More Than Meets the Eye
About 25 miles west of the Egyptian-Israeli border, a colleague and I had ventured into the desert interior to investigate government claims that the military was embarking on its biggest operation in the region since 1973.
Our destination was Gabal Halal, a craggy escarpment just under 3,000ft high and around 35 miles south of the Mediterranean coast.
According to the ubiquitous and unnamed ‘security officials’ being quoted in the Egyptian press, the mountain had become a bolthole for militant jihadis who were hiding in its caves and crevasses.
Sunday’s edition of the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm claimed that the army had finally launched a “massive attack” against extremists camped out in this desert hideaway, with units from the Second Field Army being dispatched to quell the area.
There was only one problem – the loudly-trumpeted attack seemed to be nothing of the sort. There wasn’t a single helicopter, tank or armoured personnel carrier in sight, and our friendly sheikh had not set eyes on any military manoeuvres whatsoever.
End of story – or so it seemed. As we were about to leave, a pick-up truck turned off the main road and trundled towards the hotch-potch settlement about half a mile from Gabal Halal where we were preparing to head off.
A frowning middle-aged Bedouin man poked his head through the driver’s window. Who were we and why were we here, he asked. What were our nationalities?
Suddenly he became very aggressive, growling that we were in a restricted military area and that we needed the appropriate permits.
After demanding to see our passports, he snatched them from us and locked them in his glove compartment. He then shouted that he was working for the mukhabarat, the Egyptian secret police, grabbed my arm and tried to force me into the back of the truck.
I refused to leave, prompting our spluttering informer to tell my colleague and I that it would cost us a million Egyptian pounds if we wanted to leave the Sinai unharmed – no empty threat, when one considers how many civilians have been kidnapped and ransomed by Bedouin groups airing their often justifiable grievances against the government.
Realising that his quarry would not budge he eventually sped off, disappearing into the desert along with our passports.
We eventually got them back many hours later, but only for my colleague to face three days of incarceration inside a miserable police station while security officials processed a case against him for trespassing into a military zone.
Though a minor inconvenience compared to the daily hardships of many Egyptians, the incident illuminated a number of the country’s post-revolutionary problems – not least that of legal transparency and maltreatment of prisoners.
Police brutality was a major factor which helped fuel revolutionary sentiment.
My colleague, a Dutchman, was held largely incommunicado in a stinking, sweltering cell with six other detainees for three days. There were no beds, very little water and the toilet consisted of a fetid open hole inside the cell which was never cleaned.
Despite repeated requests he was not allowed to make any calls, and it was only the clout of his industrious editor which eventually secured his release.
Anyone finding themselves inside without a lawyer – especially an Egyptian – would have suffered considerably worse. As for the illegal African immigrants who were kept in a separate cell at the mercy of their puffed-up, racist captors, one can only imagine.
Then of course there is the security situation in the North Sinai.
Given the reality of what is (or is not) happening at Gabal Halal, it seems that much of what the government has been claiming is exaggerated.
Yet something is clearly going on. Following the deadly assault by militants which killed 16 Egyptian soldiers at a border post earlier this month, the army has indeed been carrying out a number of operations in and around Al-Arish, the administrative capital of North Sinai.
Moreover, with the slew of of brazen ambushes on checkpoints around the town, it seems that regardless of government propaganda there exists a very real issue of Sinai militancy which fledgling president Mohamed Morsi needs to get a grip on.