Egyptian army air strikes near Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah town in Northern Sinai killed four civilians on 4 July. The deaths coincided with an unannounced visit to Sinai by Sisi who was quoted saying “I have come to salute the heroes of the armed forces and to express to them my recognition.” Egyptian military positions in the peninsula sustained heavy casualties in attacks by fighters from the Province of Sinai group on 1 July.
The recent wave of attacks comes after more than two years of military operations in the region aimed at defeating such armed Islamist groups. Yet local people say the crackdown is having the opposite effect. Reporters from independent news website Mada Masr spoke to residents in February 2015, who told them that two years after the 2011 revolution there were only around 100 militants in the region. The increase in military and police repression since the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi in 2013 has helped them recruit.The Egyptian army has destroyed whole towns in Sinai, such as Rafah which was demolished in order to establish a ‘buffer zone’ on the border with Gaza in January 2015. The destruction of the city forced around 2,044 families to leave their homes, following the first wave of around 1,156 families displaced in December.
Both armed Islamist groups and the army have caused deaths and injuries to civilians in the region. Egyptian army responsibility for civilian casualties is much less likely to be reported, however, as a result of repression of media freedoms and the military’s propaganda campaigns against terrorism. Sinai residents are often demonised in the Egyptian media. Following a previous attack which killed 33 Egyptian soldiers, General Mohamed Mokhtar Qandil claimed: “People in Sinai are collaborators with terrorists, and they do not cooperate with the military. These so-called innocent residents are the ones harbouring and protecting terrorists.”
The military’s spokesmen also portray all opponents of the regime as one solid terrorist organisation. Sisi is creating a state of panic around groups as diverse as the Muslim Brotherhood, peaceful anti-military activists, LGBT rights activists and student protesters. By linking them to ‘ISIS activity’ in Sinai, he can also justify loss of civilian lives as a necessary price for defending the region in the ‘face of terror.’ This rhetoric is also used to justify killings of regime opponents, such as the leading Muslim Brotherhood activists shot dead by the security forces in 6 October City on 1 July.