Egypt’s generals ‘fighting al-Qaida in the Sinai Desert’

Military vehicles guard a police station in North Sinai


Originally published in the Independent, 22 August 2011

Perched high on a sandbank overlooking the slums of Gaza, a man who calls himself Abu Nafaq points to a block of canary-yellow flats just beyond the Egyptian border fence.

“That is where the Israelis bombed a few days ago,” he says, referring to the Israeli bombing raid in response to last week’s ambush by terrorists in southern Israel. According to the Israelis, the gunmen who murdered eight people near the Red Sea resort town of Eilat came from Gaza – possibly sneaking out through the warren of smugglers’ tunnels leading into the nearby Egyptian shantytown of Rafah.

If anyone should know whether that is true, it is Abu Nafaq, whose nickname means “Father of the Tunnel” in Arabic, and whose livelihood depends on the network of subterranean routes used to ferry goods into the blockaded Gaza Strip. “During the January 25 revolution there were hundreds of Gazans coming through here,” he said. “Now it’s down to around 60 or 70 a day. Of course the Eilat attackers could have come through the tunnels. But they would need the support of the Bedouin people living here, because everywhere they will find checkpoints and roads they are not familiar with.”

Last week’s attack came only a few days after Egypt’s ruling military council – which took power after the president, Hosni Mubarak, was toppled in February – dispatched hundreds of tanks to the North Sinai region following outbreaks of violence in its provincial capital, Al-Arish, about an hour’s drive west from Rafah. Egypt’s generals said the operation was intended to drive out “al-Qa’ida-inspired militants” in the region. After the Eilat attack there was an added piquancy to the deployment.

Israel has been wary of its neighbour since the fall of its ally Mubarak, and suggested the military council had lost control of the Sinai. Tensions were further heightened when five Egyptian soldiers were killed during the Israeli response to the attack, sparking angry protests yesterday outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo.

But a recent visit to North Sinai by The Independent suggested the picture is far murkier than the official narrative provided by both Egypt’s generals and leaders in Tel Aviv.

No doubt, as the Israelis have claimed, there has been some movement of Palestinian militants across the border. But some say the al-Qa’ida threat is exaggerated. One military official based in North Sinai told The Independent it was not true that the Egyptian army was hunting for Islamist extremists inspired by Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network. “There is hardline Muslim sympathy here, but no al-Qa’ida,” he said.

Yet something is up. On 29 July, the same day thousands of conservative Muslims rallied in central Cairo and called for a greater Islamic role in post-Mubarak Egypt, gunmen laid siege to Al-Arish’s police station in a battle which lasted for nine hours. Some of the attackers launched rocket-propelled grenades at the 12ft-walled compound, yet when the fighting had finished, all the assailants escaped unharmed.

It was against this background – along with several unsolved bomb attacks on a gas pipeline to Israel – that the military sent its armour in. Locals who witnessed the fighting told The Independent they believed the attackers had local support. One man, a doctor who identified himself only as Hossam, said: “The people who attacked the police station were locals from Al-Arish. They used weapons from some of the big families here.”

The idea that locals nursing anti-government grievances were responsible for the operation has some credence. For years the vast expanses of the Sinai desert have been beyond the control of central authority in Egypt. Lawless Bedouin tribes hold sway in the central regions, while in the urban north there was never much respect for Mubarak or his policemen.

Yet, Hossam added, some of the attackers were fundamentalist Salafi Muslims, the hardline Islamists who eschewed politics under Mubarak but have become increasingly vocal since his toppling.

It is a view supported by Yahya Abu Nasira, a Bedouin tribal chief from Rafah, who claimed the threat from Salafi fundamentalists was growing. “The Salafi people want to separate from Egypt and to start an Islamic state from here,” he said. “After that they want to go from city to city. That’s why there was the action in Al-Arish.”

Others on the streets of Al-Arish pointed the finger of blame at Takfir wal-Hijra, a shadowy, amorphous offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, blamed for terrorist attacks around the world since the mid-1990s.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a Salafi sheikh in Al-Arish denied his followers were responsible for any violence. Mostafa Azzem said it was “the thugs and criminals in the Sinai who attacked the police station, not Salafis”.

Others are not convinced either. Lina Atallah, managing editor of Egypt’s Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper, who has spent years covering the region around Al-Arish, said she was “in doubt” about the threat of an “Islamic emirate in the Sinai”. “Talk like that is taking it to the extreme,” she said. “I’m also extremely in doubt about the al-Qa’ida threat.”

