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Fear for Sinai, not fear of Sinai

Pictures released yesterday from Sinai showed the deployment of armoured vehicles and an army bulldozer destroying one of the tunnels to Gaza. We have also read reports about the Apache helicopters that continue to bomb terrorist cells, the destruction of the weapons storage dumps in Sheikh Zuwaid and Rafah, and the death of 9 terrorists targeted by the military. This scenario has been repeated, in one way or another, for some time now, especially since the shocking killing of 25 soldiers in a central security unit at the hands of terrorists on August 18th.

It appears that Sinai, in the eyes of the Egyptian media and public opinion, has become an area inhabited by terrorist cells and smuggling gangs. The peninsula is seen as a source of danger and evil coming through the tunnels scattered along the border with the Gaza Strip that are a “threat” to Egypt. This is also the image of Sinai in the minds of the controlling elite, to the point that they are now communicating with the region via heavy armour, helicopters and bulldozers. I realise that this language of power emerged after a number of clashes and bombings, particularly those targeting authority and security symbols in northern and southern Sinai, and I am not opposed to bring those responsible to account in accordance with the law, provided that they are given a fair trial. However, such accountability should not violate the rights of innocent people by using excessive force blindly.

What I fear about the way that the authorities are dealing with Sinai is the resort to raw power rather than the law; to emotion rather than wisdom. I also fear that the people of Sinai will be viewed as guilty until proven innocent, with their land classified as the front line rather than an integral part of Egypt. To be frank, security in Sinai is too big an issue to be handled solely by the security agencies.

It is true that the crimes committed in Sinai warrant an appropriate response, but this does not justify the revenge taken against the people. We cannot consider what has happened as a curse afflicting everyone. The anger of the administration must be governed by the law and has to have its limits, which are dictated by the greater good; but when the authority unleashes its anger in a manner that oversteps all limits, this opens the way to catastrophe.

There are many letters and testimonies from Sinai in my possession which suggest that the worst has indeed happened and what I have been warning against has affected innocent people; the wounds will be deep and difficult to repair.

One of the letters I have is from a lawyer who paints a tragic picture with his description of a mosque bombed twice by Apache helicopters; the elderly woman shot dead as she sat in her own house; the cars set alight; and the houses which were searched and ransacked because nothing was found. Personal belongings have been taken by security forces, including jewellery; olive trees have been uprooted; livestock has been killed; and huts and tents have been burnt to the ground. Photographic evidence of these acts deserves to be investigated by human rights groups, at the very least.

While I am astonished by what is happening in Sinai in the name of fighting terrorism, what happens at the border with the Gaza Strip confuses me even more because I have yet to be convinced by any explanation provided by the authorities. I don’t see how it serves the Egyptian national interest to destroy the tunnels which are a lifeline for the people of Gaza and to create a deep buffer zone along the border. It is with a sense of shame to understand that Israel is the main beneficiary of this destruction as well as a stakeholder in squeezing the Gaza Strip in an act of collective punishment which even the Mubarak regime did not do so comprehensively (and what he did do had to be stopped due to the anger of the Egyptian people).

One cannot help but acknowledge that the incitement campaign against the tunnels has been successful. However, anyone with a sliver of conscience must be disturbed by the humanitarian disaster faced by the Gaza Strip as a result of their destruction. It is even more confusing that an operational Rafah Crossing supervised fully by Egypt’s border police benefits local Egyptians as well as the Palestinians from Gaza but that does not have approval from the Israelis. We really do have a situation where people have been convinced to have a fear of Sinai instead of fearing for Sinai.

Translated from the Arabic text which appeared in Al Shoroukh Newspaper 12 September, 2013

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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