“The United States of America pays 50 million dollars annually to support development in the Sinai Peninsula,” a diplomat at the American Embassy in Cairo told me during a small tea party that the embassy held in my honor to celebrate my release from prison in August 2010. I told him that this was the first time I had heard of this American financial contribution, even though I am present and active in the public sphere, which indicates that the aid does not usually reach its target. But the Egyptian state, instead of using this, and the various other aids that it receives from the European Union to develop and preserve the culture and livelihoods of its people, uses it to destroy Egypt’s social fabric, including the demographic and cultural composition of the population altogether.
The Great Manifestation Project
The three monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — consider the area of St. Catherine and its surroundings sacred, as it was the place that witnessed the tribes of the Children of Israel during their exodus from Egypt under the leadership of the Prophet Moses. The scriptures indicate that God transfigured on the top of the mountain when he delivered the tablets to Moses.
In 2002, UNESCO decided to consider the area, an estimated 641 square kilometers, a World Heritage Natural Reserve. In September 2020, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced the “Greatest Transfiguration” project in the region. But it turns out that the Sisi project consists of four-story hotels, villas, chalets, residential buildings and a commercial center, the costs of which are estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars and threaten the environmental diversity and lifestyle of the local population. It even reached the level of bulldozing the graves of their ancestors.
In 2013, the Egyptian state declared war on terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula, a war that continues to this day, which President Sisi describes as a brutal war. But most estimates say that the number of terrorists in Sinai is no more than 1,000. As for Hisham al-Hashemi, advisor to the US Embassy in Baghdad for terrorism affairs, the estimate is around 200 active terrorists and 800 inactive ones. From the first day of the war, many local tribesmen realized that its target was not terrorism but their very existence as a local population. Clearly, the army did not target terrorists as much as it targeted their homes, farms, cars, roads, mosques, and schools.
At this point, a number of tribal sheikhs made more than one offer to intervene to eliminate the terrorists, but the Egyptian army rejected their proposals and decided to hire members of the tribes, a large percentage of whom are smugglers and murderers.
Sinai is a peninsula bordered on the north by the Mediterranean Sea and on the south by the Red Sea with its Gulfs of Suez and Aqaba, surrounded on the west by the Suez Canal and on the east by Israel and the Gaza Strip. This geographical location makes it of great importance, as it is the only land corridor that connects the continents of Asia and Africa. Therefore, its inhabitants, the Sinai Bedouins, are especially accustomed to seeing the stranger and the transient. Coptic pilgrims come from Egypt and North Africa on their way to Jerusalem, and the inhabitants provide them with food, security, and protection. The same goes for Jewish pilgrims from Yemen across the sea to the port of Suez; from there, the Sinai Bedouins accompany them to Jerusalem on the way and back. It is also true for Muslim pilgrims going to Mecca and for merchants from Asia on their way to North Africa. These meetings are reflected in the choice of Bedouin names, as well as the architecture of their homes, which are sometimes built without doors, so passers-by can enter without permission. If needed, they can stay for days without having to reveal their journey or their names. And most locals derive their names from the verb “peace”, which varies between Salem, Saleem, Solomon, Saleema, Salem, and Salem.
However, this familiarity with strangers, this spirit and the tendency to be peaceful did not appeal to Egyptian nationalists, who, in the 1950s and ‘60s, were at war with Israel and the West. Thus, they weaponized two tools to crush this spirit: religion and drugs. A new form of the Islamic faith was used to destroy cultural and social structures, while drugs were used to destroy the economic system.
In 1906, Noam Choucair observed Sinai’s residents as “had it not been for their celebration of the two Eids, Eid al-Adha and Eid Ramadan, I would not have known that they were Muslims”. The truth is that their religion is very attached to nature. They sanctified the spirits of ancestors, trees, rain, mountains, sea, valleys, lightning, animals — especially horses — and practiced herding, agriculture, trade, protection of merchants and pilgrims, and the care and breeding of horses. They were poor, but they were never hungry.
