Sinai: Can the truth be told?

Sinai: Can the truth be told?

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Fri, 11/10/2013 - 17:33
A young, niqab-clad journalist carefully tiptoed through the black, burned out shell of a house, her feet cracking broken tiles and stone as she stepped. Sunlight glared into the charred room through massive openings blown out of the bullet-ridden walls. This destruction is a result of one of many recent military offenses in Sinai.
 
Women cry and howl, and their children gaze with distant looks in their eyes as they clutch their mothers’ arms, telling journalist Mouna Elzamlout about the military strike in Mahdeya, a small village in North Sinai.
 
Elzamlout, managing editor of Wust el-Balad el-Ikhbary, a small news outlet working out of North Sinai, finds a sobbing woman at a loss for words. The woman reveals her elderly mother could not leave the house in time before the army obliterated the house. “They attacked with more than thirty tanks, armored vehicles and helicopters over them. They open fired and used missiles. They left nothing. Nothing is left at our place,” the woman cries.
 
Shortly after the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsy, the armed forces began a military campaign in Sinai to crack down on militant groups who had used Sinai as a refuge during Morsy’s administration. When the new interim government took power and began arresting members of the Brotherhood, the armed groups began what are seen as retaliatory attacks against the military.
 
The most brutal of the attacks was on 19 August, when militants stopped two army vehicles carrying 25 soldiers, who were shot dead execution style in Rafah. Since the army has stepped up security in Sinai, smaller drive-by shootings against army checkpoints have become the new norm.
 
In a 19 September press conference, the official army spokesman Col. Ahmed Mohamed Ali vowed the armed forces would continue its Sinai operation until all terrorists and outlaws were cleared. The military offensive on the village of Mahdeya is purportedly part of this campaign to root out terrorists taking refuge in the area.
 
When Elzamlout first heard of the military strike in Mahdeya, she grabbed her camera, jumped in her car and went to survey the damage. Elzamlout told Egypt Independent she found the villagers gathered in an open area, with all their houses destroyed and burned. “There was no other place for them to stand. Some cars were burned and animals as well,” she said.
 
Elzamlout then uploaded the videos to YouTube to show proof of the damage done. “I won’t be able to build another home for ten years,” sobbed another woman in one of Elzamlout’s videos as she shows Elzamlout her burned out garage. “We are poor people... I swear we are kind people!”
 
A man standing in front of his destroyed home, summed up the raid on the village to Elzamlout. “They put us all together over here, ” he said, pointing to an open field. “And they burned all the houses with helicopters and tanks. Then they drank their tea and left.”
 
The man tells Elzamlout that none of the villagers in the operation were arrested. “They just blew it up and left,” he said, exasperated.
 
As children play with what appear to be tank bullet casings below him, the man shows Elzamlout his brother’s house next door, which was burnt out, then counts up the houses destroyed as Elzamlout pans the camera to see. “Ten, including my mom’s house,” he concludes. “We are Egyptian citizens, we are not terrorists!”
 
Elzamlout also found villagers who claimed their houses were looted by soldiers and the gold was missing. One woman claimed 140 grams of gold was taken from her. The man also said gold jewelry was missing. “They didn’t even leave us clothes to wear,” he said.
 
Elzamlout points out this incident is just a small example of a wider problem with the armed forces campaign in Sinai. She also spoke to residents of el-Gouna and el-Moqata’ who told her the military has burned down many houses. “They said the security forces are burning every house that looks like a hut and they don't know it’s a house. They call them headquarters of terrorism,” she said.
 
Ibrahim Menai, head of the Sinai Tribes Union and one of the most powerful tribal figures in Sinai, told Egypt Independent that civilians die every day at the hands of the police and military. “I’m talking about the innocent, the unarmed,” he added.
 
Menai described an attack near his home a few weeks ago where he claims 50 people died, eight of them children. In Mahdeya village, he says about 60 houses burned down,  and in El-Moqataa village, about 40 houses. In  the villages of Toma and Helu combined, Menai says around 80 houses burned. “Two-hundred ten houses have been destroyed in an area of 10 by 10 kilometers squared,” he claims.
 
