Relief in Egypt’s north Sinai over lifted restrictions short lived after chaotic start

Residents in the beleaguered area have been unable to move for seven months due to an anti-militant campaign.

Severe restrictions on residents in the north of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula were lifted over the weekend, though normalcy has failed to return thanks to a dirge of fuel, a days-long blackout and a number of security measures that are still in place.

North Sinai has been in lockdown for seven months as the Egyptian military has waged a campaign dubbed Comprehensive Operation Sinai 2018 against a local branch of the Islamic State (IS) group and other militants.

As a result residents have been subjected to restrictions on travel and severe shortages of food, medicine and fuel, measures that the authorities said on Friday would be lifted over the weekend.

In a statement published on the official North Sinai Governorate’s Facebook page, the region’s newly appointed governor, Major-General Mohamed Shousha, promised travel to and from Egypt’s mainland would be unobstructed and car owners would be handed a weekly stipend of 15 litres of fuel.

The international highway connecting north Sinai to Egypt’s mainland has been blocked for travellers since February, unless they obtained permission from the authorities through a prolonged process.

The military also limited access to fuel in the area, in an attempt to stop the ease of militants’ movements and avoid petrol stations being targeted by attacks.

However family members of north Sinai residents, who have been cut off from the outside world thanks to a blackout that lasted from Saturday until mid-Monday, told Middle East Eye that only one petrol station will be reopened, in the provincial capital al-Arish.

Shousha, who was the region’s governor before the 2011 uprising and was reappointed on 30 August, said schools that had been closed by the military campaign in north Sinai will reopen their doors for students on 22 September. Universities will also open on 13 October, he said.

False hope

The news of eased restrictions came as a breath of fresh air for nearly half a million citizens stranded in north Sinai.

Although it is not the government’s first against the militants, who have killed thousands since mid-2013, the operation was announced with much fanfare as it came weeks before a presidential election, and began three months after an attack in which at least 310 people were killed as militants targeted north Sinai’s al-Rawda Mosque in November 2017.

Translation: Movement in the taxi rank is regular in the city of al-Arish after the cancellation of restrictions on movement from Sinai, and the same for restrictions on the supply of vehicle fuel starting today in a remarkable breakthrough in the situation in Sinai.

However, as the government regularly celebrated progress in its “war in terror” through announcing the killing of militants, the demolishing of hideouts and the seizing of weapons, nothing was officially reported of the plight of civilians caught in the crossfire.

In April, Human Rights Watch warned of a looming humanitarian crisis in the region due to constraints on movement of people and goods causing severe shortages in foods and medicine supplies, accusations that were denied by a military spokesperson. Meanwhile, Amnesty International confirmed reports that the army has used internationally banned cluster bombs on its war against insurgents.

Journalists have been barred from accessing the region for years, and official reports on the counter-terror operation have been the main source of information on the situation in north Sinai.

The governorate’s official Facebook page announced a four-hour blackout on Saturday “for major maintenance”, but the powercut extended to Monday evening.

“My family has been looking forward to the ease of movement. They were planning on visiting us in Sharkiya, where we’re living. But with the blackout we’re unable to contact them and now we’re all the more concerned,” said Mohamed, who has moved to the Nile Delta city last year as the situation in north Sinai worsened and wished to be identified only by his first name for security reasons.

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