Sinai civilians caught in Egypt's 'war on terror'


The security forces in Egypt face a growing crisis in the Sinai peninsula, which has become a base for Islamist militants. The army has responded to a series of attacks by pouring in troops and armoured vehicles, but while it says it is fighting terror, civilians have been caught in the middle.

Glass crunches underfoot as I tiptoe through an abandoned house.

This was once the home of a Bedouin businessman, but it has stood empty since it was shelled by an army tank.

My journey to El Mehdiya, a small village in North Sinai, was not an easy one.

Egypt's government has declared the area a closed military zone, and journalists are discouraged from making the trip. The government says it is fighting a war on terror here.

Since the collapse of Hosni Mubarak's security apparatus, Sinai has slipped out of central government control - its barren terrain now provides fertile land for jihadist groups. Several have settled here.

Their insurgency has been gathering pace since the military deposed Islamist President Mohammed Morsi three months ago.

Today, Sinai's police and soldiers face near-daily attacks. Its jihadists say they have also launched attacks in the capital, Cairo. Now, the state says it is fighting back.

But in the patchwork of North Sinai villages where it focuses its efforts, residents say that no distinction is being drawn between militants and civilians.

In neighbouring El Mehdiya and El Muqataa, houses stand shattered and charred. Local residents are angry and confused.

"I saw the helicopter hovering above my home," says Ibrahim, a local farmer.

"The next moment, I watched the building collapse. My nine-year-old daughter was inside at the time."

He shakes his head wearily. "They call this a war on terror, but are my children terrorists?"

During daylight hours, most people now leave their houses, fearful of attacks from air or land.

I find one group of locals sitting by a sheep-pen. Black smoke billows in the distance.

Today's operation has targeted tanks storing fuel that would have been smuggled through underground tunnels into neighbouring Gaza.

Before the operation, these tunnels were big business.

Decades of neglect from the central state pushed formal employment out of reach for most people here, so the illicit economy has flourished instead.

Said is the brother of a prominent sheikh whose house has also been destroyed.

"We are being punished for living alongside them," he says angrily, referring to the area's jihadists.

"When I first heard that soldiers were being attacked, I was sorry. But no more."

He laughs bitterly. "They don't want to distinguish between the innocent and the guilty. They just hit all."

There are militants here. The remains of another group of houses are plainly visible from the main road.

Residents say they belong to a member of Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, a jihadist group which claimed responsibility for an assassination attempt on Egypt's interior minister last month.

But around the corner, I meet an old man who is sitting on a battered mattress in the sand.

He lived in one of the neighbouring properties, until it was targeted on the same day as the houses allegedly owned by the jihadist.

"My wife and daughters were in the house when the army came," he says.

"They ordered them outside, rigged the four corners with explosives and then blew it up. There is nothing left."

As he speaks, the old man tugs nervously at his battered jacket. Everything he owned was destroyed in the attack. The clothes in which he sits are the only ones he has left.

I ask why the military targeted his house.

"I wish I could understand," he sighs, "my son has been arrested, perhaps they thought he was a militant, but he works with me every day.

"We are innocent men, but it feels like they are trying to make us terrorists."

Jihadist groups are capitalising on this sense of isolation and injustice, making appeals for local people to stand together against the state.

One recently released an internet statement with a message to residents who help the Egyptian army. "The treacherous agent will only get the sword," it read.

But while support for the army is at an all-time low in El Mehdiya, some remain willing to forgive its excesses.

Holding court in his home after dark, a local leader, Sheikh Abdel Hadi says collateral damage is understandable in a military campaign.

"They don't know the territory so of course they make mistakes," he tells me.

"But the sons of Sinai do not work against the army. In fact, I am giving them my boy for active service. I want him to join the fight against terrorism."

The Egyptian army argues that it is trying to restore order to a country which is hugely polarised.

But as I drive past more charred houses in El Mehdiya, I wonder how much more the villagers can take.

And whether the army's campaign is actually driving local people straight into the arms of the militants.

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