Media portrays post-Morsi Sinai as chaos, but on the ground, it does not appear so.
Mohamed Soleiman is a resident of Masoura, a neighbourhood of Sinai’s border town of Rafah. Last Saturday at dawn, he was awoken by the sounds of shooting next to his house.
When he stepped out, he hid in a deserted school to witness the attack on the military checkpoint next to his home. “There were two land cruisers and a Toyota. They drove past the checkpoint and directed their rocket-propelled grenades at it. They were all masked — about ten people. They had military clothes on,” Soleiman told Mada Masr.
A resident came out to check what happened, Soleiman recounts, but an army officer screamed, telling him to go back in. “Then he went to carry an injured soldier with others. The whole thing took ten minutes.”
Holes in the minaret of the adjacent mosque are scattered relics of the attack. Inside, a soldier was stationed to look over the whole town. He frowns when Mada Masr tries to take a picture.
Like other military and security posts in Sinai, the Masoura checkpoint was not attacked once, or twice, but three times. The first attack happened weeks after the 25 January revolution broke out. Another attack occurred in 2012. The attackers remain the unknown masked gunmen.
The same description of unknown masked gunmen applies to the attackers of the Central Security camp in Ahrash, near the Gaza border, also on Friday. The camp, set on a downslope and hence an easy target, was attacked previously in May, but also on other occasions before 2012. “They surrounded the camp from all four different sides. For three whole hours, there was fighting,” a soldier mumbles nervously, as he wrung his hands frantically.
Apart from his nervousness, there is little to suggest that this was a battlefield for hours just two days ago. The camp, from above, looks intact. An air of calmness has fallen on the area at large, contrary media coverage that portrays it as a reckless warzone, where terrorists bomb security posts right and left, at night and in daylight.
On Sunday, the Interior Ministry issued a statement reporting the death of four of its men in attacks in Sinai on Friday.
Reports of attacks have intensified since Islamist President Mohamed Morsi was deposed on 3 July. Attacks on checkpoints have become a daily news item for local media.
However, the actual connection of these attacks to Morsi’s ouster remains unknown.
There has been no evidence of organizational ties between militant groups operating in Sinai and the Muslim Brotherhood; there are in fact reported ideological rifts with these groups condemning the Brotherhood’s compromised commitment to the Islamist project.
But Islamists interviewed by Mada Masr in Sinai do not rule out that this could be a violent reaction to Morsi’s ouster, out of rage at the military’s eradication of what would have been the beginning of an Islamic project.
The scope of this reaction is yet to be seen, but also many in Sinai foresee deliberate exaggerations by the military to justify their consolidated grip on power. For them, many facts reported in Sinai are imaginary; and the essential fact is that the peninsula is a tool in a power play between Islamists and the military.
Just a year ago, and shortly after Morsi took power, sixteen soldiers were killed in an ambush in August 2012. To date, little is known about the attackers, but the incident empowered Morsi to sack the top leaders of the military council with which the Brotherhood navigated a tumultuous relationship. Morsi appointed a new Armed Forces Chief Commander, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. In May 2013, seven soldiers were kidnapped in Sinai, amidst a popular outcry at Morsi’s inability to control increasing militancy in Sinai. The incident is widely seen as one of the nails in his coffin. A month later, he is out of power, affected by a statement read out by none other than Sisi on 3 July.
In Sheikh Zuwayed, a town near Arish, a gathering of Islamist forces was held last Sunday to reject the military move. “This army and this deep state and those remnants of the old regime are all against Islam. There is no legitimacy without Sharia,” says Abu Mahmoud, a member of the Islamist Ansar al-Sharia group.
“No to democracy. No to secularism. Yes to Islamic Sharia,” he shouts out, surrounded by fellow Islamists carrying black flags with “There is no god but Allah” signs inscribed on them. Around him, chants rose, “What do you tell Sisi? Islamic, Islamic!”
Asked whether this is a pro-Morsi gathering, Abu Mahmoud is quick to say, “We are not here to talk about the Brotherhood. We are here to talk about Sharia. The Brothers have not applied Sharia and Morsi did not talk about Sharia. But he is persecuted just because he represents an Islamic project.”
Like other Islamists, Abu Mahmoud thinks Morsi is not an ideal president and democracy is not a preferred practice. But democracy brought Morsi to power, and he represented the beginning of what could have been the longed for Islamic nation.
