“The army is a killing machine.” – These were words chosen by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi to address his soldiers as minister of defense. In a video leaked nearly three years ago, he explained why the army is incapable of fighting terrorism, why it should not partake in it and vowed this will never be its role. “It is not an arresting machine, we don’t know how to arrest,” he explained. “Why don’t we say this in the media? Because it’s not useful, people are unable to understand.”
True to Sisi’s words, the army has been a killing machine, but breaking his vow, the army has placed itself at the forefront of the fight against terror. Over 6,000 people have been killed in operations in North Sinai under claims of terrorism affiliated activities.
Reports on the ground have indicated that there are far more indiscriminate arrests and killings than the army cares to share. These reports have been vindicated after the release of a video showing unarmed men gunned down in cold blood by men in army uniforms. They were blindfolded and shot in the head and torso point blank. Earlier the army had released photos and videos claiming that these eight men were terrorists killed in a gun fight.
The video of the extrajudicial killings was released by Mekameleen, a Muslim Brotherhood aligned channel, one day after US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis “affirmed Egypt’s pivotal role in the Middle East and commended its counter-terrorism efforts.”
The coldness of the murders contrasted with the propaganda of the army sent shockwaves through viewers. Initial reactions were that the video was fabricated. The regime moved quickly urging its supporters to cast doubt on one bearded man in army uniform, claiming that the army does not allow for beards nor nonstandard issue T-Shirts, and that there were people wearing long sleeves while others wore summer clothing.
Yet, as the authenticity of the video was established, supporters of the Sisi regime defended extrajudicial killings targeting terrorists. For example, in a strange effort to defend the army and yet condone the practices of the video, Egyptian member of parliament John Talaat denied the army’s involvement in any systematic extrajudicial killings yet expressed his disappointment that this was not the case.
It would be inaccurate to dismiss the video showing these extrajudicial killings as an isolated incident. The army’s use of torture was reported as early as January 2011 to help contain the January 25 revolution.
The army was actively involved in dispersing protests on 9 March 2011 where protesters were taken to the Egyptian museum, tortured and humiliated. They were later sentenced to prison in farcical military trials as described by victims who were later released. Women arrested were also subjected to the infamous virginity tests which Sisi himself admitted to.
More compelling perhaps is the event known as the Maspero massacre in October 2011 where the army ran over and shot nearly 27 protestors outside the television building. Later the military was involved in clashes with demonstrators and in December violently targeted women, part stripping one of them, in what became famously known as the ‘blue bra’ incident.
Security violence against Egyptian citizens without due process was also rampant under Morsi’s short rule. More importantly, following the military takeover of 3 July 2013, we are presented with even more evidence that the army became more brutal than ever.
Following Morsi’s removal, a man was shot point blank on July 5 opposite the Republican Guard headquarters as he attempted to cross the street holding a Morsi poster. That day five people were killed. Shortly after, the death toll increased dramatically; 51 people were killed at another Republican Guard dispersal on 8 July, and over 70 later that same month in Nasr City.
The violent dispersal of the Rabaa and Nahda sit-ins left at least 900 dead. It was only exceptional in terms of numbers, but not in terms of systematic brutal crackdown on the public. This was followed by clashes in October 2013, where at least 51 people died.
systematic forced disappearances and torture inside Egyptian jails have alienated numerous Egyptians
Indications of the widespread targeting of North Sinai residents did not stop; another leaked video of the army humiliating and torturing an already wounded Egyptian citizen surfaced.
These leaked videos are but a small subsection of other reports of army brutality. Investigations into North Sinai, which is cut off from the media, indicate that army brutality in dealing with residents has led to a shift in sympathy towards militants.
It is not only the targeted killing but systematic forced disappearances and torture inside Egyptian jails that have alienated numerous Egyptians.
One must also recall the army’s murder of eight Mexican tourists in the desert and the recent torture and murder of Giulio Regeni. Regeni’s murder not only implicates Egypt’s security apparatus and politicians, but was covered up by five extra judicial killings to frame citizens who had nothing to do with Regeni’s murder.
