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Egypt's air strikes on Sinai good timing for $1.3bn US military aid package

A picture taken on July 26, 2018 shows Egyptian policemen driving on a road leading to the North Sinai provincial capital of El-Arish. [KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images]
A picture taken on July 26, 2018 shows Egyptian policemen driving on a road leading to the North Sinai provincial capital of El-Arish. [KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images]

On Tuesday Egyptian warplanes launched airstrikes on North Sinai in response to the death of a senior army brigadier who was killed after Wilayat Sinai targeted his vehicle. Local sources told Al-Araby Al-Jadeed that fighter planes hit the city of Sheikh Zuweid and west of the town of Rafah.

Rafah city, which sits on the border with Gaza, has been completely destroyed by the Egyptian military with estimates that more than 50 villages were wiped out, 120,000 hectares of green spaces destroyed and 100,000 residents displaced.

Sources estimate the government has displaced more than 300,000 people from the 600,000 Bedouin in Sinai. More than 20,000 are dead or forcibly disappeared.

All of this – plus the arrest of children, the torture and the enforced disappearances which are rife in Sinai – have taken place in the name of Egypt's war on terror. Yet according to a 2018 Tahrir Institute Report, there are only roughly 1,000 militants in Sinai at any given time, making it a disproportionate campaign.

As the Egyptian military carries out a pattern of abuses against civilians in the name of fighting Wilayat Sinai, how many will die in the latest air strikes launched in response to the death of one brigadier remain to be seen.

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In several ways the air strikes have been good timing for the Egyptian army, who have faced criticism for a video broadcast at the beginning of the month, showing members of the military shooting a man at close range in a tent whilst he sleeps. There was also another clip, of an unarmed man being shot at from above as he runs through the desert.

The video is a reminder that Egypt "hold international law in contempt," said Amnesty researcher Philip Luther who urged Egypt's public prosecution to immediately launch an independent investigation into these apparent extrajudicial executions.

It's not the first time the Egyptian army has been accused of extrajudicial executions. In 2017 a Human Rights Watch investigation found that security forces waging a campaign against Wilayat Sinai may have extrajudicially executed up to ten men then staged it as a counterterror raid to cover up the killings.

Egyptian soldiers take part in a military operation in Sinai, Egypt on 1 November 2018 [Abed Rahim Khatib/ApaImages]

Egyptian soldiers take part in a military operation in Sinai, Egypt on 1 November 2018 [Abed Rahim Khatib/ApaImages]

Um Ibrahim, who moved to Arish from Rafah after it was destroyed, previously told me that her husband was arrested from their home by security forces in July 2018 and forcibly disappeared.

One month later she found a picture of his body on Facebook with marks and sores on his arms and legs. The attorney general wrote to her and said Mohammed had been killed in an operation against terrorists in Sinai, though he did not explain how he could have taken part in such an operation whilst he was in jail.

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Amnesty says that the soldier in the video shooting at the man in the tent is using an M4 Carbine with a PEQ Aiming Light and an Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight, both of which are American made.

The revelation comes amid an ongoing debate by rights activists over why the US is continuing to give extortionate military aid to Egypt, $1.3 billion a year, whilst the government carries out serious rights abuses.

Videos like this are yet another example that these violations take place, yet the Biden administration this week voiced support for the US and Egypt's security relationship. Top officials in the state and defence departments have stressed how important US security assistance is for Egypt.

The US has long justified support for Egypt in return for its role in maintaining stability in the region. Just as commentators argued that President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi's recent role in securing the Israel-Palestine ceasefire was a bid for Biden's attention, the Egyptian president is now able to justify to his US counterpart how important he is for maintaining security in the Sinai governorate, whilst concerns about his scorched earth policy, which is doing the exact opposite, falls on deaf ears.

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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