Unfortunately, due to the media blackout in Sinai, verifying Menai’s claims are particularly difficult. The Egyptian army has been restricting the entrance of journalists into Sinai as they continue their ongoing anti-terrorism campaign in the region. Giving an accurate account of events becomes especially difficult when both sides tell vastly different versions of the same story.
 
The military has refused to mention civilian deaths during their Sinai operations, only distinguishing between deaths in the armed forces and the deaths of militants or Palestinians. Col. Ali, the military spokesman, said in the 19 September press conference that military deaths had reached 125, while militant deaths 134, since January 2011.
 
Egypt Independent spoke to an informed source within the army, who denied any civilian deaths had occurred, and only those who had been killed at the hands of the army were those of the terrorists. “The troops are well trained and they know where they're going,” he said.
 
A public outcry in Sinai was raised when a YouTube video, posted by Rasad news showed a group of four dead children, supposedly killed during a raid of Sheikh Zuwayid, a village in North Sinai, carried out on 13 September. In the video, a man holds up the body of a dead little girl, blaming General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi for her death.
 
A Sinai-based Islamist group called Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, who claimed credit for the assassination attempt of Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim and other recent attacks on the Egyptian military, posted a statement on jihadist forums, posted two days after the military raid, denouncing what they say was the killing of seven civilians, among them four children. It said the children, aged one to seven years-old, died from “tank bombardment.”
 
The statement, which listed the names of those allegedly killed, said a widowed mother and another woman also died in the military assault. The militant group added that a 23-year-old man was run over by an armored vehicle in front of his family in another incident that day, and warned retaliation for the “blood of innocent Muslims”.
 
The army official addressed the YouTube video, which had been widely circulated on Facebook, saying it was merely a propagandist response to Col. Ahmed Ali’s press conference. “There were some rumors of pictures circulating of children killed about four or five together,” he explained. “We found out that these pictures are from Syria. They’re not from here. They posted the video three days after the end of the operation. If there were an attack and children were killed, would you wait three days to show the video or would you post it the next day or the same day at night?”
 
The military’s ‘scorched Earth’ campaign
 
Despite reservations about the military strategy, both Menai and Elzamlout said the people of Sinai in general support operations to arrest criminals and bring safety the Sinai region. Menai emphasized that after the killing of members of the army and police by militants, the armed forces should pursue the perpetrators. “The Bedouins naturally love justice and what’s right,” he declared. “We in Sinai condemn terrorism. If it comes from far away, or from groups, or from the government, we don’t like it. We are against terrorism everywhere.”
 
However, both Menai and Elzamlout stressed that the fault of the security campaigns in Sinai is that they center around mass arrests and destruction of homes. “This operation is not organized,” Elzamlout says. “The campaign now is arresting randomly, the innocent with the guilty. They hurt many people that are innocent. So instead of this campaign creating safety and stability for Sinai, is now oddly hurting people.”
 
She said the military has not yet created a plan to treat the people of Sinai humanely. “This is something bad, to detain 25 people just to find one person,” she said.
 
Menai agreed, stressing that the army suspects all people in Sinai of being terrorists. “I feel that the military campaign is ugly by all measures... Now all of the sons of Sinai are accused. If this mission is just to find the people or terrorists, they go and take everyone, ” he added.
 
“The Egyptian military follows a policy of scorched Earth,” Menai said, referring to the burning of houses and mass arrests. “It’s about disciplinary campaigns. Why do you punish the unarmed man in his house? This does not work. You create every day 100 terrorists. And if you kill people, you will create many terrorists. ”
 
The informed military source denied any issues with the operations regarding wrongful arrests of civilians or burning of homes, stressing that the military is merely clearing out terrorist nests. “There’s nothing hard about it. [The army] receives information about some terrorist groups in Sinai through military intelligence and state security. Then they reach their places and arrest them in their homes. They go to the terrorist hot beds and clear them,” he explained.
 
Creating a media blackout
 
The situation has been further complicated by the arrest of one of more than one journalist in the Sinai, including Al-Masry Al-Youm reporter, Ahmed Abu Draa, who was known for his award-winning reporting in the Sinai, under the army’s charge of “spreading false news” and being within a prohibited military zone without a permit.
 
