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Egypt's Strategy to Fight Militants in the Sinai May Just Create New Ones

The Egyptian army's radical approach to fighting the Islamic State's local affiliate in the Sinai may end up backfiring badly, according to people directly affected by it.
Members of the Egyptian armed forces in armoured vehicles patrolling a street near the town of Sheikh Zuweid, in the north of Sinai, Egypt, 13 July 2015. Photo by Foaad Gharnousi / Almasry Alyoum / EPA

In the Sinai peninsula, the Egyptian government is fighting the most serious insurgency in the country's modern history. A massive military campaign is targeting Ansar Beit al Maqdis, a militant group that pledged its allegiance to the so-called Islamic State earlier this year and is sometimes referred to as "Islamic State Sinai Province."

More than 3,500 people have been killed in north Sinai since 2011. The majority of those deaths have occurred since 2013, when militants began targeting the Egyptian army more frequently following a military coup that ousted elected president Mohammed Morsi.


Now the army is focusing on a strategy to isolate the militants centered on creating a buffer zone between Egyptian territory in north Sinai and the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian territory ruled by Hamas and linked to Egypt by smuggling tunnels. But residents say the strategy is backfiring and that, while the government claims success, it is sowing the seeds of renewed rebellion by evicting people to make room for the buffer area.

The military has announced it has successfully created a kilometer-wide (0.6 mile) zone free of residents on the Egyptian side of the border. To do so, it has evicted tens of thousands of residents and destroyed thousands of homes in the past two years, but those evictions appear to have had little effect on insurgent operations.

Clashes reached a peak in September, when the army claimed more than 500 militants had been killed during Operation Martyr's Right, which lasted more than two weeks. But residents of the Sinai say many of those killed were civilians the army simply classifies as militants, and that the campaigns have done little to dampen militants' resolve.

"The army's operations are the reason for the escalation," said a 27-year-old man from the town of Rafah who, for security reasons, would speak only on condition of anonymity. "Most of the people who have joined armed groups do so for revenge."

The military's operations have slowed in October and November, possibly in anticipation of an extension of the buffer zone.


"My impression is that the demolitions have been paused and they were planning … an official extension from one to up to two kilometers," said a Human Rights Watch researcher who has investigated potential war crimes in north Sinai, and spoke on condition of anonymity because the subject is sensitive. The government announced in 2014 the zone could be extended as far as five kilometers (three miles.)

Though the pace of operations may have abated, residents of north Sinai said fighting and civilian deaths at the hands of the military have not stopped.

The victims of the campaign have largely been the residents of Rafah and other towns that sit closest to the border with the Gaza Strip. Rafah, a city of around 75,000, will effectively need to be entirely rebuilt if the buffer is expanded further.

People have been getting little or sometimes no compensation for their forcible removal. Many families say they have received promised compensation for their houses from the government, but that it is rarely enough.

"The compensation is 1,200 pounds [about $125] per square meter. However, it only applies to concrete buildings. So if someone has a farm, they are not compensated for any of it no matter how big it was," said a doctor from the town of Sheikh Zuwayed who, like most people  interviewed in north Sinai, would not be quoted by name for fear of reprisals. "So the money they get is barely enough for buying a shelter, or land. It can never be enough for both."


A spokesman for the Egyptian military referred journalists to the office of north Sinai's governor, saying that was the body responsible for compensation payments. No one at the governor's office was available for comment.

Three other residents of north Sinai who were interviewed echoed the doctor's statements. Another half dozen declined to speak out of fear of retribution from militants or the government.

Many are responding by just leaving.

That's what the young man from Rafah did. He worked for an NGO before the fighting and the death of his brother in June prompted him to move to Cairo, where he now works as a waiter.

"It's a state of war," he said. "Curfew starts at 7pm. It is difficult to get to Arish," the largest city in the area. which is about 30 miles (50 km) west of Rafah.

His brother was shot in Rafah during clashes between the army and militants. The death toll was so heavy that "there was no space in the morgue" when he went to retrieve his brother's body, he said.

Restrictions placed on residents of the towns where the most fighting has taken place are similar to those enforced in neighboring Gaza, where an Israeli blockade has resulted in the lack of many basic necessities of life.

"People who still live in their houses suffer from lack of five things; network, water, fuel, cooking gas, and electricity," the doctor said. "Some villages live without electricity for months. Construction materials are also banned from north Sinai. So now people cannot even get tanks to store rain water, bricks to build dams for floods, or even cement to repair damage to their houses caused by the army."

"Evicting them will lead to more terrorism, not peace!" the doctor said.

Last week, a bombing and assault on a hotel in Arish killed a judge along with seven others. The judge had been in Arish to preside over polling stations for parliamentary elections, which people have largely ignored, partially due to a boycott by parties and organized groups including the Muslim Brotherhood. The boycott had been organized in protest against the military's ousting of president Morsi, who was backed by the Brotherhood, and the army's continuing, deadly crackdown on dissent.

"People," the doctor said, "just don't care."