Unlike other groups in Sinai, Ansar al-Sharia is not known for violent attacks. But in these circumstances, Ansar al-Sharia understands the logic behind violence and expects it.
“There are clashes between the military and people. Groups like Majlis Shurat al-Mujahedeen and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis are here to fight Israel. But if the army and the police attack Muslims, they will attack back,” Abu Mahmoud explains. “These groups have given the Egyptian Armed Forces an ultimatum to stop its attack on Islam.”
After which, Abu Mahmoud claims that these groups will attack the military.
Besides the two groups he mentions, the Salafi Jihadi Movement is the third group known to be violent in the peninsula. Majlis Shurat al-Mujahedeen and Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis have an international attire with the former inspired by al-Qaeda and the latter having a branch in the bordering Gaza strip. The Salafi Jihadi Movement, meanwhile, is more local and known to include militants from across Egypt and not only from Sinai.
“Sisi’s decision made us lose our control over our children in Sinai,” contends Asaad al-Beik, the head of Ahl al-Sunna Wal Sharia group in Sinai, another Islamist group. Beik is one of the Islamist sheikhs with whom military officers typically converse to mediate with the more militant groups. He explains that in his last meeting with military officers, he warned them of a possible complete loss of control over militant groups.
“I told the head of the Second Army you have made these groups lose their temper. These groups are now saying, we are here,” he says.
Voicing the same concern, Marei Arar, who was a close associate of Morsi and former cellmate of top Brotherhood leader Khairat al-Shater, says the military could have resorted to other courses of action rather than ousting the elected president altogether. The ouster, he claimed, is putting the military at an impasse.
Arar has been on the forefront of the mediation for the release of the seven kidnapped soldiers and one of the people through whom Morsi took pride in having faithful interlocutors in Sinai, unlike his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.
Arar now asserts that it is harder to control militant groups.
The ability of sheikhs from less militant groups such as Arar and Beik to mediate with militant cells has not been verified by Mada Masr. But they are deemed to be at least an important gateway to information for the military.
“It is a war of information,” Mostafa Singer, a seasoned Sinai-based journalist explains. “The army has no ability to collect information about these groups, especially that they operate in a guerrilla manner.”
The military’s failure to handle militancy in Sinai goes as far as militants conducting operations and going back to their villages to sleep at home, Singer explains. They do not seek hideouts, and unlike military claims that the Halal Mountain, in mid-Sinai, is their greatest refuge, Singer claims that the mountain, with its exposed topography, has been useless for them.
The reported Eagle Operation launched by the army in 2011, and publicized as a massive counter-attack by the state on Sinai’s militants, is commonly looked upon with skepticism by Islamists in Sinai. For them, the campaign did not manage to do anything beyond spreading military propaganda in Cairo.
A policeman involved in the campaign and who wanted to remain anonymous says that he was deployed on the outskirts of the mountain and hence could not see the details of the Eagle Operation’s unfolding. “I watched videos about the campaign like regular citizens did, but I do not know the details because the operation was conducted by special forces. We were just deployed on the outskirts to secure the operation,” he told Mada Masr.
Similarly, news about a robust military deployment on the ground following the May soldiers’ kidnappings was not visibly corroborated upon Mada Masr’s visit back then.
But the skepticism transcends that toward military propaganda and extends to the level of militancy in Sinai per se.
Like others, Arar says much of what is reported about militant attacks in Sinai is fake and meant to justify the military power grip. “Is it normal that a checkpoint is attacked several times and nothing is done about it? This is a conspiracy.”
Arar went on to mock the news from earlier on Sunday about the bombing of the pipeline supplying gas to Jordan from south Arish. “The bombing was happening just as military Apaches were hovering in the sky.” A year ago, the pipeline supplying gas to Israel from Sinai was bombed over a dozen times.
“This is a media campaign by the military,” Arar contended.
Later in the evening, Mada Masr spent time with a group of local journalists in Arish. As Apaches started hovering around at their regular late evening hour, one of the journalists received news of attacks on three checkpoints south of Arish. Minutes later, Mada Masr went to see the attacked checkpoints, two of which are stationed on the ring road out of Arish, and found nothing but soldiers sipping their tea in the calm evening breeze of the peninsula. The news of the attacks had already made it to media outlets in Cairo.
[This article originally appeared on Mada Masr.]