Al-Arish itself has come under increasing Islamic influence since Mubarak’s fall. It remains a tourist city, but the niqab-wearing women who pack the streets at night during Ramadan lend it a distinctly provincial feel. And while government talk of “al-Qa’ida in the Sinai” seems far fetched, the military council has obviously been rattled by developments here.

Perhaps it genuinely fears the influence of hardline Islamism. Perhaps, as some have suggested, it simply wants to regain control of North Sinai after six months where police authority evaporated and the Bedouin stepped in to fill the vacuum. Either way, with Israelis rattling their sabres across the border over last week’s attack and Egyptians voicing their outrage at Tel Aviv’s response, the Sinai Desert – so often the theatre of the Middle East’s most pivotal conflicts – is on the frontline once again.

Thanks for nothing Vodafone: Egyptians vent anger on Twitter

Egyptians protest outside a Vodafone store during the revolution


Originally published in the Independent, 6 August 2002

When Vodafone executives unveiled their latest Egyptian ad campaign, it should have been a cause for celebration.

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan is a goldmine for advertisers, with families glued to endless TV soap operas as they fast throughout the day.

But not for the first time since Egypt’s 25 January uprising, the global telecoms giant seems to have put its foot in it. The campaign has faced a vicious backlash, with many Egyptians taking to the internet in a bid to vent their fury.

The so-called “Thank you” campaign, which was launched across television and the internet in time for the August month of Ramadan, included a gimmick whereby Egyptians were encouraged to send thank you messages to friends and relatives on Twitter, using the hashtag #vodafoneshokran – “thank you Vodafone”.

It must have seemed like a great idea on the drawing board. But with many people still angry about Vodafone’s conduct during the revolution – when along with other mobile phone companies, it agreed to shut down networks on the orders of the president – some Egyptians have hijacked the campaign, tweeting sneering messages poking fun at the company under the pretext of thanking it.

One message, from a user called @stweeted, said: “Thanks for cutting off communications during the revolution, I was dead worried about my family and friends.” Another, from @laScheherazade, said: “Thanks for claiming you inspired the revolution when in fact you caused the death of martyrs by cutting off communication.”

The backlash is doubly embarrassing for Vodafone as it follows a similar wave of outrage in June, when Egyptians took umbrageat at an advert created by the company’s marketing agency, JWT, which appeared to take credit for the revolution. Egyptian blogger Ramy Raoof said people were still angry with Vodafone because of the way it was perceived to have exploited the revolution. “We all know that if they wanted to support the people they wouldn’t have shut off the phones,” he said, adding that the company’s actions had endangered protesters’ lives.

Clive Woodger, a British marketing expert who has worked in the Middle East, said Vodafone had been “naive”. He said: “You like to think these companies are global, cool and incredibly sophisticated, but sometimes they’re not as clever as they think.”

A spokeswoman for Vodafone Egypt said the backlash against the company was “not an issue of our popularity”. She emphasised that during the uprising it “had no option but to comply” with the Egyptian government.

Mubarak trial: the view from Egypt’s streets

Egyptians are divided on how Mubarak should be treated


Originally published in the Independent, August 4 2011

If history is written by the winners, then Zaki Sultan won’t be sharpening his pencil any time soon. In February, when the Egyptian uprising was in full swing, he was one of the pro-Mubarak supporters who charged his camel into Tahrir Square to try to turf out pro-democracy activists. He failed.

Yesterday, Zaki remained staunch in his support for his former leader. It was sad, he said, that the former leader was on trial.

“He was an important man, a military man,” he said. “He did some good things for Egypt.”

Many others who watched yesterday’s unprecedented court appearance disagreed. Standing outside the police academy in eastern Cairo where the trial was being held, Ali Abu Sria said he was pleased to see the former president in the dock.

Carrying a hangman’s noose – a stark illustration of his own thoughts on the case – the 49-year-old labourer said: “We’ve never seen a dictator in court like this before.”

It was a historical allusion appreciated by other Egyptians who recognised just how startling was the sight of a caged Hosni Mubarak being tried in a civilian court after a home-grown uprising.

Mohammad al-Azazi, 22, a pharmacist who watched the trial on a big screen outside the venue, said: “It’s a historical day. If somebody had hit you every day for 30 years, how would you feel? People are angry because they have had 30 years of poverty and torture.”

Yet there was still a degree of sympathy for a former war hero and long-term leader who yesterday was reduced to denying criminal charges from a hospital bed.

Walid Khalid owns a stationery shop not far from Tahrir Square, which yesterday was guarded by a ring of riot police and some armoured personnel carriers. As he used the photocopier in his cupboard-sized shop, he said that a measure of lenience was required for the aging ex-autocrat.

