On November 3, the World Youth Forum (WYF) took place for the second consecutive year in Sharm el Sheikh under the patronage of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. As a specially selected group of Egyptian youth was welcomed in the southern part of the Sinai Peninsula, young people in North Sinai were doing their utmost to avoid arrest or disappearance, their efforts sometimes ending with a shot in the head and an official statement celebrating that another “terrorist” has been eliminated.
In February, Sisi encouraged the military to use “brute force” to crush militants in the Sinai Peninsula in the name of “counter-terrorism.” The push was in response to a terrorist attack that took place a year ago. More than 300 people were killed in the attack by Islamic State-inspired militants on a North Sinai mosque in Rawda, which was inexplicably left unprotected by Egyptian troops despite warnings that militants would attack the mosque. Last month, the Egyptian military announced that its that troops had killed 450 fighters in Sinai since the start of the campaign, news that was greeted as a blow to Islamic State forces. But such perceptions of success are naïve—especially when placed in context: The military carrying out this counterterrorism campaign is also behind the most severe political repression in modern Egyptian history.
What Sisi and his security forces claim as success are often gross exaggerations and sometimes wholesale fabrications. Since the massacre at the mosque in Rawda and the launch of the military offensive, the largest army in the Arab world has destroyed thousands of homes, taken down the power grid for days at a time, and cut off hundreds of thousands of residents from food during an eight-month blockade of Alareesh, Rafah and Sheikh Zowaid cities in North Sinai. Between January and April of this year alone, more than 3,600 buildings were demolished, Human Rights Watch found, purportedly to prevent their use by terrorists. The Egyptian government disputed the report. Meanwhile, the promise of compensation for lost homes and farms seems to lead almost nowhere, despite the regime’s claims to the contrary.
Reporting on Sisi’s clandestine war, which is mired in secrecy, is extremely difficult. The Egyptian government has banned outsiders from visiting the region, even going so far as to call CNN “deplorable,” taking a page from President Donald Trump’s book, merely for questioning why journalists are not allowed in. And yet such aggressive tactics have largely failed to prevent the truth from getting out. The economy in the Sinai Peninsula has ground to a halt, power outages are frequent, petrol is rationed. Many of the “terrorists” that Sisi claims with such pride to have killed were in fact civilians, murdered in cold blood, and then armed after the fact to look like militants.
The Egyptian security forces are running the Sinai operation as a counterterrorism campaign when it should actually be treated as a counter-insurgency, either way, it is being handled miserably. The homes upended, the people displaced, the civilians killed or starved or bullied, stoke the fires of resentment that already existed in the peninsula. The insurgency continues to thrive and grow precisely because of Sisi’s scorched-earth tactics. An estimated £40 million has been lost in razed agricultural land. Sinai’s Bedouin people are banned from serving in the police or military and denied many government services, in effect separating them in perpetuity from the rest of the country. Sisi pledged to use a $500 million grant, gifted to him by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, to strengthen Sinai’s economy by investing in infrastructure projects. The Sinai people never saw any relevant spending. Any further investment, Sisi has said, will only take place after the region has been purged of “terrorists.”
The actions of the Egyptian army amount to collective punishment, which is a violation of international law. It is not the first time that Sisi’s actions have failed to live up to his words. His ongoing position as president demeans the country and demeans democracy. While his government talks of “stability” and female empowerment, at venues like the World Youth Forum, Sisi permits show trials, mass executions, detention without charge and the punishment of women who speak out against sexual harassment. Sisi, in his compulsive and desperate need to suppress dissent, has created the kind of swirling vortex in which violence thrives.
Now, a humanitarian crisis is looming ever larger in Sinai. Food, water, fuel and medical supplies are failing to reach the 420,000 civilians who inhabit North Sinai, and rates of unemployment, according to Human Rights Watch, may now be as high as 60 per cent. All schools and universities have been closed since February of this year. In the meantime, Sisi’s planned three-month campaign to “restore stability and security” in the region is in its eleventh month.
It is both deeply ironic and deeply disturbing that it was Sisi, as defense minister under President Mohamed Morsi, who warned that a low-level revolt could mutate into major unrest if the army did not treat the Sinai situation delicately. He would have done well to take his own advice.