Why would the Egyptian army target innocents? We can attempt to attribute it to merely incompetence and ineffectiveness, but such an answer presents a contradiction.
President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi knows full well that these methods are counter-productive. In a leaked clip that shows Sisi addressing the army, as minister of defense, he expresses clearly that forcefully evicting residents in North Sinai creates an enemy that will divide the country and he cited the example of South Sudan. He expressed a mature understanding that one creates security “through presence, not through fighting.” He warned the army of using practices that randomly target innocent residents.
Yet despite his apt analysis, Sisi seems to be taking steps in the exact opposite direction and if his own reasoning is used, the result would be the creation of a domestic enemy.
So why is Egypt using the exact same tactics that Sisi warned against? It is difficult to speculate. It might be that Sisi changed his views and realized he was mistaken earlier. But it’s also possible that the present outcome is desirable.
The continued presence of radical extremists is a guarantee that Sisi will have international support
The sustained fight against extremists comes with a few benefits. Countries like the US, France and the UK are invested in fighting radical extremists. The continued presence of radical extremists is a guarantee that Sisi will have international support from these major countries.
More so, because of this fight, the international community is turning a blind eye to the internal abuse against activists, Islamists and the opposition which strengthens Sisi’s security grip on the country.
The simplistically naïve approach of many western diplomats towards the war on terror is all the ammunition Sisi needs to sustain his rule.
In any case, violence and torture come in many flavors in a police state. Some of it is very deliberate in order to establish power, create an enemy or punish certain communities outside of the law, but sometimes this violence is out of sheer habit, a way to coerce and get things done or just a mode of daily operations.
These brutal practices are conducive to a culture of radicalization and the consequences are grave. The displacement of Copts and recent terror activity against churches are a result in one way or another.
There is a danger of the radicalization of innocents who find terror attacks as the only means of redress.
There certainly is a danger of the radicalization of innocents who find terror attacks as the only means of redress. Indeed, the testimonies of many forcibly disappeared, particularly North Sinai residents who were tortured in Al Azouli prison in Ismaileya, is something to consider.
With a host of radicals incarcerated, prisons become rife for recruitment. With no room for peaceful protest and opposition, many may be affected by mental instability, violent radicalization or a mixture of both.
There is another danger of current practices. This is highlighted by Nabil El Boustany, a young man who had survived 70 days of having been forcibly disappeared and detained in Al Azouli prison and whose family has been explicitly lied to about his whereabouts.
Nabil managed to come away with the experience without being radicalized and maintains a healthy mental outlook on life. He says, “The true danger of these practices isn’t just that people get radicalized and plan their revenge, but that the security apparatus does not do its real job and counter radicals and security threats.”
Nabil witnessed the forcibly disappeared disappear again inside the prisons and claims that many he met inside military prison were not radicals and some were even Sisi supporters.
The security apparatus that lazily kills innocents and then masquerades these killings as heroism tends to then become inefficient at fighting real security threats.
The Ministry of Interior for example has used many of its resources to hound and target peaceful activists for trivial things such as Facebook posts and expressing their opinions, meanwhile, the perpetrators of the Tanta and Alexandria attacks managed to find explosives, find their way into churches on Palm Sunday and detonate themselves leaving 45 dead and 126 injured.
A state of emergency was declared, but adds nothing and counters very little. Even without it, state institutions have been operating freely without accountability.
The bombings are another security failing, and not because the metal detectors were placed incorrectly. There is little that police armed with metal detectors can do to prevent a suicide bomber, they too have become victims of their institutions’ failed security policies.
The failings are much deeper and are actively helping define targets for the state’s enemies, such as state institutions and the Coptic church – whose leaders have unabashedly supported the regime.
It’s not only the victims who are affected but also those who inflict these injustices.
Present policies leave soldiers who serve in Sinai exposed as easy targets by militants. By alienating North Sinai residents, the army has lost logistical cover necessary for security. Battles are not merely about superior weaponry, they also depend on intelligence, training, information and governance, all of which are lacking among the men fighting in Sinai.