Egypt Independent spoke to Abu Draa, who says he was passing through the 101st Batallion headquarters on his way to visit a relative who was injured in a military strike in Sinai, when he was asked for his ID, then detained.
 
His arrest came shortly after Abu Draa posted on Facebook that a military raid had hit civilian residences. Despite demands by the Journalists Syndicate to try him in a civilian court, Abu Draa received a six months suspended sentence in a military court in Ismailia on 5 October.
 
Col. Ali defended Abu Draa’s arrest in the news conference. “The armed forces respect journalists and their work, but when reports are intended to ignite tensions and claim that we are burning people’s homes, how do we deal with that?”
 
Egypt Independent’s informed military source echoed Col. Ali’s concern that Abu Draa was giving a bad name to the Egyptian military by spreading false news when he reported the army was destroying mosques, displacing civilians from Arish and Sheikh Zuwayid, randomly shelling, even killing women and children.  “And all this goes to international news agencies, ” he added.
 
Both Menai and Elzamlout said they respect Abu Draa and believe his arrest is part of a military campaign to only show a rosy, pro-military version of the security operations in Sinai. “They are still hiding the truth about the main reasons they detained him, but he declared on his Facebook the military statements about the village in Sheikh Zuwayid were lies. Because he is a witness, he disappeared,” Elzamlout said.
 
Menai agreed, as he knows Abu Draa personally and was interviewed several times by him. “He was the only journalist in Sinai that knows it well and was an expert and did his job well without any problems before and he reflected the truth as it is,” said Menai.
 
When Egypt Independent asked its informed Egyptian military source to expand on the reasons why Abu Draa was detained, the official questioned the journalist’s credentials. “First of all, Ahmed Abu Draa isn’t a journalist. The so-called Ahmed Mohamed Hussein Selim, or better known as Ahmed Abu Draa, graduated from technical school, but for a long time, he’s been known for reporting news from Sinai,” he explained.
 
Abu Draa admits he’s not officially a member of the Journalists’ Syndicate, but he is nonetheless a knowledgable contributer to mutiple news outlets, including OnTV. “If the army says I’m not a journalist, why are all my reports are still published in Al-Masry Al-Youm? The military cannot deny Al-Masry Al-Youm is the biggest newspaper in Egypt,” he argued.
 
The process to become an official member of the Journalists’ Syndicate in Egypt is not difficult, Abu Draa says, but time-consuming, as joining can even take four to six years. Many Egyptian journalists forgo the long process as they are still able to find jobs despite not being a member of the syndicate, and sometimes, as in the case of Abu Draa, can even become well-known in their field.
 
Regardless, the informed military source stressed the importance of arresting Abu Draa for not following the rule of law. “There are places defined by the armed forces that for you to be in as a journalist, you need a permit. He doesn’t have that,” he said.
 
The army official explained that Abu Draa was not trust-worthy as he reports news differently depending on the audience. When reporting in Egyptian newspapers, the source claimed, Abu Draa would claim the army missions in Sinai were a success. “So in Egypt he’s good, but outside [Egypt], he reports false news,” the official said.
 
The army source was also displeased with Abu Draa for his willingness to accompany foreign reporters to interview extremist elements in Sinai, hinting that Abu Draa was a little too close to the militants than he should be. He cited his frustration in once instance of discovering a foreign journalist accompanied by Abu Draa on her way to interview Abou Nasheeta, who was wanted by authorities for kidnapping seven soldiers. “So you know where he is? Why wouldn’t you just report it to the authorities?” he asked.
 
Abu Draa disagrees, saying he has spent time accompanying the army, covering their operations, and works well with them. As he belongs to a tribe in Sinai, he is able to capitalize on his good relations with all the tribes as well as the security services, and stresses that he reports both side sequally and fairly. “I don't distinguish between the two in my reporting. I reflect the news, whether the security service does something or the Bedouins do it. No exceptions,” he affirmed.
 
After only a week since leaving prison, Abu Draa is hesitant to respond to questions about a possible media blackout by the army. “If the military doesn't want journalists to do their job reporting what’s going on in Sinai, and the Egyptian media in Cairo is satisfied by the spokespersons statements,” he paused. “In my opinion, it's for a mysterious reason.”
 
