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Revolutions and Violence in Sinai

Years later, in 2011, it is ironic that longtime activists of the Kefaya movement were working only for the limited goals of socioeconomic reform and an end to police torture—avoiding direct calls for Mubarak’s ouster. Yet these very activists were quickly forced to change strategies and keep pace with the general public, spontaneously cheering for the fall of the regime. In fact, the first calls for the fall of the regime were in North Sinai, where the Ministry of Interior launched its aforementioned campaign against terrorism, distinguishing l ittle between security threats and ordinary citizens there and applying a policy of collective punishment. Reports indicate that the number of Egyptians detained following the Taba, Sharm el-Sheikh, and Dahab resort bombings exceeded four thousand— this in an area with a population of under fifty thousand people. Speaking in interviews, victims and their relatives, including elders, women, and children, have chronicled the violations they experienced while in custody, and expressed their desire for revenge against the police.

In his book Sinai Where I Am: Years of Wandering, a collection of blog entries written over several years, writer Ashraf al-Anani details the hardship and turmoil that unfolded during the 2011 uprising in a North Sinai region that had witnessed political unrest, burned tires, and road blocks since 2005. Anani calls January 25, 2011, an ordinary day in Sinai. Corroborating the police brutality described in chapter 9 by Hesham Genidy and Justine Salam, people in the border region often refer to the Shaykh Zuwaid police department as “Guantanamo Sinai,” describing it as a huge torture- and slaughterhouse. Those who entered it were seen as “the fallen,” while those who were released were termed “newborn.” A graduating college student and native of Shaykh Zuwaid, Ayman Mohsen, began to film and document protests. The result of his research was the documentary film Ticking Bomb (Al-qunbela al-mawquta), which examined the populations of Shaykh Zuwaid and Rafah, recording their suffering over basic rights like water supply, education, health care, and employment. Most notably, the film captured scenes of armed revolution, images that mostly stood in contrast to the relatively peaceful uprising in other parts of Egypt, including the North Sinai governorate capital of el-Arish, only thirty kilometers west of Shaykh Zuwaid.

Initially opposition forces in al-Arish participated in peaceful protests during the 2011 uprising. The Bedouins in Shaykh Zuwaid and Rafah did the same in the face of arbitrary detention, torture, and sentences in absentia. Yet the patience of North Sinai Bedouins could only go so far. As soon as the first peaceful protester (Mohammed Atef) was shot dead by security forces on January 26, peaceful protests turned into armed revolution. Banners and leaflets were traded in for Kalashnikov rifles and rpgs—the latter of which targeted the security headquarters in Rafah. As the situation spiraled out of control, the political activists who led the peaceful uprising lost the ability to direct the broader opposition. All the fighting ended in a crushing defeat for the police and the major deployment of heavy army units in the region for the first time since Egypt’s 1967 defeat, after which the security annex of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel was amended. This was the birth of the revolutionary Sinai that was ignored by the media, politicians, and activists alike in Cairo. The marginalization of Sinai in popular awareness and political discourse resulted in the gradual crystallization of armed groups such as Ansar Bayt al-Moqadis, which had been loyal to al-Qaeda before shifting its allegiance to isis (the Islamic State) and renaming itself Wilayat al-Sina (Province of Sinai) in November 2014. Problems in North Sinai only began to come to the forefront with the bombing of gas lines that lead to Israel and Jordan, and later with deadly attacks on Egyptian soldiers. Lost in all these reports was the marked contrast between the Bedouins of the border region and the sophisticated social activists in al-Arish, the latter of whom possessed far more political wisdom and experience than the naively idealistic revolutionary youth in Cairo discussed in chapter 2 by Mohammad Fadel. Of course, national and international media missed all of this, focusing solely on the aforementioned militant groups instead.

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