The news coming out of northern Sinai’s Arish this week has revolved around a series of funerals. Since Sunday social media has been flooded with videos showing thousands of mourners marching from the city’s mosques, through its main streets and to the cemetery to bury young men killed by police on Friday.
Hundreds of people chanted “we die like them or we avenge them” and “the interior ministry are thugs” during the funeral of 19-year-old Bilal Mohamed Al-Naggar. Except for his face Al-Naggar’s corpse was wrapped in white cloth, common burial practice for those deemed martyrs. The following day even larger crowds followed the bodies of Ahmed Youssef Rashid, 23, and Abdel-Ati Ali Abdel-Ati, 24, to their final resting place.
According to the Ministry of Interior, Al-Naggar, Rashid and Abdel-Ati, together with seven others, were members of the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis terrorist group killed in a shootout after police stormed their hideout apartment in Arish on 13 January. The ministry accused the men of responsibility for the attack on a police checkpoint in Arish on 9 January during which eight conscripts and a civilian were killed. The ministry also said the men were behind a separate assassination of a police officer and the kidnap and subsequent killing of an engineer.
According to a statement issued by the Ministry of Interior, when the police arrived at the hideout the militants opened fire to which the police responded, killing all ten. Their bodies were included in footage released with the statement.
But the list of names of the militants published by the ministry contained six individuals whose families say were arrested long before the 9 January attack — some as far back as October. Photos of the six men have since circulated on social media, putting faces to the names listed by the security apparatus as terrorists.
The development sent shockwaves across Arish, a town reeling from a stepped up militant insurgency in north Sinai since the 2013 ouster of Mohamed Morsi. Arish, Sheikh Zuweid and other parts of northern Sinai have been under a state of emergency for over three years including a curfew from 1 to 5am.
In 2014 the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis group, mentioned in the Interior Ministry’s statement, pledged allegiance to the terrorist group Islamic State and rebranded itself as Wilayet Sinai (Sinai Province).
The group claimed responsibility for the 9 January attack in a statement issued the following day.
When military forces stepped up measures to combat the insurgency in 2013 the government imposed restrictions on media access to the troubled area, making it almost impossible for the press to report on developments. The backlash to the Interior Ministry’s statement bypassed this blackout, forcing its way into mainstream media and televised evening talk shows.
On Saturday an angry meeting of representatives of a number of Arish families, activists and local politicians, resulted in a set of demands. These included boycotting the Interior Minister; the release of all detainees who have not been tried; access to the bodies of the six men killed by the police and the resignation of northern Sinai’s five MPs from parliament.
The demands were issued in a statement that also threatened a campaign of civil disobedience should they be ignored. A committee was formed to oversee the demands and to speak on behalf of those who attended that meeting.
Observers say the meeting and the tone of the demands is an unusual development. “This was more of an anti-government popular rally,” says Mustafa Singer, a reporter based in Arish. “You don’t get to see anything like that anymore, not in northern Sinai, not anywhere in Egypt,” he said in a telephone interview.
The meeting was held in the diwan (reception hall) of the Ayoub family whose two sons — Rashid and Abdel-Ati, buried on Monday — were killed by police. The diwan has since been in permanent session daily following the evening prayers.
“People are fed-up and angry,” said Ahsraf Al-Hefni, one of the members of the committee that was formed on Saturday. “At least one member of every house in Arish attended Monday’s funeral of the two cousins from the Ayoub family. That should tell you something about the sentiments here,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly in a telephone interview.
MP Hossam Al-Rifai brought up the issue on a TV talk show on Sunday. “If we want to defeat terrorism we need to know the real culprits [of the 9 January attack],” he told his host. “We, and the families of the men who were killed, are demanding a fair investigation of what happened,” he said.
The incident prompted dozens of families and friends of men in police custody to post information — names, photos and their time of arrest — on social media as a precautionary measure.
There are no accurate estimates for the number of people arrested or forcibly disappeared in northern Sinai. Salah Sallam, a member of the government appointed National Council for Human Rights, says he has submitted the names of 650 northern Sinai residents to the presidential committee tasked with pardoning detainees.
Despite the anger raging in the streets of Arish only one demand, delivering the bodies of the men killed by the police to their families, has been met.
Al-Rifai has said he is willing to submit his resignation but the remaining MPs representing northern Sinai have opted for silence. No government official has issued a reaction.
“We’re sticking to our demands and if they continue to be ignored we’ll discuss civil disobedience,” vowed Al-Hefni.
Singer, the Arish based journalist, is skeptical. “I don’t see anything substantial happening in his respect. There will be more meetings until people stop attending them.”