“In my life I never thought I would see him in court,” said the 30-year-old. “But I don’t want him executed. We should take money from him, because he took money from us.”

A taxi driver, who did not give his name, agreed. “Execution would be hard on him,” he said.

But not everybody was gripped by the courtroom drama. In his shop opposite a government ministry, a shopkeeper called Mahmoud had the trial showing on a fuzzy little television on top of the soft drinks fridge. What did he think of the landmark trial? “I’ve been sleeping,” he replied with a broad grin.

Fall of the pharaoh: Mubarak stands trial

Hosni Mubarak lies caged in the courtroom


Originally published at, August 3, 2011

It was only when the chopper appeared out of the bright, blue sky that many Egyptians finally believed that their fallen pharaoh would face the music.

Some had been waiting in the morning sunshine for at least two hours, standing outside the vast police-academy complex on the eastern edge of Cairo where former president Hosni Mubarak is being tried in a makeshift courtroom.

At around 8:55 a.m., as the helicopter buzzed in over the ranks of news teams and satellite dishes, there were cheers from some of the crowd as it dipped toward the ground and landed beyond the 15-foot wall surrounding the academy.

“The criminal is here! The criminal is here!” shouted a group of protesters waving Egyptian flags and homemade banners. Not far away a couple of soldiers cradled their Kalashnikovs as they eyed the action from an armored personnel carrier.

Until this morning many Egyptians had suspected that the man who had ruled them since 1981 might somehow evade his date with destiny.

“I thought it wasn’t going to happen,” Mohammad Quessny, 23, told The Daily Beast while standing in front of the giant TV screen erected outside the academy. “Now he is here. I can’t believe it.”

Neither could some of the pro-Mubarak supporters who had arrived to voice their support. Before the former president entered the courtroom, there were a number of running battles with the anti-Mubarak crowds. Squads of baton-wielding riot police charged in and separated the sides under a shower of rocks and abuse.

It was not long before Mubarak, a frail 83-year-old who was Air Force chief during Egypt’s 1973 war with Israel, appeared in front of the cameras. Accompanied by his two sons, Gamal and Alaa, who were both dressed in white prison uniforms, the former president cut a pathetic figure as he was wheeled in on a hospital bed.

Together, along with the widely reviled former interior minister, Habib al-Adly, and six former police officials, they stood inside a hastily erected defendant’s cage and peered out like trapped rabbits.

Occasionally Mubarak, who stands accused of complicity in killing protesters, would turn his head toward the judge, apparently trying to follow proceedings. His two sons, both carrying Korans, could be seen talking to their father.

He spoke only to confirm his name and answer the charges against him. “Yes, I am here,” he said into a microphone. “I deny all these accusations completely.”

Out in the courtroom, which rumormongers had suggested was so tightly vetted that even famed British reporter Robert Fisk was having trouble getting in, the auditorium was divided. Relatives of the defendants sat near the cage, made of iron bars and wire mesh.

A fence running down the middle of the courtroom separated them from an audience of around 300, some of them relatives of dead protesters.

There had been reports that Mubarak, who had been staying under guard in a Sharm el-Sheikh hospital prior to today’s hearing, might be deemed unfit for trial. Many people even voiced concerns that the sight of an aging ex-autocrat being prosecuted might sway the sympathies of Egypt’s less zealous revolutionaries.

Outside the courtroom, one Egyptian who works for a U.S. publication was startled by her former leader’s appearance. “I’ve no sympathy for him, but to see an ex-president on a bed like that is…” Her voice trailed off.

Likewise, 22-year-old Ali Eid Ali expressed a modicum of empathy for his deposed president. “In the past Hosni Mubarak was a very important man. I hope that Habib al-Adly is executed, but Mubarak should not be killed.”

Nonetheless, it didn’t stop Eid Ali from milking the commercial opportunities on offer. He had brought a selection of large Egyptian flags with him and was hawking them at $1 a pop. “I’ve been here since 7 a.m. and sold around 10,” he said.

Many others remained unmoved when Mubarak took his place in the dock—perhaps one of the most extraordinary sights in modern legal history.

Dr. Ali Abdul Aziz, 32, was outside the courtroom in support of his friend Gharb Abdul Ali, a businessman and father of two who was shot dead during the protests on January 28 in Cairo.

Dressed in a brown, pinstriped suite and using a large picture of his friend to shield his head from the midday sun, he said, “I think Hosni Mubarak killed my friend. So I’m very happy to see him and his sons in the cage.”

After a few hours of proceedings, the judge ordered that the trial of Mubarak and his sons be adjourned until August 15.

