In Sinai, the Arrested Mysteriously Reappear as Dead Terrorists

Fighting a remarkably unsuccessful war against Bedouin insurgents in the Sinai, the Egyptian state seems to have given up even pretending to adhere to the rule of law, as Heba Afify’s story from Mada Masr makes clear:

It was dawn on one of the final days of November when Suleiman was awakened to the flashing lights of a police car and then a military armored personnel carrier filling up the street where he lives. Looking down from his balcony, he saw masked men entering the neighboring building where his relative Mohammed Ayoub lived. They ascended all the way to the roof.

From local activists, portraits of six of the victims. Photo: The Unheard Egypt Blog.

Suleiman and Mohammed’s homes are near the Swiss Inn Hotel on the edge of the Mediterranean; the neighborhood used to be frequented by tourists before they all disappeared when the security situation worsened after 2013. In recent months things had taken a turn even further for the worse in the ongoing war between security forces and armed groups. Most of the battles take place in the neighboring towns of Rafah and Sheikh Zwayed, to the east, where there have been a sharp increase in terrorist attacks as well as police sweeps, arbitrary arrests and house to house searches.

Suleiman says he could hear doors being broken down, followed by extremely loud crashing noises. “There is no more security around here anymore. When we hear noises like those we don’t know if it’s police or baltagiyya [government thugs]or terrorists. I was too scared to go out and find out what was going on.”

Later Suleiman learned that police had smashed their way into Mohammed’s apartment, where they arrested him, his 18-year-old brother and his father, hauling them away to the local police station. Mohammed’s father and brother were released two days later; Mohammed disappeared. His family’s journey to find him began at that moment, a journey familiar to hundreds of other families whose relatives are the victims of forced disappearances.

And then last Friday, the Ministry of the Interior announced in a press release that ten young men had been killed in a shootout with police after security forces broke into a terrorist hideout in Al-Arish. The press release included the names of six of those killed (four were not named as their bodies had not been identified). Among the names: Mohammed Ayoub. All of them, the interior Ministry said, had participated in the latest terrorist attack, an assault on a checkpoint in Arish that killed seven policemen and one civilian.

The population of Arish rapidly took to the streets in reaction to the announcement, proclaiming that all of those named by the Interior Ministry were young local men who had been arrested and disappeared months before by security forces.

A public meeting was held, with representatives of most of the families of Arish; they threatened the authorities with civil disobedience. Suleiman says that Mohmmed Ayoub, who was 23, was a taxi driver who did not have much going on; his life was basically divided between driving and home.

When he disappeared, Suleiman says, “We went and asked where he was. First they told us he was at Brigade 101. Then they said he was at Arish Police Station Three. Then they said the Homeland Security station had him. After that they said he was being transferred to Ismailiyya, and then we heard that we should just be patient because he would be out in a couple of days. We never saw him again after he was arrested, for 50 days until we read his name in the Interior Ministry announcement. How can they claim he died carrying out a terrorist attack when he was under arrest and in their custody?”

The families were told by local parliamentary deputies that they could go to Ismailiyya’s public hospital to collect the bodies of their sons.

Suleiman says that forcible abductions of young people from the street or from their homes without a trace is becoming increasingly common in Northern Sinai, leaving their families with the difficult task of searching for them.

The Interior Ministry announcement triggered reactions from dozens of families who flooded a Facebook page setup to document instances of forced disappearances with their testimonies, apparently hoping to protect them from the fate of the ten who had been killed.

The announcement was also followed by an explosion of popular anger in Arish, with thousands of people participating in the funeral processions of three of those who had been killed after their bodies were brought back to Arish. The city had not seen such huge crowds protesting in the streets since 2011 [Mubarak’s overthrow].

Monday, the people of Arish buried the bodies of two other young men from among the ten, Abdelati Abdelati and his cousin Ahmed Youssef Rashid, 24 years old. A local Facebook page posted a picture of Rashid’s house after it was wrecked by security forces when they arrested him in October. Ahmed Youssef Rashid’s own Facebook page still shows the pictures of his wedding in August 2016, just two months before he was arrested. Some of his acquaintances even started re-posting older blog posts and texts they had written demanding his release: proof, they say, that he had been under arrest by the police [when he was killed].

“So far we have shown great patience in the face of the exodus they have forced on us, the destruction of our agricultural land, the arbitrary arrests,” says Suleiman. “But we will not accept that our sons be returned to us shot down with live ammunition, and accused of being terrorists on top of that. The situation is untenable. There is no law to protect us anymore, and those who are supposed to protect us are the ones killing us. All we do now is follow funeral procession after funeral procession, plant bodies in the ground.”

Heba Afify Translated from Arabic by International Boulevard