In 2014, fresh from the coup they led against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the government offered Yehya Okail the position of deputy mayor of North Sinai. He wasn’t the most obvious choice. The 2011 revolution had elevated Okail to Member of Parliament for the Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, within the Sinai Province where he was leading demonstrations against the new military-backed government.
Okail’s path to politics wasn’t exactly conventional though he had held a string of high profile positions, including Secretary of the Development Fund in his village and President of the Association for the Development of Bedouin Women. He studied mathematics, received a high diploma in Islamic studies and then in 2010 was arrested and detained for seven months on charges of espionage and colluding with Hamas.
He declined the offer for deputy mayor, a counter offer to become a minister, and left Egypt three days later. He hasn’t returned since.
Okail’s departure coincided with the start of the war on terror in North Sinai, which began in October 2014 and culminated at the start of this year when the government announced Operation Sinai 2018, which promised to use brute force to restore security in the region after an attack on a mosque killed over 300 people. Okail was outside the country, watching events unravel within, regularly receiving news from people on the ground.
Brute force is an understatement for what has unraveled in the province under this campaign. Sinai was placed under a seven-month blockade, which has never really been lifted. Civilians suffered acutely from the restrictions placed on travel, food, medicine, cooking gas and water and some days survive on just two hours of electricity and internet a day.
Whilst the army’s PR machine is in overdrive to portray their mission there as heroic and successful, recent figures compiled by the Tahrir Institute tell a different story. By August 2018 182 terror attacks had already killed 520 people, whereas throughout 2014 363 people were killed. Terrorism in Sinai is getting worse.
Egyptian authorities have razed homes near the airport south of the city of Arish and have started demolishing areas surrounding the port, explains Okail, despite the fact that the government has said it is winding down operations there. Rafah, the city along Egypt’s eastern border with the Gaza Strip, has been wiped out, as has 40 per cent of nearby Sheikh Zuwaid and the town centres of Al-Qasima and Al-Husna in Central Sinai. Up to 20,000 families have fled.
“The state is supposed to provide security, not penalise ordinary citizens,” says Okail. “After the Sinai operation we witnessed an increasing number of detainees, an increasing number of enforced disappearances and increasing assassination operations on the ground. Nothing has been achieved – the blockade hasn’t been lifted, goods have not entered, development has not started. There is no housing, instead they demolished people’s homes.”
“Unfortunately, the state now has no political responsibility before the parliament, so the duration of the operation is open,” he continues. “[Egyptian strongman] Abdul Fattah Sisi does not have a strategy or a plan to market himself abroad after he failed Egypt, except using ‘the war on terror’. This continues and the people of Sinai pay the price.”
As authorities continue to justify their actions under the broad brush of extremism, analysts have put forward alternative explanations. Earlier this year a report published by The New York Times revealed a close yet covert alliance between Israel and Egypt when it confirmed Israel had carried out a number of strikes against militant groups in North Sinai. Under Sisi Egypt has helped enforce the blockade on Gaza in a far stricter manner than his predecessor.
Within this context Okail believes that these wide-scale house demolitions within the peninsula are being carried out for Israel’s benefit: “The political, security and intelligence coordination between Egypt and Israel is unprecedented, and the price that the Egyptian side offered to remove Rafah from the map is not cheap. Israel knows and values this very much.”
“I also think that Israel is prepared to support Sisi to remain in power by all means,” he adds. “Hosni Mubarak was a treasure to Israel, however Sisi is much more than that. Israel never imagined that it would be served by anyone in the history of Egypt as Sisi has done.”
North Sinai is a long neglected region of Egypt. Its Bedouin population have been discriminated against by successive governments and banned from entering into the police or the military which prohibits them from receiving certain government services. Authorities have not listened to pleas to end its scorched earth policy and invest economically in the peninsula as a bulwark against militant activity.
The Bedouin of North Sinai have been accused both of joining the local Daesh affiliate and of being armed by the Egyptian military to take part in operations against them. At the beginning some tribes did co-operate with the army, says Okail, but whichever way they turn they are doomed.
“Whoever cooperates with the army is killed by the militants and the authorities in return do not treat them like policemen or soldiers. When he is in danger the army does not protect him and if he does not deal with the state he is accused of fabricated charges and sent to prison and treated inhumanly. The people of Sinai are killed anyway – if you deal with the army you are killed by armed groups, and if you deal with the militants you are killed by the army.”
Okail believes that the Egyptian state is not just against the Bedouin but against all members of society, including the elderly as we saw with the 2013 arrest of the senior Muslim Brotherhood figure Mohammed Mahdi Akef, who died last year at the age of 89. The attitude of the current regime towards women has regularly been brought under scrutiny – during the Mubarak-era even the wives of detainees were treated with respect.
“The Sisi regime doesn’t care about traditions or morals,” says Okail – neither do they spare children. Schools have been demolished, children kicked out onto the street and arrested, charged or forcibly disappeared until their parents surrender themselves to the authorities.
“The regime which massacred thousands in one day in Rabaa and burned the bodies of wounded people, a regime which has committed an unprecedented crime in the history of Egypt, will not show mercy and will not differentiate between men, women and children,” he says.
In Sinai children in preparatory schools were arrested for years and then killed. The regime acts with no sense or logic. The state continues to detain children who do not know anything and to issue sentences against them.
In exactly one week, on 20 November, the world will celebrate protecting the rights and freedom of children though it is unlikely the people of Sinai will observe this day. “The Egyptian state does not have the right to celebrate the international day of the child or the day of women or anything because it has insulted children, women and the elderly with physical and psychological abuse,” says Okail. “The future of our people has been destroyed.”
What is happening in Sinai is unprecedented and far worse after Sisi’s rise to power and his public commitment to fighting terrorism, says Okail: “Sisi knows that his rule came into being by force and that he can only continue to rule by force, not through democracy. The Sisi regime is brutal, it’s a regime which began with blood. Blood is a chain that begins and does not end.”
Amidst the fighting, the destruction and the collective pain so many families in Sinai have suffered, it’s easy to lose sight of how the peninsula was before it was torn apart by the state. “I cannot forget Sinai, nor escape the pain suffered by the people of Sinai,” says Okail.
“Remembering North Sinai is very difficult to express, my feelings towards it cannot be put into words. It is very difficult to forget Sinai – exile is cruel, especially to those who were forced out of their country. Sinai is always on my mind.”
Laila Ahmet contributed reporting