“You can almost smell fear in the air. Al-Arish and Sheikh Zoayyed are ghost towns. Police officers warn citizens, ‘This city has to be put to rights’.”
These are not statements from Fallujah in Iraq, or Jenin in the West Bank, but testimony collected by human rights activists from the towns of Al-Arish and Sheikh Zoayyed in North Sinai, close to the border with the Gaza Strip.
Ahmad Seif-al-Islam Hamad of the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre told human rights workers in Cairo last week that up to 6,000 people have been arrested by the Egyptian security forces in the area over the past two months. “There is a general state of terror in North Sinai,” he said.
The “anti-terrorism operations” in the wake of the bombing of Israeli tourists in the resort of Taba have also involved widespread torture.
Ashraf Ayyub is an activist from the Popular Committee for Citizens’ Rights in North Sinai. He told Socialist Worker, “They arrested people in the streets, in the mosque. There’s a complete state of fear.”
Human rights workers have chronicled a catalogue of abuses, including beatings and electrocutions. Hundreds of those arrested are family members of those wanted for questioning, taken as hostages and often tortured in their place.
Children, pregnant women and the elderly have not been spared.
One mother explained how security officials came to her house looking for her son and one of her daughters. “When they first came they took Hossam, 16 years old. He is a diploma student.
“They wanted to take the girl—she’s 12 years old—but she ran out of the house. Five security men stayed in my house.
“If a guest came they would ask my daughter to open the door, then they would either take the visitors or just interrogate them.
“They took a neightbour, Hamada’s wife, who was pregnant. They electrocuted Ishmael’s wife on her fingers.”
Ashraf says, “They don’t want to hear any voice opposing normal relations with Israel.
“Since the outbreak of the intifada there’s been a reaction among the people of Sinai to what’s going on in Palestine, and we’ve been supporting the Palestinians.”
But Egypt’s harsh laws mean that supporting the Palestinians involves opposing their own government. Ashraf says, “We’re fighting for the rights of Egyptian citizens so that we can fight for the rights of others.”