In 1957, the Egyptian state brought in a man from the Gaza Strip to teach people the foundations of the Islamic religion. The man, a Sheikh (religious preacher) named Abu-Ahmed, had earlier volunteered as a fighter in the ranks of the Egyptian army during the1948 Arab-Israeli. He did not hesitate to establish a series of “zawiyas” (Jihadi Sufi religious gatherings) and the formation of a security apparatus to monitor the new men of God and their seriousness in adhering to his rituals.
In addition, Abu-Ahmed persecuted women and their traditional cultural practices, such as women’s songs. For probably thousands of years in the Sinai, Bedouin women gathered during the religious seasons, during feasts, and in the fields to sing. These songs were about love, the values of chivalry, daily life, the glorification of the beloved, father, husband and ancestors. But, in order to discipline Bedouin followers and stop practices they deemed haram according to Islam, the followers of Abu-Ahmed chased away the singing women. When the women found they were prevented from going out and sing, they began to sing in protest: “The devout put the rosary in his hand, in order to adulate the sir.” In this rebellious song, the women criticized the followers of Abu-Ahmed. The song is a moan of protest, which the women sang in their houses and with their animals in the pastures. This protest song was beyond the capacity of the mind to imagine, especially as it took place in an area the size of the Sinai Peninsula, which was being controlled by the Egyptian state intelligence services.
The new sheikh replaced the tribe’s Diwan (where the tribe gathered to discuss matters of public and private life) with Zawiya (a Sufi Muslim institution) and replaced their tribal leader with the Imam of the Zawiya. As a result, the tribesmen became submissive to the sheikh’s god and trembled at his security apparatus.
Local Bedouins have inherited values and cultural practices from thousands of years of history; they only care for their honor, and they fear nothing but the shame of ostracism from their tribes. But the Egyptian state, in order to destroy these values, promoted religious fanaticism side by side with drug cultivation and trade. Religion needs someone who devotes himself to worship, and whoever devotes himself to worship needs money, and money is acquired through the drug business.
War and Enforced Displacement
Before the war, which the Egyptian army continues to wage today for more than 9 consecutive years, about one million people lived in the Sinai Peninsula. They constituted a wide demography. In addition to the tribes that make up a majority of the population, there lived a group of Egyptians originating in the Nile Valley, a Palestinian minority, and the residents of the city of El-Arish, most of whom are of European and Levantine origins. This gave Sinai a diverse and impressive human mixture. Because of the almost complete absence of the state and the rampant corruption of its political institutions, the population used to follow tribal law, an oral code inherited from their ancestors.
Today, after years of continuous war, most people fled the region and can no longer follow its news from home. Instead, they follow it from outside, whether from the Egyptian governorates of Ismailia and Sharqiya west of the Suez Canal or Beheira in western Egypt. Some have even emigrated outside Egypt, where they receive news of the war from social media pages that may not be outside the control and manipulation of Egypt’s intelligence services.
Sinai has turned into a black hole, subject to a bitter siege by the power of iron and fire from land, sea and air. It is a siege that contravenes all humanitarian norms in international law. No press monitors and writes about it, no civil society organization to document it, no judiciary holds it accountable, and no one knows precisely what is happening. People live in the shadow of a suspicious, frustrating, and disappointing international silence. The lack of credibility of the war is accompanied by the horror of its results, which includes extrajudicial killings, disappearances, forced displacement by the armed forces, the bombing of homes, and the bulldozing of farms.
More than 40 villages and communities, which consist of more than half of the villages and communities in the northern Sinai Peninsula, have been evacuated by the Egyptian army through armed force, aerial and ground bombardments and turned into havens for the terrorists.
The city of Rafah and its villages were completely wiped off the face of the earth, and its population of no less than 81 thousand people was dispersed. Nearly 60 schools with approximately 12 thousand students were now deserted (Ayman, 2018).
