Last week in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula an army tank crushed a car beneath its tracks then seconds later the vehicle exploded into black smoke and orange flames. The military released a statement afterwards to say that the car had contained 100 kilogrammes of explosives and that the terrorists inside were planning an attack on the army.
The video didn’t hit the international press until Tuesday, one week after the actual incident. In itself this is an indication of the information blackout that engulfs North Sinai, a result of the government’s war on terror that has closed down media outlets and arrested activists and journalists across the governorate.
Not that long ago it was South Sinai that was better known across the world, made famous for its beach bars and busloads of foreign holidaymakers; these days it is North Sinai that receives more attention largely because Wilayet Sinai, the local affiliate of Daesh, is currently waging an insurgency there.
Several hundred soldiers have been killed in the peninsula since the 2013 coup; earlier this month 23 soldiers were killed in a car explosion and shoot out at a military checkpoint in what is considered the deadliest attack on the Egyptian military for years.
Daesh has singled out Christians to be the target of particularly brutal assaults despite previously pledging to only attack police, soldiers and security officers. In February the terror group launched a 21-day shooting spree in the town of Arish; hundreds of Copts fled Sinai to the town of Ismailia, near Cairo.
In response, the Egyptian army has launched a string of attacks they say are targeting militants in the peninsula. Several days ago it was reported by media news outlets that Egyptian security forces had killed 30 militants in ground and air raids in North Sinai.
The ease at which these reports reel off figures of dead terrorists belies a more complex, darker reality: the Egyptian citizens caught up in the counter-terror operation in Sinai.
One of these is Mohamed Gamal Adly, an IT student at the University of Sinai, who was forcibly disappeared on the 3 July. The Interior Ministry later claimed he was a terrorist who had been killed during clashes despite the fact that he had been arrested before his death.
Adly’s story is a familiar one. In March security forces released footage which allegedly captured a counter-terror raid that killed ten Daesh fighters. An investigation by Human Rights Watch revealed there were indications it was fake, such as the lighting and the fact that one of them was shot at close range.
At least some of the men in the video had been arrested some months before the raid took place and their families were arrested and intimidated when they started to ask questions.
In the latest form of collective punishment the towns of Sheikh Zuwaid, Arish and Rafah have been without electricity for the past three weeks and network connection for the past week. Some 100,000 people can only get online for one to two hours a day; because electricity is needed to operate the wells there is currently a severe water shortage.
As part of a more long-term strategy the army has been destroying houses in Sinai under the guise that they are working to clear areas where armed fighters are hiding. The people who have lost their homes in this brutal way have not been compensated; in fact an estimated 500 Egyptians have settled in Gaza after escaping through the smuggling tunnels to the besieged Strip in search of a better life.
In other words, the Egyptian army’s response to the insurgency has been disproportionate, sweeping up civilians along with it and leading to the obvious conclusion that Egyptian authorities are using counter-terror operations in Sinai as a precedent to justify their ever expanding war on the opposition.
At the same time the fact that these attacks continue proves Al-Sisi has little control over terror groups, despite being the West’s go-to man in the Middle East for leading the war on terror.
With all the arrests, deaths, electricity blackouts and more, the details surrounding the insurgent attacks and who Egypt is killing in response remains unclear. So when a video is released of an army tank running over a car containing four terrorists it’s hard to decipher what’s real and what’s fabricated and as a result such incidents throw up all sorts of questions. If the army had been tipped off about explosives in a vehicle why didn’t they clear the area? Instead seven civilians nearby died when the bomb went off.
When the Egyptian army’s statements, figures and videos of terrorist attacks are published as gospel it helps them perpetuate their narrative that civilian deaths are collateral damage in a necessary war on terror. Yet the actions of Egyptian authorities over the past four years prove that that they cannot be relied upon to present anything close to a truthful version of events.