of ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak makes local and international headlines, little attention is being paid to another corner of the country—North Sinai, where the civilian population finds itself caught in the crossfire of a growing conflict.
Life in the region is now defined by curfews, checkpoints, house raids and arbitrary arrests. No one is allowed out after dark. Telephone service is intermittent and gas is scarce. The local economy has ground to a halt. Tanks and heavy armor are deployed in the streets, while helicopter gunships clatter overhead. The army has razed hundreds of homes. Ambulances and teachers have been shot at by security forces, while militants have beheaded suspected collaborators.
A low-level insurgency brewing in the restive northeastern corner of the peninsula that began to ramp up following the July 2013 ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi has been met with a heavy-handed assault by the Egyptian military, escalating the internecine conflict to unprecedented levels.
An attack on an army checkpoint in October killed more than thirty soldiers, the highest death toll among military personnel in recent memory. Sinai’s most active militant group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (Supporters of Jerusalem), claimed responsibility in a slick thirty-minute video that included grisly footage of the attack. The group has also publicly pledged allegiance to Islamic State, the militant group that has seized large swaths of Iraq and Syria.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi responded by declaring a three-month state of emergency in the north and center of Sinai, implementing a strict curfew from 5 pm to 7 am and vastly expanding the jurisdiction of military courts.
The army quickly announced plans to create a buffer zone in Rafah, a town bordering the Gaza Strip, to root out militants and eradicate smuggling tunnels across the frontier. With little warning, the military began destroying hundreds of houses, displacing more than a thousand families in a security zone that stretches 500 meters from the border. The decision received the blessing of the United States—for decades the Egyptian military’s prime benefactor—with State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki stressing that Washington is “continuing to support [Egypt’s] efforts to take steps to defend their borders.” Three weeks later, Egyptian officials declared that the size of the buffer zone would be doubled, to one kilometer, essentially covering most of Rafah.
“The people of Rafah are being forced out. They don’t want to leave,” says Abu Ahmed, a resident of Rafah who lives just beyond the one-kilometer security zone. “I’m calling on the army to stop this injustice.”
The North Sinai governor, Abdel Fattah Harhour, said in late November that all 802 houses in the first 500-meter area have been demolished and that compensation was paid to 290 families.