According to Human Rights Watch, tens of thousands were forcibly displaced, and more than 80% of green spaces were razed, especially in Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid, east of Al-Arish city.
More than 20,000 people were killed, injured, and forcibly disappeared, including children whose ages did not exceed 12 years, such as the child Abdullah Abu-Madin Nasr El-Din, whose family resides in Al-Arish.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), in its report in 2019, wrote that former captives described the conditions of detention by the army and the police excluded food, water, and medical care, with overcrowded cells. Many were tortured by soldiers and officers by beatings and electrocuting. HRW further documented three deaths in custody. In a statement on February 14, 2018, Amnesty International also described how the Egyptian army in North Sinai used US-made cluster bombs. The organization added in its statement, “The Egyptian army used internationally prohibited weapons, such as the CBU_87 loaded with 202 BLU97/B cluster bombs and MK_20 type bombs made from ROCKEAY cluster bombs” (International, 2018).
Michael Page, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch, commented, “Egyptian security forces have shown complete disdain for the lives of the population, rather than protecting them, they have turned their daily lives into an ongoing nightmare of abuse. This horrific disdain for the people of Sinai should raise the alarm for countries such as the United States and France, which recklessly support Egypt’s efforts to combat terrorism.”
The crimes of the Egyptian army are only one jaw of the pliers that the civilians fell between; the second jaw is the crimes committed by the extremist rebels who killed more than 650 civilians from Sinai on the pretext of collaborating with the Egyptian and Israeli armies (Human Rights Watch, 2019), in addition to 300 worshipers from the pioneers of the Rawda Mosque in Bir al-Abed (BBC, 2017). They tortured and imprisoned dozens of residents of the areas they exerted influence under the pretext of investigation or punishment for committing evil according to their ideology. Michael Page said: “ISIS in North Sinai deserves the global condemnation it has received and comprehensive accountability for its egregious violations, but the army’s operations that have been marred by no less serious violations, including war crimes, must be met with strong criticism, not praise. Egypt’s closest allies should stop their support for the arbitrary military campaign that has left thousands of civilian casualties.”
These figures, testimonies, and more are nothing but new fuel for anger, violence, tension, crime, extremism, and even terrorism. Regardless, the offers by the local population to the Egyptian state and the world about their readiness to confront and eliminate terrorism stand if the problem in the Sinai Peninsula is one of terrorism.
But both regional and international policies and ambitions are behind these crimes. But such policies and objectives do not frighten the people of Sinai, who continue to fight to recover their property and their economic and cultural rights stipulated in articles 6 and 9 of the 1906 Border Agreement, as well as in other international charters and covenants.
To conclude, we join Human Rights Watch in urging the United Nations Human Rights Council and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to form independent commissions to investigate violations in Sinai, given the Egyptian authorities’ failure to do so. Egypt’s international partners should immediately halt all security and military assistance until Egypt ends its abuses. War crimes, under international law, do not have a statute of limitations and can be prosecuted without any time limit, and many countries allow under the principle of universal jurisdiction to arrest and prosecute individuals involved in war crimes anywhere in the world.
Ayman, C. (2018, 03 22). سيناء: “أرض الفيروز” تحت القصف . Retrieved from Orient XXI: orientxxi.info/magazine/article2354
International, A. (2018, 02 14). Egypt: Cluster bomb video highlights human rights concerns in North Sinai. Retrieved from Amnesty International: www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/02/egypt-cluster-bomb-video-highlights-human-rights-concerns-in-north-sinai/
Human Rights Watch. (2019, 05 28). If You Are Afraid for Your Lives, Leave Sinai! Retrieved from Human Rights Watch: www.hrw.org/report/2019/05/28/if-you-are-afraid-your-lives-leave-sinai/egyptian-security-forces-and-isis
BBC. (2017, 11 25). بالصور: هذا ما حدث في مسجد الروضة بشمال سيناء. Retrieved from BBC: www.bbc.com/arabic/middleeast-42123053