Shortly after the profile of a well-known Sinai activist appeared in an Egyptian newspaper, the intelligence services called the journalist who interviewed him: “Why have you published a picture of someone from Sinai reading a book?” they asked him.
“The state wants to portray us as illiterate barbarians,” says Massaad Abu Fager, a writer and politician from Sinai who helped draft the 2014 constitution. “They portray us in cinema, for instance, as drug dealers or spies and that is incorrect. We have values, and we are peaceful people.”
The negative depiction of the Sinai Bedouin in news and popular culture is part of an ongoing campaign to dehumanise them. The ultimate goal is for them all to leave, says Abu Fager, whose own house in Rafah was razed to the ground before he became one of between 70 and 100,000 people to be forcibly evicted from their homes which once stood along Gaza’s border.
Under President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s seven-year war on terror, 14 villages in Sheikh Zuweid have been “wiped off the map” and “a 50 kilometre area starting from the border with Israel to Arish” erased, says Abu Fager. “They didn’t leave either animal, tree, bird or human. This is ethnic cleansing.”
Inspired by the Egyptian contractor Mohamed Ali, over the past week Abu Fager has released a series of videos on Facebook accusing the Egyptian government of key human rights violations in Sinai.
Both Ali and Abu Fager’s videos circulated widely both in Egypt and abroad and struck a chord with thousands of Egyptians who are struggling to survive as the regime rolls out a severe austerity programme and asks Egyptians to tighten their belts as it indulges in vanity projects and exerts severe repression over its citizens.
Sinai has suffered from a complete blackout under Al-Sisi’s rule, with prohibitions on the entry of journalists and human rights workers as the government pushes the line it is fighting a just and proportionate war against the local Daesh affiliate there. However, human rights organisations say the regime is committing severe human rights abuses in the process.
In one of his videos, Abu Fager calls on authorities to release the names and identities of the 5,000 people the Egyptian military – according to their own figures – have killed since the war on terror began in Sinai.
Every week the Interior Ministry releases official statistics on the number of people it has killed in ‘shootouts’ with alleged Islamist militants and terrorists, but it never gives their names or identities leaving hundreds of families in the twilight zone – unsure if their loved ones are alive or dead.
The story is the same across the country. Relatives regularly report that their family members have been forcibly disappeared from their homes, streets or places of work and maintain that they were neither terrorists nor were they armed.
In his video Abu Fager said many of these people have been dumped in specific sites in Sinai and that he knows the location of several of them: “There are mass graves in different areas of Sinai where many people are buried after being physically liquidated.”
“All the mass graves are for the people of Sinai, not terrorists. They come into homes and arrest Sinai people, tie their hands and legs with ropes and put them in the back of their cars. Then they’re killed or blown up somewhere and buried.”
In 2007 Abu Fager founded Wedna Neesh (we want to live), a civil movement demanding the rights of people in Sinai be respected. Among its initiatives was a monthly conference held every time on land belonging to a different tribe. The aim was to raise awareness of the dangers of violence and demand that Sinai be integrated into the Egyptian state, yet instead of listening, authorities arrested Abu Fager and imprisoned him for three years, then continued to push for violence and chaos in the peninsula.
As Abu Fager sat in prison terrorism was sowing its seeds in the peninsula. Four years after his release, in 2014, Abu Fager attended a meeting with former director of Egyptian intelligence Major General Mohamed Fareed Al-Tuhami, along with leaders from other tribes, and asked for permission to fight Daesh in Sinai with the view that a grassroots approach to fighting terror would be more effective.
“Daesh had only 300 fighters [back then] and we knew them [all]. We just needed permission to fight them. But surprisingly, General Al-Tuhami said no. The leaders offered to end the Daesh problem in a few days but he said no… we keep repeating our offer to help the government to fight Daesh.”
All these years later the number of terrorists in Sinai is now estimated at around 1,000, which has led many to question the competence – and motives – of the Egyptian military: “It’s impossible to fight only 1,000 fighters in seven years. At the same time, Al-Sisi is killing women and children in Sinai,” says Abu Fager.
“The Egyptian army is not fighting terrorism in Sinai. They are using terrorism to frighten people. Under the name of fighting terrorism, they demolish people’s homes and commit ethnic cleansing.”
Abu Fager says the Egyptian state sees the tribes of Sinai as competitors and military rule on the peninsula is linked to a desire to be close to Israel: “The displacement of people from the Sinai is only in the interest of the Israeli right and [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu,” he says. “And the crazy deal of the century. It’s impossible to make a national homeland for Palestinians in Sinai.”
In one of his widely circulated videos, Abu Fager accused President Al-Sisi’s son, the security official Mahmoud Al-Sisi, of running a $45 million drug operation through the tunnels which connect Sinai to Gaza. He maintains that this is true.
“I’m personally sure that Mahmoud Al-Sisi the son of Al-Sisi and the deputy head of the General Intelligence Directorate, is behind all the smuggling operations through his aides in Sinai, and I know some of them personally.”
“Almost all of Sinai tribes know that Mahmoud Al-Sisi manages arms and drugs trafficking in Sinai and that he earns millions from that. The trafficking operations are all managed by meetings at a known hotel in Nasr City in Cairo.”
As the stack of human rights violations continue to build against the president, his family, and his inner circle, Abu Fager has endorsed Mohamed Ali’s call for a million-man march today and for Egyptians to fill the streets and squares until the president stands down.
“I call on Egyptians to continue to demonstrate. Al-Sisi is corrupt and a traitor. The Egyptians need a good education, transportation and health systems rather than palaces and failed projects like the new Suez Canal,” he says.
“The military now rules and controls everything in the country. All of Egypt’s business is controlled by them now. They are even producing children’s milk, vegetables and managing pharmacies. Where will the regular citizen work now?”
He continued: “We don’t dream of paradise in Egypt. We want a state we can live in. An open, political, economic social space we can work and live in.”
Like many other members of the opposition in Egypt, since his videos went viral Abu Fager has been slandered by the pro-regime press who have branded him a spy and an infidel.
The obsequious press also reports that lawyer Mohmed Hamed Salem is leaning on Interpol to arrest him. In addition to this, two lawsuits have been filed against Abu Fager accusing him of high treason and for helping the fugitive actor Mohamed Ali, who they say is spreading rumours and offending the Egyptian state.
“This is all slander,” he says. “If this is true, why did they choose me to sit on the constitution committee and why did they offer me a position as an MP?”
“The authorities offered me an MP position in 2014, but I didn’t want it. I told them ok, I accept, but I will travel to Ireland and come back. I never came back.”