Even by the standards of Egypt’s dirty war the video circulating this week of a young boy pleading for his mother moments before he was shot in central Sinai was heartbreaking.
When it comes to Egypt we hear a lot of figures – 60,000 political prisoners, 1,000 protesters massacred in a single day, 378 enforced disappearances in a year – but as the numbers climb we have become desensitised to the scale of oppression taking place in this North African country, once celebrated for its Arab Spring uprising.
The video of the young boy reminds us how horribly wrong it all went, and that behind each and every extrajudicial killing carried out by Egyptian authorities there is a person with a family, a life, a world.
The video was filmed by a solider serving in the Sinai region in 2015, sent to an Egyptian activist and leaked this week but only after the army published a photo of the young boy with bomb-making equipment placed next to his body.
In the three years it took to publicise this brutal crime, how many more acts of violence like this have taken place that haven’t been shared on social media for the world to see. This was certainly not an isolated incident. Numerous people reported forcibly disappeared or detained have been extrajudicially killed and then framed as terrorists in a disturbing attempt to justify their death.
Sinai has always been one of the most neglected areas of Egypt, ignored by the media and home to successive broken promises made by corrupt administrations. During Sisi’s first presidential campaign he pledged to fully develop the region within two years but instead declared it a breeding ground for terrorists and implemented a state of emergency complete with curfews and restrictions on movement.
Over the years his heavy-handed war on terror has intensified and destroyed the lives of countless civilians, culminating in “Operation Sinai 2018”, launched in February, which pledged to once and for all restore security and stability in the region. Human Rights Watch calculated that 420,000 residents in North Sinai have been in urgent need of humanitarian aid since then.
Last week the Egyptian agricultural directorate said that the army had levelled 90 per cent of farms in Rafah, Sheikh Zuwaid and Al-Arish along with 20 or so villages in Rafah. Towns and cities have been isolated from one another and North Sinai from the rest of the region. As a result there is a food and medicine crisis.
The government has cut water and electricity, destroyed schools and homes, targeted mobile phone signals and confiscated cars. Thousands have been detained, hundreds have died.
The Suez tunnel, which links the Sinai Peninsula to the rest of Egypt, has become a checkpoint with tight security and people attempting to travel through it from either direction are often sent back without being allowed to continue their journey.
The shops in Sinai are lacking basic commodities because drivers passing through the tunnel don’t have the necessary security clearance or are told the goods are not authorised to pass. Prior to this the government had already banned agricultural pesticide, chemicals, spare parts for motorbikes or four-by-fours and even camels from entering Sinai.
As one activist in the area told me, “we are in Gaza and maybe worse. They have a lobby, we have none”.
Tourists who once frequented the popular Red Sea resorts in South Sinai will be surprised to hear about what is happening in the northern province, which is vastly underdeveloped in comparison and certainly not mentioned on the glossy posters which advertise beach holidays in the area.
This gap is about to get bigger after plans to build a 1,000 square kilometre mega-city in South Sinai firm up. The $10 billion Saudi-led project will oversee the construction of 50 resorts, four small cities, yacht marinas, nature reserves and diving at a cost that is likely to be far higher than the average wage. Civilians fear their lives could become worse when construction begins.
It’s now illegal for journalists and human rights organisations to enter North Sinai without permission, which they are rarely granted, for the simple reason that authorities don’t want the world to know what’s going on there. Social media pages documenting the violations regularly get banned and people fall silent out of fear.
In contrast, the Egyptian military use these same pages to boast of their misconduct. Posing against the rugged Sinai landscape with a gun in his hand reserve officer Mohammed Amer announced on Facebook it was him who killed the child in the leaked video. One thing is certain in the murky war on Sinai – that Mohammed will not face justice for his crime.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.