CAIRO: While media attention after last week’s bombings in the North Sinai resort town of Dahab focused on fears of future attacks and the inevitable impact on local tourism, residents of the nearby city of Al-Arish were afraid of something else: Egyptian security forces.
The April 24 bombing, which killed 19 and injured 90, occurred the day before a national holiday marking the handover of the Sinai Peninsula from Israel to Egypt. The timing has led the government to link the attack to two other bombings that have rocked the traditionally peaceful Sinai Peninsula in the last 18 months, both of which also targeted tourist areas on national holidays.
Because investigations of previous Sinai bombings, in Taba in October 2004 and in Sharm El-Sheikh in July 2005, focused on the Northern Sinai region, residents and local human rights organizations are bracing for fresh investigations in the area. Many fear that security forces will use the same harsh tactics they have deployed in the past, which have included random arrests, lengthy detentions without charge and torture.
“We’re facing serious security mobilization and people are in a state of terror over what the state will do, said Ahsraf Ayoub, spokesman for the Al-Arish Popular Committee for Human Rights, shortly after the latest bombing.
According to Ayoub, 17, armored cars with mounted machine guns have massed around the local State Security Investigation (SSI) office, while checkpoints are monitoring everyone going in and out of the city. While Ayoub could only confirm about 30 arrests since the Dahab attacks, he estimated the total number to be closer to 100.
“The problem is that we can’t see the future, said the popular committee’s Hassan Abdullah. “The techniques [of the SSI] are random. We can’t know what they’re going to do.
In mid-October 2004, days after a car bomb blew a hole in the Taba Hilton hotel on the Egyptian-Israeli border, which runs along the peninsula’s north-eastern edge, the SSI began a sweeping campaign of random arrests in the area. Most were carried out during night-time raids, in which armed security forces stormed homes and arrested young men. When suspects could not be found, security agents often detained family members, including women.
On October 25, the interior ministry said that it had identified the nine men responsible for the attack. However, the arrests continued into December, with Egyptian rights organizations estimating that between 2,500 and 3,000 people were detained in this period. Most of them were held without charges and many were reportedly tortured.
Mohammed (not his real name), an Al-Arish university student, says he was taken from his home by SSI agents in a pre-dawn raid in late October, 2004. For 12 days, he says, he was held in a local SSI office, where he was handcuffed, hung backwards and had electric wires fixed to his toes and genitals.
For the next few months, Mohammed was transferred to a number of different locations. He was released in April 2005, with no charges ever being brought against him.
Many Al-Arish residents believe the incident shows up a traditional pattern of mistrust and neglect in Northern Sinai. Unemployment there is high, and residents say that money allocated for development projects in the area often ends up going elsewhere.
Locals also cite longstanding discrimination, which they attribute to Cairo’s inherent distrust of the region. Sinai is held to be a crossroads for drug smuggling, and many Sinai Bedouin have family ties that extend into neighboring countries, which the government believes diminishes their loyalty to Egypt.
According to Ashraf Hefny, secretary-general of the Tagammu Party’s Al-Arish office, the government often keeps Sinai residents out of the armed forces, while many also have difficulty traveling.
“As soon as they see the word ‘Sinai’ on your ID card anywhere else in Egypt, they single you out and question you, said Hefny.
The arrests that came in the wake of the Taba bombings, followed by a smaller series of detentions after the Sharm attacks, hardly improved matters.
“This was the first time that the state dealt with the people of Sinai in such a harsh a manner, said Ahmed Seif Al-Islam, director the Cairo-based Hisham Mubarak Law Center. “Even during the Israeli occupation, they were never treated this badly.
The government may have more reason to focus on Northern Sinai now that it has blamed the earlier bombings on a local militant group, Al-Tawhid Wal Jihad, which it says was founded in Al-Arish in 2002.
Now, in the medium-term aftermath of the Dahab attacks, residents and human rights observers are bracing for the worst.
“I expect that all types of pressure that the security forces have will be used in the coming days, said Seif Al-Islam, four days after the bombing.
He added that a solution lay in the provision of better government services, economic development and tolerable treatment by security forces.
“Without that, they might succeed in arresting all the members of the group, but you’ll still have 40 others here and 30 others there, he said.
Al-Arish residents agree. “We don’t want to become the Kurds of Egypt, said the popular committee’s Ayoub. “We don’t want to be considered a persecuted minority, we want to be treated like people living in the rest of the country. IRIN