Alexandria usually seems clear and sunny, but for a couple of days after the tragic event, the seaside town was put under a bell. The sun stayed low and the hectic sea raged as the Egyptian flags were at half-mast.
In mid April, coordinated suicide attacks on St. Mark’s Church, Egypt’s historic seat of Christianity and at another church, in the city of Tanta in the Delta, took 45 lives on the Palm Sunday. Daesh claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Impudent, impertinent, life has nevertheless resumed its normal course. The horns eventually became loud as ever in the town and shopkeepers resumed business on the main avenue as usual. However, there is still fear among the locals.
“I’m afraid,” says Mariam, who wears a silver cross, striking against her black jumper. “I started to wear it recently; it has become an identity. I’ve always felt discriminated and threatened in my everyday life, but today it’s getting bigger.”
It was almost as if Daesh meant to show people just how far-reaching their threat is, and demonstrate the state’s inability to contain militancy beyond the invisible borders of the Sinai Peninsula.
At the wheel of his microbus that runs down the corniche, Peter, a Christian driver admits being “terrorized.”
“I am very sad for all those people who have died and for our children who grow up in this environment, witnessing tragedies like these.”
Twenty minutes away from there by car, the horror makes a spine-chilling noise: sobs and voices rasped by the pain. The horror has a face too: Samira, 7-years-old.
“Dad has gone to Paradise, he will come and get us soon,” she whispers. Her father Girgis, was 36-years-old and an employee in a a water company. He was in the little courtyard of St. Mark’s church when the suicide bomber blew himself up.
On her knees, the girl strokes with her child’s little fingers a red stained blouse. Big tears flood the wrinkles that marble the face of her grand-father, seated next to her. “Those responsible will pay, God will deal with them,” he says.
On his side, the widow shouts: “They are trying to take us away from God! But we will be the first to go to church and the first to pray! Even if we are stopped in the street and asked to deny Christ, we will be ready to die for our faith and we will continue to be martyred!”
According to Mina Thabet, a Christian minority rights activist in Egypt, this speech is very representative of the Coptic state of mind. “We have been subjected to violence for years,” he says, recalling a similar attack that killed 21 people in a cathedral of Alexandria in January 2011.
“We are afraid but does it mean the Copts will stop practicing their faith? Quite the opposite. This is part of the Christian faith and Copts will continue to defend it.”
After these incidents, the choirs of churches across the country have become too narrow to welcome the huge crowd of worshippers gathering to commune and prove ostensibly that they would not abandon their faith because of bloodthirsty zealots.
A large majority of them, representing 8 and 10 percent of the 93 million Egyptians, do not consider leaving in the face of persecution. But sometimes, the escape has to prevail in order to avoid an inevitable death.
Wilayat Sinai, the self-appointed Egyptian branch of Daesh, had promised at the end of 2016 in a propaganda video that they would rush through “the infidels of Egypt.” They have started in North-Sinai, their birthplace, before spreading all over the country, managing to reach the main cities.
As they arrive at Nabil Shukrallah parish gate, they eventually drop the brave façade, pale faces, round-shouldered, bewildered glances. It’s hard to say if they’re relieved, scared or exhausted. Probably a mix of all three. They’ve taken the long road that links Al Arish, capital of North Sinai, to Ismailia, a city on the west bank of the Suez Canal. They bring with them only what they could carry: some clothes and a few belongings stuffed in small bags loaded on the top of the sloggy microbus they arrived in. This morning, they were home. In just a couple of hours, they became Daesh refugees, displaced people.
At the end of last February, hundreds of Christian families, originally from Al Arish, were rushing off, abandoning their homes, jobs, schools and at times relatives.
“It’s not possible to live in Sinai anymore,” says Mariam Fayez, who has only just arrived. Her eyes plunged deep into the sea facing the refuge she has found shelter in. “Our husbands and sons would have died if we had stayed.”
In North Sinai, where Daesh is prevalent, Christians lack the tribal protection and influence that their Muslim neighbors, especially Bedouins, could benefit from. It makes them particularly vulnerable in this area.
Since August 2013, there have been several attacks on Christians, normally targeting priests and merchants. But this new threat has got quickly enforced. In February, at least seven Christians were executed by Daesh in Al Arish alone.
“They come at night,” says Sameh Gawdat, a Christian who just fled the city after witnessing horror. He swipes through images on his phone of the bruised body of his uncle, shot through the head, and the charred body of his cousin, burned alive by militants a few days before.
Gawdat’s aunt, Nabila Fawzi Hanna, stands next to him. “It was late at night, maybe 10.30 p.m.,” she says. “Two men knocked violently at our door. They barged in and asked me if we were Christians. I told them we were. They found my husband and shot him dead. Then, they took my son, threw a huge pile of our belongings on top of him, poured gasoline over all of it and set him alight. They searched me for money but couldn’t find any, so they stole the few pieces of jewelry that I had and, then, set the whole house on fire.”
