NORTH SINAI, Egypt—The black, charcoaled remains of a cow’s dead body lies in a sandy field behind a shelled-out mansion. Washed-out blood stains the walls of an unpainted grey room where sons say their 80-year-old mother was killed by army tank fire. Bullet holes pockmark the house. A 9-year-old girl’s cheek is marked by a pink incision where a rock hit her face as her home was strafed by helicopter fire. A child’s sandal and burned Quran were among the rubble of a mosque that locals say was destroyed by ground and air military troops. I watched as an IED exploded under an armored personnel carrier as it turned a corner. Black smoke filled the air, and an olive tree was uprooted. Later, two soldiers were reported injured.
These are some of the casualties of the Egyptian army’s war on “terrorists” in the villages and towns that dot the north of the Sinai Peninsula close to the borders of Gaza and Israel.
In September, the military stepped up a two-month campaign to rid the area of militants by “taking action against terrorists, instead of merely reacting to terrorist attacks,” said army spokesman Ahmed Ali.
Egyptian security forces have been coming under increased attack after army chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi ousted President Mohamed Morsi in early July. Al-Qaida-inspired militants in Sinai have killed more than 100 members of the security forces since then, according to the Egyptian military.
State-run newspapers have reported that Sinai’s tribes, sheikhs, and locals have welcomed the military’s widening campaign. But there is little evidence of it on the ground. People in attacked villages and towns, including those sympathetic to the military, complain that it is conducting its war indiscriminately, not differentiating between civilians and militants.
“I was one of those that supported June 30,” said Judge Abdel Hadi of the Sawarka tribe, referring to the massive protests that called for Morsi’s ouster. “I had thought the army would be more professional in its operation, and target only those attacking it, but it isn’t. This campaign is excessive.”
It’s a bold thing to say, especially to a journalist. Critics of the army’s campaign are being severely punished, and the military restricts journalists’ access to the areas where it is conducting its operations. I am one of the few Western journalists to have entered North Sinai since the September campaign began.
Sheikh Ibrahim El-Menaei, head of a coalition of Sinai’s tribes, says that at least 52 people have been killed since the military began its campaign in July; of those slain, 16 were women and children. He is a vocal critic of Egypt’s policies toward the tribes.
“The Bedouins have never forgotten the random wars waged by Mohamed Ali”—who ruled Egypt from 1805 to 1848—“against us over 100 years ago.* Then came President Gamal Abdel Nasser and President Hosni Mubarak’s arrests and torture. Now al-Sisi has come to complete this scenario,” he said at an interview in his meeting hall. “There is a loss of trust that won’t be regained for hundreds of years due to these barbaric acts. If we have to defend ourselves, we will.”
The next day, the army bombed Sheikh Ibrahim’s meeting place and two homes, he said by phone. Photographs, verified by his son, show houses turned to rubble.
The Islamist militant group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks on Egyptian security targets and Israel over the past two years, including a failed suicide bombing on the Interior Minister in Cairo last month, has also reported the deaths of innocents. The Egyptian military denies responsibility for these deaths.
In early September, Ahmed Abu Draa, a Sinai-based journalist, was jailed for reporting on attacks on women, children, and a mosque. The army says he published false news, and that his reporting is part of an “information war.” He has since been released with a six-month suspended sentence for entering a military zone without authorization. The military has never “demolished a mosque or attacked children and women in Sinai as claimed,” the spokesman said.
Again, the picture on the ground indicates otherwise. I interviewed 30 people over three nights and four days in September in the two border villages of Muqataa and Mehdeya, and in El-Arish, north Sinai’s largest town. These people spoke of indiscriminate killing, shelling, looting, and the destruction of homes and a mosque.