The case against al-Adly, also accused of complicity in killing demonstrators, will continue tomorrow.

As Egyptians wait to see what happens next, the world really has never known anything quite like it.

From dictator to the dock: Mubarak to face the music

An Egyptian demonstrator shows where he thinks his former president should be


Originally published at, August 2 2011

Just over six months ago in December, a young Tunisian vegetable-seller called Mohamed Bouazizi returned to his family home, doused his body with petrol, and then set himself alight. He died a little over two weeks later.

Tomorrow, the former president of Egypt is due to stand trial on charges of corruption and ordering the killing of his own citizens. If found guilty, he too could end up dead—swinging at the end of a hangman’s noose.

For Hosni Mubarak, the former war hero and decades-old ruler of the Arab world’s most influential country, Wednesday’s court appearance will be an unprecedented fall from grace in a region not known for bringing many of its manifold autocrats to heel.

For Mohamed Bouazizi, the humbling of Egypt’s aging general is one of the most extraordinary developments in his already-seismic legacy: the so-called Arab Spring.

According to Nathan Brown, an expert on Arab affairs from George Washington University, Wednesday’s expected court appearance will be a “litmus test” for whether members of Egypt’s ruling military council—who took power after Mubarak fell on February 11—are “sincere in their revolutionary commitments.”

“There is no mistaking the tremendous political interest in the case,” he added. “Incoming regimes claiming revolutionary and popular legitimacy have tried former rulers in the Arab world before.”

But, he noted, “What is unusual about this case is that the trial is being handled not by some quasi-judicial revolutionary tribunal but by the normal judicial system.”

On Sunday, Egypt’s ruling military council announced that the trial would be held in a police academy on the outskirts of Cairo.

A cage for the defendants—who are also expected to include Mubarak’s two sons, Gamal and Alaa, former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly, as well as six police officials—has already been prepared, while TV screens are due to be erected outside to broadcast proceedings to members of the public.

Despite the setting, Egypt’s former president will nonetheless be tried like any other backstreet Cairo criminal. The only difference will be the tens of thousands of court documents and hundreds of witnesses, a solemn reminder of the estimated 840 deaths which resulted from Egypt’s uprising.

Yet some are wondering whether Mubarak, who has been staying under guard at a hospital near his home in Sharm el-Sheikh, will even be fit for trial. According to retired army officer General Sameh Seif al-Yazal, who is in daily contact with the ruling military council, the deposed leader is in “bad shape mentally.”

He added: “He is in a very deep depression. He doesn’t want to eat and he doesn’t want to survive.”

Emad Gad, an expert from the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said he believes the military would still “find an excuse” not to dispatch their former colleague to face a court. “They respect Hosni Mubarak,” he said. “If he were to die I think the military would be more comfortable with that.”

Even so, and despite the worries of some protesters that Mubarak could still somehow thwart the wheels of justice, the military council has announced he is fit to be prosecuted and will be transferred to Cairo this week. It’s probably a wise move for the generals. For the past month central Cairo has been packed with demonstrators who are angry about what they see as the sluggish pace of reform and failure to pursue former regime officials suspected of breaking the law.

When a previous trial for the former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly was postponed in June, his police van came under attack from protesters hurling rocks as it ferried him away from the courthouse. The scenes that would greet any delay in prosecuting Mubarak would likely be a great deal uglier.

“The reaction would be very bad,” said Ramy al-Swissy, a co-founder of one of Egypt’s most influential political activist groups, the April 6 Youth Movement. “The demonstrations would be much bigger than over the past month.”

April 6, along with many of Egypt’s other main political organizations, has said they will return to the streets en masse if the Mubarak trial does not go ahead. It has led some to speculate whether the sickly general can be guaranteed a fair trial, given the level of public anger which would result from an acquittal in even the most transparent of proceedings.

For some, the issue of legal probity is not even relevant. “It doesn’t matter if he gets a fair trial,” said Wael Khalil, a socialist activist and Egyptian blogger. “We know what they’ve done to the country.”

Yet there is no doubting the political impact the case is likely to have on Egypt and around the region.

According to Ramy al-Swissy, the image of Mubarak standing in his courtroom cage will mean “justice will be clear” to everyone around the country, satisfying protesters who are still uneasy about the motives of the ruling military council.

But its ripples will be felt further afield too. One Syrian activist told The Daily Beast why he would be following events in Egypt. “People who have been suffering for so many years will have some revenge,” he explained.

If Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad tunes in to watch this week’s trial in Cairo, he is unlikely to be the only Arab autocrat glued to his TV set. The question all of them will be asking is: who’s next?