Elzamlout believes the army is merely "using Abu Draa" to intimidate other journalists from covering the story. Journalists like her are afraid of publishing anything perceived as anti-military in the mainstream Egyptian news. “All the security issues are sensitive, especially recorded videos. I don’t publish sensitive or strong images because my manager would fire me right away,” she said.
 
‘Sons of Sinai’: a marginalized people
 
With the Sinai operations underway, the locals have many good reasons to complain. Despite virtually all public utilities being cut off, from electricity to water and internet to cell phone networks for most of the time, to many, their biggest complaint is being singled out by the army, just because they are from Sinai.
 
Nabil Hussein, a 30-year-old technician who works at a computer store in Arish, cites frequent discrimination. He says since the military campaigns have begun, the ATMs in Arish are constantly out of money. One day he decided to go to Ismailia to withdraw money from his bank. Since the bridge is closed, he had to take a boat, making sure to leave early due to the curfew in Sinai, which at the time was about 4pm.
 
By 10am, he arrived at an army checkpoint, where the soldiers immediately accused Hussein of being Syrian. He quickly presented the officers his ID to prove his Egyptian nationality. They rejected his ID at first, insisting it must be fake. “No, you’re Syrian. Your hair is blond and your eyes are green,” he says they told him.
 
Hussein recounts that the soldiers held him up until 1pm as he begged the authorities to let him go to the bank before it closed. He says he had to call family members, to find connections to the army. Eventually someone in his family knew somebody else, who allowed Hussein to go free.
 
The military official told Egypt Independent that checkpoints are an unfortunate convenience for Egyptians, especially in dangerous areas where they are more numerous, but they are necessary for the civilians’ protection. Checkpoints prevent extremists elements from moving freely inside the country, he says, and it is especially important these jihadist groups don’t make it to metropolitan areas and cause problems.
 
“If you have your ID and your papers on hand, there’s no problem. ‘Go ahead, sir.’ It’s just like when you walk in any street in Cairo, you also come across checkpoints,” he says.
 
Menai said the unfair treatment received on the government’s end has sown deep mistrust in the government. “We don’t go to the military, nor the police, nor any military forces and no political or leadership position in the state. We are marginalized and this is what has created the bad relation between us and the state,” he said.
 
The relationship between the army and the Sinai people is almost cut off, Menai added. “There is no confidence or trust between the people in Sinai or the government in Cairo. Endless lack of confidence,” he says.
 
Menai argues the root of the problem is that the “sons of Sinai” are all assumed guilty until proven innocent. “Egypt has succeeded in deceiving the world and has accused everyone in Sinai as being terrorists. Sinai is like other regions, there is bad people and good people. And the bad people here are the minority,” he added.
 
Egypt Independent’s informed army source denied there was any discrimination. “Who told you this? ... The army and Sinai people are of the same heart,” he said, illustrating they are united together under common goals. “The whole time, the people of Sinai love the armed forces, and the armed forces in return solve their problems. Ask the people in Sinai.”
 
Elzamlout, however, says the increasing mishandling of Sinai citizens during the security campaign could create more terrorism because “they treat Sinai’s sons cruelly.”
 
Menai agreed. “There is no development, but instead torture and detainment. These things create terrorists. If there are terrorists here, they have created them.”
 
The military source did admit the Egyptian government has been negligent in the past in its dealing with the people of Sinai. “Sinai was marginalized,” the army official added. “The presidency and the cabinet said hopefully in the near future there will be a change.”
 
The source mentioned plans to invest in Sinai through infrastructure projects will hopefully improve the living conditions. “There will be a big momentum and development during the upcoming period. And the armed forces started to supply electricity lines, five months ago, Field Marshall Abdel Fatah el-Sisi endorsed LE 1.6 billion to build up infrastructure in Sinai, electricity lines, water lines, gas lines. So life will go on.”
 
Going forward, both Menai and Elzamlout hope for a more precise plan from the military, one that would arrest armed elements without terrifying the citizens around them or dealing out a collective punishment to the whole village. “They must recognize that Sinai’s sons are Egyptian and they have the rights. Marginalization and violence only creates more violence and terrorism,” Zamlout warned.