Her honey-colored hands, swelled-up by arthritis, are marked with a white circle on her ring finger: Evidence of her stolen wedding band.
“They had a list, with forty names on it,” says Gawdat, “the names of all Christian males in town. They checked the list before killing them.”
It is this that made more than 254 families —almost the entire Christian population of Al Arish—decide to leave.
“They’re looking for us,” says Gawdat, “and if they find us, they will kill us.”
The night after, their neighbor was beheaded on the roof of his house in front of his wife and daughters. “They only want the men,” he says. “His wife asked to suffer the same fate as her husband and they refused. She was forced to watch his execution.”
The Muslims Are Victims Too
On March 1st, Amnesty International released a report stating: “Egypt didn’t manage to protect Christians from terrorist violence.” So far this year, 13 Christians have been killed in north Sinai, many of them in execution style murders. During the whole of last year, up until the cathedral bombing in Cairo that killed 25 last December, only eight deaths were recorded. Over 2016, we can count 33 deaths among Christians in Egypt. In comparison, 58 Christians have been already killed since the beginning of 2017.
But although Christians have recently become targets for Daesh, Muslims are more often the victims.
Hassan has agreed to talk anonymously. His younger brother was 17 and working on Rafah’s market, selling cakes for the Eid celebrations last summer when he was killed by a group of masked men.
“There were six or seven men with assault rifles,” he says. “They shot my brother in front of everyone, then they took his body and paraded it through the city for three days. They killed him because he had made a deal with the army. He agreed to give them information about the militants, and Daesh found out. They have eyes everywhere. They know everything: who is saying what, who is working for whom; everything.”
Recently, Daesh also managed to impose some of its own rules on the population.
“So far, they didn’t impose restrictions on smoking, but they forbid some religious symbols in the city and prevented some people from practicing their religion,” says Moamar Sawarka, a Bedouin from Sheikh Zuweid who fled to al Arish before coming to Ismailia.
“The main targets are Copts and Sufis,” says Tareq, a man living in north-Sinai who asked to remain anonymous.
“Five Sufis were kidnapped recently in the little village of Shibanna. They were released on the condition that the Sufi community don’t practice their rituals anymore. They have to stick to the basic prayer.”
“It’s not uncommon for Wilayat Sinai to execute civilians for being spies for the security apparatus, or for being apostates, sorcerers, or anything that goes against their fundamentalist ideology,” says Oded Berkowitz, associate director of intelligence, and an analyst for Max Security, a geopolitical risk consultancy firm. “The most recent prominent example was the beheading of two Sufi priests. One of them was over 90 years old.”
A few days ago, Wilayat Sinai’s Hisba – the morality police – stopped a bus full of teachers traveling from Al Arish to Rafah. They announced themselves as members of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice and threatened to punish the female travelers with lashes and mutilation with acid if they did not agree to follow their Islamic dress code and travel accompanied by a male relative. Rafah inhabitants also reported women being asked not to go out onto the streets without niqab—the Islamic form of dress that covers the face.
This is a concerning development in the advancement of Daesh. “The idea that terrorists live hidden in the mountains is a myth,” says Tareq. “They live among us. In my family alone, 47 people joined them.”
Tareq is actually originally from Al Moqataa, a little village, south of Sheikh Zuweid that became a ghost city, abandoned because of the jihadists. He found shelter in al Arish for a while, but now he sees the spreading of the militants through the North Sinai capital, managing to integrate themselves into the population and turning them into militants, sometimes by threatening them, but not always.
This last year, at least 60 of his acquaintances rallied the group.
The unexpected common enemy
In a 2015 report, Human Rights Watch denounced the Egyptian Army’s displacement of more than 3,200 people without any solution of rehousing, and bombings houses and agricultural lands, both with artillery and aircraft in complete disregard for its own people.
“People hate the army and the police so much that they end up joining the other side,” says Tareq. “When you suffer from oppression and injustice; when someone kills your child; when they destroy your house and leave you homeless. When you’re displaced from your land, you have two options: to die or to fight back.”
Tareq says he isn’t allied to Daesh, but he admits he has come close. “Daesh benefits from the authority’s violence,” he says. “They polarize our society by saying: ‘Look at what the authorities are doing to you! Take your revenge—join us.’
As the population is directly targeted by the radical group, it is also the victim of the Egyptian authorities. But this has to be silenced.
Twenty-five-year-old Salma, who wishes to remains anonymous, is originally from the Al Swarka tribe. She spent her entire childhood in Sheikh Zuweid, a 70,000-strong city. Like Tareq, she fled after clashes between the army and the militants reached fever pitch in summer 2015.
At that time, the group conducted an operation never seen before, simultaneously attacking 15 checkpoints, and briefly managing to occupy Sheikh Zuweid. The army deployed F-16 fighter jets and took back the city after eight hours of intense fighting.