Without knowledge of the terrain and community support, the army is like a foreign occupier. Without the help of Sinai residents, the soldiers are left out to dry at their stations with uniforms on that paint them as targets.
Under such conditions, soldiers no longer represent the nation nor defend it, they represent themselves and the most they can hope for is to be able to defend themselves. They lack proper knowledge, information and training to counter a local enemy.
It is no wonder then that the other is dehumanized, and killings that happen on a daily basis become normalized. North Sinai has become a land where no laws apply, and the uniforms represent different teams fighting on the ground. Soldiers will kill for survival and revenge, knowing full well they are at risk and lacking the basics to keep them safe. Their leaders will not ensure their safety nor will they hold them to account if they operate outside the law, or even human decency.
international support for more brutality through diplomatic arms supplies continues
Indeed, even for the police dealing with protesters, Sisi has assured that the context in which a police officer can be tried for killing a protester out of excessive force no longer exists. It is clear that this policy applies even more so to army personnel targeting North Sinai residents.
Furthermore, state actors are now shielded from any form of questioning or accountability through the anti-terrorism law which not only protects security agencies but allows them to pursue the opposition under the most convenient guise known as the ‘war on terror’.
This context is one where no one in Egypt, or perhaps the world, is willing to hold an Egyptian officer or soldier accountable for any violation. On the contrary, international support for more brutality through diplomatic arms supplies continues.
The price we pay
There is a price we all pay as a nation for the failings of security policies. Soldiers with a dead conscience, radicals with a dead conscience and an audience cheering either side and justifying the violence. Both soldiers and citizens are dying, but what’s worse in the long run is that the conscience of an entire nation is dying.
the conscience of an entire nation is dying
Numerous secular activists and innocent people languish in jail. One secular activist Aya Hijazi spent three years behind bars for having attempted to help street children before finally being acquitted.
Yet Aya is considered lucky, a dual national whose case was highlighted internationally and was acquitted only after pressure from US President Donald Trump.
Countless others like Aya are in jail, without a president, without pressure, without a crime.
Others who have helped create peaceful space for opposition like Alaa Abdel Fattah are also in jail. There are over sixty thousand political prisoners in Egypt.
As terror attacks increase, some turn their focus to sectarian extremists who spout insults and incite the killing of those they don’t agree with. Some analysts may point to the nature of such extremist groups and undermine the role of the state.
While the country’s direct sectarian violence pales in comparison to what these terror attacks highlight, the state’s covert and open practices offer extremists the largest support and conditions to operate.
There are over sixty thousand political prisoners in Egypt
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein expressed that “…a state of emergency, the massive numbers of detentions, reports of torture, and continued arbitrary arrests – all of this we believe facilitates radicalisation in prisons.”
It is not just prisons that offer extremists a larger pool to recruit from, it was the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces rather than Mohamed Morsi, who set many Jihadis free, allowing a larger number of them to return to Egypt following the 2011 revolution.
It is also the state that released the perpetrators who had stripped an old Coptic woman of her clothes and paraded her around a village, and it was the state that released the torturer and murderer of Magdy Makeen who yelled out to the police officer “I’m going to die,” to which the officer who killed him responded, “Die Magdy,” and he did.
It is conveniently forgotten that the space for peaceful opposition helps counter extremism. This space for peaceful activism has been shrunk so that now any kind of dissent is criminalized, deemed illegal or even if not, punishable by the regime.
In their efforts to gain security, many Egyptians have revolted against accountability and human rights, yet they have not attained that security they strive for.
The Egypt we see today is radicalized in every way, from soldiers to extremists to onlookers. Targeting the innocent does not just hurt those targeted, but society as a whole. Even those who abhor extremism and seek to fight terror have ended up supporting it by cheering on those failed methods of counter terrorism.
The Egyptian regime has incarcerated citizens for political purposes, torture is rampant in jails, its judiciary is coopted and criminality is rampant in its institutions.
Yet no one in the world wants to call out Egypt because of its purported ‘war on terror’ that many desire. The irony is that supporting Egypt’s particular brand of fighting terrorism is equivalent to supporting a climate of expedited radicalization.