Silent Screams from Sinai

H.A. Hellyer
H.A. Hellyer Scholar - Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

May 26, 2013

On August 5, 2012, 16 Egyptian military personnel were killed in Sinai, near Egypt’s border. There were calls from different quarters to demand accountability, with the main question being: if Egypt’s security and intelligence services are doing their jobs, how could such a plot against Egypt’s military take place?

That was almost a year ago. As yet, no-one really knows what happened in Sinai – except that 16 Egyptian soldiers lost their lives.

As yet, no-one knows who was responsible for their deaths – except that the authorities apparently succeeded in entering a Sinai village, including from the air, killed 20 terrorists, and destroyed several armored cars belonging to them. The public was never given the names of those who were killed, or even independent confirmation that they were killed. They have received no information about if they were Egyptians, or non-Egyptians. The public never had the opportunity to learn whether or not an attempt to arrest such perpetrators took place – or if there was just a summary execution from the air.

The reality is – Sinai is a no-man’s land, where the Egyptian state is at its weakest.

I wrote about that a year ago, in the now defunct Egypt Independent. But while many were keen to have the questions around responsibility answered, at least for a while, virtually no-one in the public arena could be found that expressed any desire to have transparency and accountability about the response. Egypt had entered into a new ‘War on Terror’ – and while many had been opposed to America’s ‘war’, it seemed that Egypt’s was somehow alright. Or at least, that no-one would speak up about it, and warn against extra-judicial action. Vesting anyone with the power to secretly declare an Egyptian as an enemy of the state and order his or her extrajudicial killing should not be taken lightly.

Exposed to terror

A year later, that challenge of responding to terrorism in an ethical manner still remains. It is even more crucial to understand the importance of that challenge – because now, it should have become clear to everyone that it is not only members of Egypt’s military that stand at risk. The people of Sinai (Egyptians, by the way), have been having problems for years – but they are problems that virtually no-one bothers to pay any attention to, until situations like this erupt. Their struggles to maintain simply the most basic level of living conditions are ignored – until people who are not from Sinai pay a price. Kidnappings; violence; this sort of thing is not unknown to the people of Sinai, as it happens so often. But when it happens to them, it’s virtually unrecorded. Now that the soldiers have been released, it is likely that people will yet again consign the plight of Sinai to the back-pages – until, of course, yet another atrocity takes place.

With regards to this particular incident – yet again, there are many questions that scream to be answered. Yet again, it seems, they will scream silently – because the soldiers have now been recovered, safe and sound. Will there be no campaign that demands answers – even to the most basic of questions? Will there be no insistence that Egyptians know who kidnapped these soldiers? Were they an isolated group of bandits? Did they have links to other groups and cadres in the peninsula? What were their names? What were their demands? Or is all of this destined to be swept under the carpet as, ‘a matter of national security’?

What about the operation that led to their freedom? While details are undoubtedly sensitive, and may be problematic to reveal at this time while the operation apparently continues, at some point more details ought to emerge. But will they? Or will that too be considered to be on a ‘need-to-know’ basis, while within Sinai, people are left forgotten?

The reality is – Sinai is a no-man’s land, where the Egyptian state is at its weakest. Because there are so few television cameras there, and so few media in general, people will quickly forget that with impunity, Egyptian soldiers were kidnapped. Yet, it is unlikely this will be the last time that there will be trouble in Sinai – does chaos need to arrive in the rest of Egypt for the Egyptian public to demand answers to these crucial questions of transparency and accountability?

Unfortunately, the answer seems to be yes. In the meantime, the people of Sinai suffer, and Egypt’s security becomes more porous.