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'No Terrorists Here': Sinai Residents Fear Crackdown

A motorbike burns following a raid by Egyptian security forces on the village of El-Jurah in Egypt's North Sinai province on Aug. 12. Six gunmen were killed in the raid.
AFP/Getty Images
A motorbike burns following a raid by Egyptian security forces on the village of El-Jurah in Egypt's North Sinai province on Aug. 12. Six gunmen were killed in the raid.

Egyptian security forces are conducting a major campaign in the Sinai Peninsula after an attack by masked gunmen on a border post earlier this month. While the government assures the nation and the world that it will deal with the threat, Sinai residents worry that they will be blamed, targeted and abused as a result of the assault that left 16 soldiers dead.

Selma Deraii is worried about her husband and her son. She says security forces stormed her village of Sheikh Zwayed at dawn last week. They burst into her bedroom and hit her on the back of the head. They blindfolded her husband, Selmy Salam Suwaillam, and dragged him away in his underwear, along with her son.

"There are no terrorists here," she says, sitting on the floor of her mud brick home. "Praying and fearing God does not make us terrorists."

She says the same thing happened in 2004 after a bloody bombing in the Sinai resort of Taba left 34 tourists dead. Then, it was Hosni Mubarak's state security forces that took her husband. He didn't come home for two years. No arrest warrant, no court date, no news of where he was. No evidence of wrongdoing. It's happening all over again, she says.

In 2004, some 3,000 people were rounded up. According to human rights groups, children, women and men were tortured while in detention. Three people were sentenced to death in an emergency court. Activists say there was no evidence against them.

The Sinai's Bedouin, a proud and conservative people, were humiliated and angry.

Hazem Yousef, a youth activist in Sheikh Zwayed, says that after last year's uprising, the people here hoped the repression was behind them. He says that if security forces unfairly target the communities here again, he and others will revolt.

So far, the military operation is comparatively muted. Only around nine people have been arrested; three of them have already been released. But at least five people were killed by security forces, and the military is pouring tanks and heavy weaponry onto the peninsula.

Hossam Bahgat, a leading human rights activist in Cairo, is monitoring the situation in Sinai closely. So far, he doesn't see signs of the collective punishment from eight years ago, but the military campaign is far from over.

"The inhabitants of Sinai that we spoke to express sincere fear that this might be the beginning of the return of the old practices of the security apparatus under Mubarak," Bahgat says, "which results in further alienation of especially the youth in Sinai and arguably was the most decisive factor in driving many of them to extremism and violence."

He says the sense of alienation in the Sinai has grown for more than two decades. The Egyptian government views the Bedouin as a security threat and has done nothing to develop the area or help the residents. Many don't have access to basic services like water, education and health care. Other than tourism, there are scant employment opportunities.

Now, Bahgat says, the state is at risk of further alienating the peninsula. The lawlessness in Sinai gives space to smugglers, traffickers and Islamist militants.

"The very important factor that contributes to this state is that the people of Sinai who are not part of those activities and are not happy about these activities feel that they have been deserted by the state," he says. "And so their sense of victimization is doubled."

Sinai political activist Mosaad Abu Fajr has fought for Bedouin rights for years.

"Military action will not solve Sinai's problems," he says. "Repression will only lead to more rage, and the violence is directly linked to the government's failures."

Back in the village of Sheikh Zwayed, Selma Deraii points out wheat scattered across the floor. The bags were slashed open by security forces when her husband and son were detained. Now the grain is spoiled. Another room is ransacked, clothes strewn on the floor, drawers upside-down.

Sinai activist Yousef warns that such actions further alienate the local people.

"They are creating an enemy of the people of Sinai now," he says.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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