Growing anger at arrests
With thousands said to be still detained without charges in the post-Taba crackdown, the situation in Sinai remains tense, reports Mustafa El-Menshawy
Although Arish, the capital of North Sinai, appears calm, tensions are palpable just beneath the surface. Police patrols and checkpoints seem far too frequent for such a sleepy beach town, and most people are unusually nervous about talking to strangers. Almost every week, dozens of people stage a sit-in after Friday prayers demanding that their relatives -- detained after last October's Taba blasts -- be released.
The blasts were blamed on nine suspects, all from North Sinai -- two were killed in the attacks, two others died after clashes with police, and the five remaining are in custody. According to human rights groups, however, some 2,400 local residents have also been detained; local and international human rights groups have said many of them have been subjected to "brutal torture".
"My husband has been detained since October, and I [was] only [allowed to] visit him this week at the state security office in Cairo. He looked pale and ill, and complained that he had been brutally beaten by the interrogators," Sabha Turefi told Al-Ahram Weekly. "He said he had been blind-folded, with his hands tied behind his back, and stripped down to his underpants despite the cold. He complained about being electrocuted, and hung by his hands from the door for hours," the traumatised 25-year-old wife said, in tears.
She said her husband had done nothing wrong; in any case, the authorities have at no point indicated what, if any, charges these individuals were being held on. Turefi said her husband's offence was that he was "bearded. Can you imagine?"
Others who were detained and released told similar stories of interrogations accompanied by torture, including electrocution. Those who had not been tortured said they had heard screaming, or saw security forces inflicting pain on other detainees.
Most of the detainees are civil servants, whose salaries have been suspended since their arrest. If they are absent for much longer, they could also be fired. "When I came back after two weeks in detention," said 27-year-old Sahar Abdel-Ghani, "the headmaster of the school where I work as a teacher rejected my excuse, and cut my salary in half. He asked me to provide proof of the detention, which I was unable to obtain."
Abdel-Ghani declined to speak further about her ordeal, saying it was "too hard". She said her mother was recently released, while her father and two brothers are still in detention.
The lack of an adequate government response to families' appeals for information on the whereabouts of their relatives, and the charges against them, has been a source of local outrage. Last week, a group of women broke into a municipal council meeting attended by Governor Ahmed Abdel-Hamid, and created a ruckus. Although Abdel-Hamid said he would intervene to resolve the issue, the women called his response no more than an empty promise.
Abdel-Hamid told the Weekly that the actual number of detainees was far less than the tally cited by human rights activists, but declined to comment further on the case, or regarding accusations that he gave his blessings to the mass detentions. When Human Rights Watch sent a letter to Interior Minister Habib El-Adli in December, asking for clarification on "the credible testimonies of torture" in North Sinai, the Washington-based group also received no response; subsequent efforts to reach the minister by telephone or to secure a meeting with him were also unsuccessful.
"The ministry's reaction exposes its lies and deception. It first said only nine people were in custody, but then it released 24 people over the past two weeks," said Ashraf El-Hifni, a member of the Popular Committee for the Defence of Sinai Citizens, which has adopted the case.
While the ministry initially refused to provide families with news on the whereabouts of the detainees, after three local human rights groups issued their report in November, and Human Rights Watch released its own in February, detainees were allowed to see their relatives.
The interior ministry said the mastermind behind the blasts was Iyad Salah, a Palestinian with a criminal record who had turned to Islamist extremism. The other perpetrators were reportedly extremists who began weapons training in the Sinai mountains after the occupation of Iraq.
North Sinai activist Emad Al-Buluck said Sinai residents "are so inter-connected with Palestinians on the other side of the border. Many North Sinai families are of Palestinian descent, and there are many cases of inter-marriage," which may have increased support in the area for the Palestinian cause.
Bordering the Gaza Strip, North Sinai has always been tense. There have been several incidents involving the Israeli army, allegedly by mistake, killing Egyptian border guards, or residents living nearby. These kinds of incidents, and increasing Israeli brutality against the Palestinians living right next door have regularly provoked anger in the area. Some 20,000 people took to streets on 6 October 2000, one month after the second Intifada began.
Taba -- where the biggest blast took place -- was popular with Israeli tourists; some 13,000 were vacationing in Sinai at the time of the explosions.
Others blame inequity in Sinai for the restlessness of the northern part of the governorate's inhabitants. The rough mountainous nature of central and north Sinai, compared with the richness of south Sinai, which is a key world tourism hub, have left many residents struggling. "Central Sinai is home to 30,000 people living with limited resources, poor agriculture and pasturing," said Sinai MP Ibrahim Rafie. He warned that these areas "could turn into a powder keg if the government continues to ignore the implementation of development plans there -- something that could motivate extremism, and push the situation out of control."
Considering the growing anger over the detentions, and a population used to smuggling sophisticated weapons and hiding in hard-to-reach mountainous areas, there are also fears of armed conflicts flaring up. The security source cited incidents where firefights with militants took place during round-ups.
While local inhabitants hope their peaceful protest moves may put pressure on the government to release their loved ones, human rights activists are more guarded. "I think the government will not release all the detainees that soon. Their recent freeing of dozens of detainees is rather calculated," said Aida Seif El-Dawla of the Egyptian Association Against Torture, which issued a report in November condemning the situation.
She referred to other cases of mass detentions across the country, raising fears of systematic abuse carried out by police. In Beheira, she said, state security forces detained dozens of ordinary people -- including women and children -- this week near Damanhour. The detainees were tortured, she said, after a dispute over land ownership.
Seif El-Dawla said the two incidents were related. In both cases, "people are fed up, and the government has only one way to deal with it -- brutality."