EL-ARISH, Egypt: In the wilderness of North Sinai, truth can be as difficult to grasp as the rolling desert sands.
Following the deaths of 16 Egyptians soldiers at a border post this month, the press were reporting that Mohammad Mursi had launched the biggest operation in the Sinai since the 1973 war against Israel.
Its official aim was to flush out the groups of Islamic militants reportedly seeking shelter in the barren expanse of desert.
Yet during a fortnight in which Mursi upended his critics by dismissing Egypt’s military ruler, Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, and reshuffling the top tier of his administration, it soon became clear that not everything was quite the way the government was portraying it.
At a meeting Thursday in Sheikh Zuwayed, a North Sinai town close to where much of ‘Operation Eagle’ was reportedly being carried out, local Bedouins accused the Mursi administration of exaggerating the attacks in a bid to create the false impression that decisive action was being taken.
According to the Egypt Independent newspaper, one local tribesmen said that the Sinai was being turned into a “scapegoat,” while another said that reports of widescale military maneuvers were giving a false impression that the area was a “terrorist stronghold.”
A recent visit to Gabal Halal, the mountain about 80 kilometers south of the Mediterranean coast, which the government had claimed is home to scores of Islamic militants, appeared to lend weight to these suggestions.
Arriving on the same day that one newspaper’s front page story reported the beginning of a massive attack against the supposed militant refuge, The Daily Star found no evidence whatsoever that any kind of large-scale operation was taking place.
A sheikh living near the foot of the mountain, who said his name was Sulayman, said he and his fellow villagers had been following Egyptian media reports with increasing incredulity. “Nothing has happened here,” he said, laughing at suggestions the military was trying to rout militants living in the caves and crevasses of Gabal Halal.
“In the media they are saying Gabal Halal is like Tora Bora, but it is completely wrong.”
Khaled Saad, an activist from North Sinai who worked on the presidential campaign of Nobel Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, said hard facts about the reality of the military’s campaign are thin on the ground. “Nobody knows what is going on ... There is very little real information,” he said.
To make matters murkier, much of the information that has emerged is contradictory. When the military allegedly killed 20 “terrorists” earlier this month in the village of Tumah, a security official told the AFP news agency that an Apache helicopter airstrike had helped dispatch the militants. Yet the official MENA news agency said that it was ground troops who did the killing.
Meanwhile the ever-loyal Al-Ahram newspaper, Egypt’s state-run daily, claimed that 60 “terrorists” had been slain in the same week – though villagers who spoke to The Daily Star said they knew of nobody who had been killed in the operation.
Yet something is clearly going on. The deaths of the 16 soldiers earlier this month suggest North Sinai is indeed grappling with a problem which is anything but illusory – as do the continued attacks against army checkpoints around El-Arish, the administrative capital of the region. “They are still attacking the troops,” Khaled Saad said. “They are still attacking the checkpoints.”
Some believe that the recent military operation – in tandem with the decision to forcibly retire Tantawi – is part of a two-pronged political gambit by Mursi.
On the one hand, the new president needed a demonstrable show of force to prove he was capable of cracking down on extremists following this month’s terrorist attack.
On the other – and in light of the criticisms leveled at his security chiefs for failing to prevent the attack – it gave him the perfect excuse to clear out the old guard and cement his wobbling authority.
“The army looked very bad after the border attacks,” said Hani Shukrallah, editor of Al-Ahram Online, an English-language website. He claimed Mursi had executed a civilian “coup” made possible by sympathetic military officers who have become disillusioned by the army’s loss of public esteem.
“It reminds me very much of the situation in 1970,” he said, referring to the transfer of power that followed the death of Egyptian autocrat Gamal Abdel Nasser. “Again we had a very weak president [Anwar Sadat] with other centers of power made up of remnants of the Nasserist regime. But Sadat was able through certain figures in the military to defeat them.”
Yet Mursi’s sudden show of strength has left many feeling uneasy. Along with culling senior figures from the old regime, the new president trashed a previous military decree and gave himself substantial new powers over parliament and the constitutional drafting process.
This was followed by the recent ‘blank column’ newspaper protest, when a number of journalists refused to publish their opinion pieces after the Muslim Brotherhood tried to shoehorn favored editors onto state publications.
“Now the Muslim Brotherhood have all the power,” said Sherif Taher, senior member of the liberal Al-Wafd party.
“They are taking over every aspect of this country.”
But others, including ElBaradei, have praised Mursi’s recent political moves, saying they are an essential revolutionary step.
Meanwhile, the president himself last week moved to stave off accusations of authoritarianism by issuing a declaration against the detention of journalists awaiting trial.
The move was in response to cases involving two high profile media figures who have been scathingly critical of the Muslim Brotherhood.
One month ago, Egypt’s first democratically elected leader was portrayed as a popgun president – the puppet dangling helplessly on the military’s strings. Whatever the misgivings about his recent political maneuvers, there is no doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood’s man is beginning to make his mark.