By Mohannad Sabry – Cairo
Ever since Islamic State-affiliated militants tried to take the town of Sheikh Zuwayed in North Sinai last week, the Egyptian media has talked of little else. “What mistakes were made?” “Where did they get their weapons from?” and “What can be done to rid the country of the scourge of Islamist militants?” have been common refrains.
But look closely and you will notice what is lacking – reporting of the human suffering on the ground. Reliable figures on the number of civilian dead and displaced don’t exist, while aid to those in need has been limited, if present at all.
This is in large part due to a systematic campaign to quash criticism and dissent that has intensified since Egypt’s military chiefs ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013 with popular support.
Egypt’s northeastern rugged region of Sinai has long been a hotbed of Islamist activity. It has become increasingly militarised as attacks have proliferated in recent years. Draconian security measures now prevent journalists and rights groups from reporting from there.
What We Do Know
On Wednesday 1 July, an estimated 300-400 armed militants from a group calling itself Wilayat Sinaa (Sinai Province) led a meticulously planned attack on North Sinai’s coastal town of Sheikh Zuwayed.
At about 6:30 am, the attackers occupied the rooftops of several houses and kicked off the battle by firing machine guns and RPGs at the town’s police compound, the military barracks, and several security checkpoints.
On the ground, several groups laid improvised explosive devices and landmines to try to stop reinforcements arriving from other cities, including North Sinai’s regional capital El-Arish to the west and the border town of Rafah to the east.
Almost 60,000 people live in Sheikh Zuwayed. It is the second largest town in North Sinai and the only major population centre remaining in the restive corner of the peninsula, which borders the Gaza Strip and Israel.
I received regular grim updates from contacts in Sheikh Zuwayed as the attacks unfolded.
“The terrorists control the ground. State troops are fighting from their posts and civilians are stranded between both sides,” one resident told me an hour after it began.
The fighting was so severe that the first ambulances didn’t arrive in the town until after sunset, another resident said.
Mobile phone networks were cut, so people relied on landlines. Everyone that left their house was feared dead by their friends and families until the next day when movement became possible again.
The battle raged on through Thursday, with government aeroplanes bombarding the southern suburbs of Sheikh Zuwayed where the militants were said to be hiding. Explosions continued into Friday evening.
The government said 241 militants and 21 soldiers were killed in the clashes. The number of civilians killed or wounded remains unknown.
Normally in such circumstances, there would be a full death toll including civilians. But we do not live in normal times.
Since coming to power in 2013, the Egyptian government led by President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has steadily closed down media coverage of the region, declaring it a military zone.
Ahmed Abu Draa, one of Sinai’s most prominent reporters, was harshly dealt with for claiming to have witnessed Egyptian Apache helicopter gunships striking his hometown of al-Muqataa and neighbouring al-Touma, two villages south of Sheikh Zuwayed, in September 2013.
“What I saw was the destruction of six civilian homes and part of a mosque in al-Muqataa. Four citizens were injured, one of whom was taken to the Sheikh Zuwayed Hospital, where the military detained him and transferred him to the military hospital,” the award-winning journalist wrote on 3 September, 2013.
Less than two days after posting this testimony on Facebook, Abu Draa was detained and transferred to a military prison where he remained for a month before being dragged in front of military tribunal on charges of spreading false news. He was sentenced to a suspended jail term of six months and released.
Muhammad Sabry, another Sinai journalist, was detained for filming in the border area of Rafah. He also faced a military trial before receiving a suspended term.
Since these arrests, the avalanche of Sinai news published on a daily basis by almost every news organisation in Egypt and dozens of international media outlets remains focused on the security turmoil, failing to even mention the humanitarian crisis.
The Egyptian government tightened its control over the media in the aftermath of last week’s attack, announcing it was to pass its long-anticipated terrorism law.
Among the many clauses is one that makes publishing any information that contradicts official statements punishable by a minimum two years in prison.
The law, which drastically broadens the definition of terrorism, is expected to intensify the media blackout already imposed in North Sinai, and puts journalists at even graver risk.
“Since the health ministry didn’t declare it in a statement, confirming that three people were killed and buried without an official death registration is putting myself at risk of jail,” a journalist from El-Arish, who writes for an Egyptian daily, said on condition of anonymity.
So What Was the Civilian Toll?
As the Egyptian media can’t go there, here is what we can piece together about the humanitarian impact of the attacks in Sheikh Zuwayed.
Certainly, a number of civilians died. According to the head of El-Arish hospital, Sami Anwar, four people were killed by stray bullets and shrapnel caused by heavy shelling on the first day of the attack, including two children aged nine and 15, while 18 others were wounded, including five children. Three other people were killed, according to several sources from the town. One was murdered by militants as he confronted them, and two other women were killed by stray bullets. A number of families buried their dead without even registering them as they would have had to travel 40 kilometers to the nearest open hospital.
Activists and residents of Sheikh Zuwayed said a further six civilians were killed in the suburb of Abu Taweila, which suffered the heaviest aerial bombardment. An improvised explosive device killed two workers and wounded a third on Saturday morning as they went to fix the town’s damaged electricity plant. The shredded body of a fourth worker at the electricity plant was also found, after he was reported missing since Wednesday. It wasn’t immediately clear how he died.
El-Arish hospital also received the dead body of a 17-year-old woman along with nine other injured.
These deaths are likely to be less than the total number of civilian casualties, while large numbers of civilians have also been displaced.
When relative stability was regained on Friday morning, dozens of families began an exodus from Sheikh Zuwayed and the surrounding suburbs. Again, the Egyptian government has offered no number so it is hard to gauge the extent of the displacement.
“Despite people’s fear to move on highways while confrontations are taking place between the military and terrorists, checkpoints were more crowded on Friday, mainly by pickup trucks loaded with the belongings of fleeing civilians,” a Sheikh Zuwayed native who lives in El-Arish said. Two of his close relatives packed up and left on Friday.
Arriving in El-Arish, hundreds of Sheikh Zuwayed residents realised that although the clashes were over, they faced a new financial battle to rebuild their lives.
Transportation between Sheikh Zuwayed and El-Arish now costs as much as 100 Egyptian pounds ($12.50) per person, up drastically from an original six pounds ($0.80), while the cost of renting an apartment in the city has doubled.
Due to crippling curfews on Sheikh Zuwayed in recent years, many businesses have closed, putting such inflated prices out of most people’s reach.
In such circumstances, the state would normally intervene.
But when President Sisi and Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab visited El-Arish on July 4 and 6 respectively, neither of them unveiled even basic support for the displaced. No camps or alternative housing solutions were provided.
In the absence of mainstream news, people have taken to social media and are using it to try to fill the vacuum of aid left by the government.
Activists have launched an initiative called “The displaced are our family,” where they began counting the number of impoverished evacuees and raising funds and donations to fulfill their needs. Others have volunteered to receive homeless families in their houses.
Many families, though, are still sleeping on the streets of El-Arish beside their packed belongings, while others have returned to Sheikh Zuwayed after failing to find accommodation.
Without a media presence, numbers are hard to ascertain, as are the exact circumstances surrounding what we can only guess were brutal clashes last week, with a likely brazen disregard for the lives of innocent civilians shown by one or both sides.
– Mohannad Sabry is an Egyptian writer and author of a forthcoming book on Sinai’s security and political affairs. (This article was first published in IRIN – www.irinnews.org)