The reason relatively little is known about this is that Egypt’s authoritarian government has made a concerted effort to prevent all independent reporting. No national or foreign journalists are allowed into Sinai. Even humanitarian relief groups, such as the Egyptian Red Crescent and the International Committee of the Red Cross, are kept out. Reports on the fighting in the government-controlled press consist almost entirely of jingoistic propaganda.
A new report by Human Rights Watch — painstakingly compiled from interviews with dozens of Sinai residents, former Army personnel who served there and other sources — casts new light on the conflict and the massive human rights abuses committed by the regime of Abdel Fatah al-Sissi. “Egyptian military and police have carried out systematic and widespread arbitrary arrests — including of children — enforced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial killings, collective punishment and forced evictions,” the report says. It offers evidence that the military has also conducted unlawful air and ground attacks that have killed numerous civilians, including children, and set up armed local militias that have imposed their own reign of terror.
The scorched-earth tactics, predictably, have only compounded the alienation of Sinai’s some half-million residents. Six years into the war, the insurgents staged one of the worst terrorist attacks in Egyptian history, killing at least 311 people in November 2017 in a mosque in North Sinai. The regime responded by doubling down on its repression, arresting more than 5,000 people in the following year. Few of the detainees are ever charged with a crime, as Egyptian law requires.
The report was greeted in Cairo with a smear campaign against Human Rights Watch and one of its Egyptian researchers, Amr Magdi. One pro-government commentator called him a “terrorist” who “will be brought back to Egypt and executed.” Such extreme rhetoric only underlines the degree to which the Sissi regime has surpassed previous Egyptian dictatorships in its repression.
Human Rights Watch proposes that the United States and other suppliers of the Egyptian military cease aid and sales until the regime improves its human rights record and allows an independent investigation of the probable war crimes in Sinai. Since the Trump administration refuses to hold the Sissi regime accountable, action by Congress is necessary. Last month, a House Appropriations subcommittee took a step by conditioning $260 million of the $1.3 billion Egypt receives annually in U.S. military aid on progress on human rights and democracy. In the past, the Trump administration has evaded such conditions by employing a national security waiver. To exert real influence, Congress must close that loophole.