According to the authorities, more than 100 jihadists were killed, along with 70 civilians and 15 servicemen. But reports on the ground indicate more than 100 army fatalities. The military was widely deployed after that, but “since then, Daesh opened up a second front in Central Sinai and one in Al Arish in order to force the army to spread,” explains Tareq.
“Sheikh Zuweid is a war zone,” says Salma, “and now, so too is Al Arish. Militants use their best weapons and men to attack Army positions and civilians they suspect of being collaborators. At the same time, the army is extremely paranoid and suspects us of helping terrorists.”
“That’s a real war. For the inhabitants, the enemy is everywhere,” says Sawarka. “The state doesn’t provide them with any help or support; quite the opposite. They have obliterated everything. They cut the electricity and internet to make communications harder. Even the water supply is inconsistent and in some areas, people have resorted to collecting rainwater. Basic food provisions are lacking and medicine doesn’t make it to the cities anymore because of the checkpoints. They’re trying to blight the militants, but the real victims are the people themselves,” says Mohannad Sabry, Sinai expert, author of Sinai: Egypt’s Linchpin, Gaza’s Lifeline, Israel’s Nightmare.
“People live in a state of complete misery, even the hospitals don’t work anymore. Some schools have been demolished and people have lived with a daily 12-hour curfew since 2014. On top of this, there is the extreme violence,” Sabry adds.
“There’s no respect for basic human rights,” says Sawarka. “You can fall victim to one side or the other at any time.” According to Tareq, people in al Arish and North Sinai no longer even dare stray off the main roads.
“As soon as you leave your house, you can catch a bullet, or be caught in an explosion,” he says. “Even the coffee-shops in Al Arish have closed, but the army and the police don’t do anything. It seems nobody is really able to challenge Daesh and we’re stuck in the middle. We’re infiltrated by terrorists who threaten us and, on the other side, the army shoots us too.”
“It’s not a war against terrorism, it’s a war against the population,” says Sawarka. “There is no escape except to flee, and not everyone can afford to. People keep silent because if you talk, you’ll be associated with the crimes of one side or the other, and you’ll be killed.”
In this area, some voices are rising, pointing extrajudicial killings. In April, a leaked video showing members of the Egyptian military shooting unarmed detainees to death and staging the killings to look as if they had happened in combat.
In response to these common abuses, Ashraf Hefny, inhabitant of Al Arish founded the North Sinai Inhabitants Committee. Putting his freedom and life in risk, he called for civil disobedience after the army executed ten of their prisoners. They later claimed that the men, who had been detained for over three months, were killed in a fire-fight with Daesh militants.
“Explain how prisoners can be killed in a fire-fight,” says Hefny. In Sawarka’s opinion: “The army uses the same terrorist methods as Daesh.”
In late 2015, President Abdel Fattah El Sisi said that “the army has total control of the region,” denouncing Daesh propaganda. Last January, an army spokesman announced that they had killed 500 terrorists since 2015. Just a few months before, however, the army claimed to have killed at least 3091 terrorists between January and July 2015 alone.
“The number of terrorists killed by Egypt is very hard to determine,” says Berkowitz of Max Security. “Generally, the Egyptian military exaggerates its successes in order to make itself seem more in control of the situation than it actually is. There are probably more casualties from the military than from Daesh—somewhere in the mid-hundreds.”
What Happens in Sinai Stays in Sinai
Rumors spread that the authorities have their own interest to see people fleeing from North Sinai, especially minorities, which garnered a lot of international attention. Some sources have indicated that security forces have launched operations in Al Arish and informed people, especially Christians, to clear the area. The Interior Ministry had to make a public statement about it at the beginning of March, assuring they had nothing to do with the decision. It turned to be hard to double-check the veracity of the decision ; those displaced in Ismailia were tightly followed by moukhabarat ( plain clothes government informers), making sure they would not say something against the government or criticize the authorities.
El Sissi passed a presidential decree in 2015 forbidding journalists from using any statistics other than those released by the army. This added to the fact that no one – journalists, researchers and NGOs – was allowed to enter the area since 2014. In essence, anyone opening up about what’s really happening can face fines and imprisonment.
Speaking over the phone, army spokesman Colonel Tamer Al Refai refused to answer any questions. “We have nothing else to say, other than what we publish on social media,” he said, “I’m not allowed to talk about anything.”
According to data collected by The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy’s Egypt Security Watch, Wilayat Sinai claimed an average of 34 attacks per month in North Sinai in 2016.
Over that same period, more than 420 security personnel and 53 civilians were either reported killed or injured in Daesh attacks. The total number of Daesh attacks is estimated to be around 600, but since the beginning of 2017, there have already been 70.
“The situation in Sinai is the worst Egypt has faced for decades,” says Sabry.
“The Egyptian branch of Daesh is currently the strongest one in the world, after their Iraqi and Syrian counterparts. The army cannot win.”