Some 420,000 people lack food, water and other basic necessities
As Egypt continues its military campaign to extinguish the Islamic State insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula, Human Rights Watch warned that some 420,000 civilians in four northeastern cities in the vast and largely lawless territory are in dire need of humanitarian assistance, lacking food, water and other basic services.
The conflict, which began in the wake of the Arab Spring uprising, has become progressively more violent. Initially, attacks were perpetrated by the Al-Qai’da-linked Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, which exploited the chaotic situation in Egypt to weaken the central authority. In 2014, the group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and re-branded itself as Sinai Province.
Shortly thereafter, the newly-formed organization launched a coordinated assault that killed 33 Egyptian security personnel, leading Cairo to declare a state of emergency in the Peninsula which is still in effect. Tensions further intensified in November when Sinai Province claimed responsibility for the massacre of more than 300 worshipers at the al-Rawda mosque located east of the town of Bir al-Abed in the North Sinai Governorate.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has come under fire for failing to stamp out the terrorism, and, increasingly, for the growing humanitarian crisis in the region resulting from the turmoil.
“There has been a significant restriction on all types of goods and on the movement of people in Sinai,” Amr Magdi, a spokesperson for Human Rights Watch, explained to The Media Line. “We’ve seen families separated and patients requiring medical treatment facing months-long waiting times to just leave their areas to get the attention they require. This blockade has led to a very severe food crisis and critical shortages in water and electricity.
“International human rights law stipulates that in a state of war the government has an obligation to allow freedom of movement for escaping civilians,” he expounded, “and must also provide appropriate food to civilians in conflict zones. The government has obviously violated these measures, as all of the people we interviewed said whatever aid there is isn’t enough.”
Cairo justifies the blockade as a necessary measure in order to limit the amount of supplies reaching the ISIS-aligned terrorists as well as to prevent them from fleeing the region. But Magdi contends that “it is actually collective punishment on the people of North Sinai. The restrictions are affecting the entire civilian population, not just militants.”
Yoram Schweitzer, head of the Program on Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, reinforced this notion, affirming to The Media Line that “the Egyptian military doesn’t treat civilians in a humane and moral way as it suspects they may be cooperating with the terrorists. Therefore, these people suffer from both sides, as operations by Egyptian soldiers are clearly impeding their ability to live whilst they are also being brutalized by the ISIS forces.
“The people in the region feel that they have long been neglected by the Egyptian government,” he elaborated. “[This adversely] affects the fight against terrorism, especially in a difficult place like Sinai, because good and accurate intelligence is required. Without the necessary help of the population, any counter-insurgency operation is likely to be unsuccessful and the conflict will continue.”
Compounding matters is that North Sinai is vastly underdeveloped, causing much of the local population to feel marginalized. This sense of disconnect, coupled with a lack of economic opportunity, has fueled support for ISIS. In this respect, according to Human Rights Watch, “the government’s indiscriminate punishment of the people [has created] a breeding ground for extremism.”
In an effort to better understand the situation on the ground, The Media Line reached out to The People’s Committee to the North Sinai, a group that advocates on behalf of the local population, but it declined to comment because the query emanated from a news bureau located in Israel despite the crucial military support provided by the Israeli army to Sisi’s government.
With no foreseeable end to the insurgency—in fact, Sinai has become a sought-after destination for ISIS fighters ousted from both Iraq and Syria—the humanitarian situation is liable to deteriorate. Making matters worse is the Egyptian government’s refusal to allow external organizations to conduct independent assessments of the severity of the circumstances, which, in turn, limits the international community’s ability to alleviate the plight of civilians in any significant manner.
As a result of their alienation and deprivation, residents of the Peninsula may increasingly turn to ISIS to provide them with basic necessities. In such an eventuality, Cairo may find itself battling not only Islamic State terrorists, but also Egyptian citizens.
(Benji Flacks is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)