Bedouin arms dealers who are sympathetic to the militants said in recent days that fighters have launched shoulder-fired antiaircraft Stinger missiles (known to the U.S. intelligence community as MANPADs) at military aircraft, laid improvised bombs along roads traversed heavily by troops, and fired barrages of bullets and RPGs at security personnel stationed here.
On Sunday, a police commander who spoke on the condition of anonymity said police had located a fourth bomb outside the Sheik Zweid village police station in less than 48 hours. The first three exploded, injuring several police officers, the official said.
Both police commanders and Bedouin leaders say the militants are a minority in the desert peninsula; the latter group says the militants consist mostly of locals who operate in small cells, with little to no command structure. But Bedouin leaders fear that the territory’s population may soon get swept up in the military’s crackdown, escalating the conflict into a wider war.
On a night last week, militants struck the Hay al-Safa military base near Rafah with an RPG and then gunfire. Hours later, they struck again — with what local arms dealers said were armor-piercing bullets. Families living in the area said they have grown afraid to transit through security checkpoints at night, lest they get caught in the crossfire or get targeted by nervous troops. At least 10 civilians have died in the violence this month.
‘Back to square one’
Unlike mainland Egypt, where Morsi supporters have staged thousands-strong protests that have shut down major roads and convulsed cities from Cairo to the Nile Delta, the Sinai has quickly taken its dissent to a more violent level.
Local Bedouins say it is the route borne of the territory’s cyclical history of state repression and a natural response from a local population flush with weapons and budding extremist groups.
“Protests aren’t really in our nature,” Abu Ashraf, a powerful tribal leader and smuggler in North Sinai, said last week using his nickname. “Our nature is . . .” he said, then stopped, smiled and pantomimed firing a gun.
In the wake of the coup, Egyptian security forces locked down the single bridge that connects the peninsula to the mainland and set up a battery of checkpoints along the highways that link Cairo to the Suez Canal, and onward across North Sinai, where soldiers check IDs and sift through luggage in the trunks of cars. They shine strobe lights into vehicles at night. The Sinai Bedouin feel as if the state is targeting them — again.
Analysts and local political leaders in North Sinai interpreted the call by Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, Egypt’s military commander, for a mandate to fight terrorism as a signal that a Mubarak-style crackdown was imminent. “I think Sissi wants public cover for his bloody work,” said Ahmed Salem, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood in el-Arish, capital of North Sinai.