The silence in Sinai: Covering Egypt's 'war on terror'
For the past three years, Egyptian forces have been fighting ISIL offshoot Wilayat Sinai in the Sinai peninsula, but the government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has managed to keep a tight lid on the story.
Journalism that deviates from official accounts has been criminalised under an anti-terror law. And a narrative is being pushed out across all forms of pro-government media that the army’s operations in Sinai are successful, just, and even heroic.
The government in Cairo wants Egyptians and the international community to believe it has the insurgency in Sinai completely under control. It is a carefully crafted narrative that - without independent scrutiny - is near impossible to verify.
“Whenever you have a war going on like this you tend to have restrictions on the media,” explains Joe Stork, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch.
“Media access is closely controlled. But it’s not just journalists. There’s no independent or potentially critical perspective allowed into Sinai. Or in the case of people who already live there, you know, their views, their testimonies, their accounts are not allowed out of Sinai,” he says.
In April this year, a video surfaced that shattered the government-managed media narrative and renewed allegations of torture, forced disappearances and killings at the hands of the Egyptian Army.
It appeared to show a group of government-backed militiamen executing two captives.
Researchers and activists recognised at least two of the civilians in the video. Back in November 2016, images and videos of their deaths were circulated online by government and pro-government groups. The men were the same, but there was a very different narrative about how they’d been killed.
“The military spokesperson described the men as ‘terrorists that were killed during an anti-terror operation in northern Sinai’. But the leaked video clearly shows that at least two of the men are unarmed at the time and our analysis indicates that the arms were later planted next to their bodies to make it look like there was an exchange of fire,” says Sherine Tadros, head of Amnesty International’s United Nations office in New York.
The government has chosen to remain silent about the video, but many Egyptian media outlets did not.
The Egyptian government has an interest in maintaining its narrative of successfully fighting terror. Between 2011 and 2015, Cairo received $6.5bn in US military aid.
The Egyptian military has reported more than 6,000 deaths in northern Sinai since mid-2013. That figure greatly exceeds the number of militants in the area: estimated at no more than 1,000, according to the DC-based think-tank, the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
The inability to verify what is really happening has created a void for the ISIS-affiliated Wilayat Sinai to fill with its own propaganda. Its latest release portrays its fighters as disciplined and methodical, patiently aiming and then firing at Egyptian soldiers, who are made to look panicked and vulnerable.
“When you are prohibiting and stopping access for journalists, reporters and researchers to investigate and report on what’s happening there, you are creating a knowledge gap. And when you are doing that this gap is also being filled with the terror groups’ propaganda,” explains Nancy Okail, executive director, Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
The Egyptian government did eventually allow Egyptian journalists in April to survey the Sinai. However, it silenced critical voices like that of Ismail al-Iskandarani, a prominent Sinai researcher and journalist who was arrested in December 2015 on charges of spreading false news and being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He has been in jail without trial for a year and a half now.
“Ismail al-Iskandarani is the perfect example of how the regime is not tolerating any independent views. The reason that he caught the government’s attention is that he was critical of the military’s way of handling the insurgency,” says Egyptian writer and researcher Maged Mandour.
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Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director