By Fatima Awadalla
What Happened in North Sinai?
Sharm El-sheikh, the UNESCO-recognized city of peace in South Sinai, Egypt, hosted the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 27) in November 2022, where delegates from 190 countries came together to take action towards the global climate goals amidst allegations of war crimes and international humanitarian law violations in North Sinai, 120 km from the internationally renowned resort as the Egyptian military continued its home demolitions and compulsory evictions as part of the proclaimed war against terrorism.
The armed conflict between the Egyptian military forces and Islamist militants dates back to 2011, coinciding with the eruption of the Arab Spring and the security breakdown that left national borders unguarded and allowed detainees in violence and terrorism cases to escape prison and relocate in the North part of Sinai Peninsula, bordering Israel and Gaza Strip. The conflict escalated in 2013 following a military coup that ousted former president Mohamed Morsi, who was affiliated with the Freedom and Justice party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In 2020, international organizations reports showed that the army demolished 12,350 buildings, primarily houses, since 2013; it ruined 6,000 hectares of farmland since 2016; and destroyed 700 shacks in attempts to build demilitarized zones in the conflict-affected cities of Al-Arish and Rafah and under the claims that those temporary structures house militants. The eviction started with a 2014 Decree stipulating evacuation and forced displacement in Rafah city to become a buffer zone; However, the decree stipulated compensation, but the families never received timely and fair compensation, and the eviction was extended to other areas outside the preliminarily decided buffer zone. Similarly, the decree never stipulated the demolition of the property.
The security operations in North Sinai included severe human rights abuses against civilians, including extrajudicial killings; torture; enforced disappearance; displacement; and arbitrary arrest. Likewise, terrorist and armed groups committed multiple acts of aggression against civilians, including abduction, unlawful killings, and sectarian strife against Christians.
Aside from the human rights violations against North Sinai’s residents, strict restrictions have been enforced on the freedom of movement from and to the governorate; the government developed techniques that were used as a cover for the human rights violations, including the declaration of a nationwide state of emergency between 2017 and 2021; the 2015 Antiterrorism Law and its 2020 amendments; and the 2018 law on media organization that restricted the freedom of expression and academic research, where investigative journalists and researchers covering the Sinai insurgency were subjected to different forms of punishment including detention.
The hostilities in North Sinai are mainly between the Egyptian Armed Forces and Security Forces from one side and Wilayat Sinai. This ISIS-affiliated militant group translates to Sinai Province from the other side. Other actors are highly involved in the conflict, including the Multinational Forces and Observers (permanent international peacekeeping troops assigned by the 1979 peace agreement), Israel and Gaza Strip, indigenous Bedouin tribes, smugglers who are engaged in smuggling goods and weapons into Gaza Strip, and ISIS affiliates in the MENA region.
The violence in North Sinai has root causes that offer fertile soil for hostilities and violence. The nearly half million population living in the governorate are mainly Bedouins who settled in the area in 1906 and separated between North Sinai and Beersheba following the demarcation of the borders after the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli War and reassignment of the Gaza Strip border that was initially assigned in 1906. A second Arab-Israeli war followed this in 1956 and the Six-Day War in 1967, which ended with the Israeli occupation of the Sinai Peninsula until 1982, following the signing of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty. This historical background shaped how the Sinai Peninsula was amidst conflict and peacebuilding efforts for the last 70 years. Additionally, the Bedouins, the local population, remained a very different demographic group from the ordinary Egyptians who lived across the country and never succeeded in integrating into Egyptian society and becoming part of the social fabric. On one side, Bedouins tribes maintained their indigenous identity and defied the state definitions of territoriality, sovereignty, and citizenship.
Egypt is a 7000 years old civilization with a distinct identity that has been shaped over the past seven millenniums. Comparably, the Bedouin tribes were granted Egyptian citizenship over a century ago, in 1906. Ever since, they stayed isolated geographically and culturally and have never been part of Egyptian society. Following the 1979 peace agreement, the government directed considerable investments towards the reconstruction and development efforts, transforming the South Sinai governorate into a tourist attraction and prominent vacation destination on the red sea. Conversely, North Sinai remained marginalized and seized with different government techniques, including denying national ID cards to a broad group of the population; limiting local governance positions to former military generals; depriving the indigenous tribes of participation in executive and political roles; lack access to essential services similar to health and education, and widespread misconceptions presenting Bedouins as traitors to the country during the Israeli occupation period.
Compared with social and political marginalization, economic discrimination was a powerful tool of repression against the Bedouins, including deprivation of land and ownership rights and exclusion from the rewarding tourism industry in South Sinai. Driving the indigenous tribes to engage in unlawful activities led by goods and weapons smuggling into Gaza Strip. This systematic and persistent discrimination and marginalization by the Egyptian State opened the doors for terrorist groups to cooperate with the local population in North Sinai, as both are unified with a common enemy.
Read the Strategic Interventions addressing the Case of State Repression and Terrorism in North Sinai here.