Egyptian President al-Sisi is employing militia in the Sinai – a sign of how desperate his war against Isis has become

Egyptian police and soldiers are now attacked daily and civilians are disappearing, either for fear of Isis or because they are seized by the army’s ‘collaborators’

Robert Fisk
Thursday 04 May 2017 10:47 BST
Al-Sisi still promotes himself as the Great Moderate who protected Egypt from Islamic extremism
Al-Sisi still promotes himself as the Great Moderate who protected Egypt from Islamic extremism (Reuters)

Counter-insurgency wars – struggles against “terrorism” – always breed corruption and counter-murder. And now the Egyptian army is following the same contaminated path as many of its neighbours by using a killer-militia in its war against Isis in Sinai. Most armies have proxy allies who can act as informants and treat civilians with brutality. The Syrians, the Iraqis, the Turks – and the Israelis when they co-opted their own Lebanese militias between 1976 and 2000, and the Americans in Iraq – all ended up shamed by the cruelty of their supposed allies.

But now Egypt – whose own President staged the original military coup which overthrew the country’s first elected president, Mohamed Morsi – is employing uniformed militias in the Sinai, where Isis has taken over many areas of the peninsula. It is a sign of just how desperate the military situation has become in the battle with Isis that the Egyptian Army, whose former field marshal and commander, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, is now the president, should be resorting to such measures. Egyptian police and soldiers are now attacked daily and civilians are disappearing, either for fear of Isis or because they are seized by the army’s “collaborators” (for so they are of course called) who are also executing ‘suspects’.

A round-up of the attacks in Egypt after 'state of emergency' is to be declared

A number of videos now circulating in Cairo clearly show two civilian men being executed with a rifle after a brief interrogation; other pictures show the corpses of eight civilians, including the two in the earlier frames, being positioned on the ground with weapons beside them in an apparent attempt to make it appear that they are ‘terrorists’. A uniformed man from the Egyptian army’s intelligence service directs the executions. The videos have for some time been appearing on Egyptian social media. When copies reached Human Rights Watch, the organisation condemned the murders as “outrageous”, suggested that the Egyptian government’s campaign in Sinai is “out of control” – and pointed out that US-supplied armoured vehicles carried the detainees to their place of execution.

But HRW’s demand that countries providing weapons, material or training to the Egyptian military should suspend their assistance until the Egyptian army ends its violation of human rights is pie-in-the sky.

Neither the shoot-from-the-hip US administration nor its unhinged President is going to care a whit about such innocent deaths when Donald Trump has recently agreed to sell F-16 fighter bombers to Bahrain without the slightest demand for human rights from its minority government and monarchy. Did the Russians make any such demands on the Syrians when they came to their rescue? US forces were on active duty with Iraqi troops when Shia militias were ‘disappearing’ hundreds of Sunni civilians fleeing Fallujah – and now Mosul. And we didn’t hear a peep out of the American military. And which EU nations (including, for now, I suppose, the UK) are going to damage their lucrative arms trade with the Arab world because of a few grainy videos and militia executions? Even Time magazine, which has cossetted so many US presidents, was able to report last month that “Trump wants a reliable, like-minded ally in the Middle East and al-Sisi fits the bill.” He is expecting the same treatment as Bahrain. Right now, al-Sisi is still trying to persuade Trump to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation, in the same way that Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants the US to designate the ‘Gulenists’ as ‘terrorists’, along with one of the Kurdish groups which (unwisely) believes it is America’s ally in the fight against – yes, well, Isis ‘terror’.

Any discussion of Sinai must take into account Isis’s own executions of policemen, soldiers and civilians in the peninsula. ‘Infidels’ have been beheaded, Christians murdered, cigarette sellers beaten, women forced to wear the niqab in some districts: in other words, the usual Isis regime of cult cruelty. And now that, within five months, we have seen attacks on Christian churches in Cairo, Alexandria and Tanta, we can expect further Isis operations in central Egypt. And more soldiers deployed west of the Suez canal. And more killer-militias.

Typically, the Egyptian press have turned to a tactic which the Algerian government used to adopt when it claimed to be winning its 1992-1998 war on ‘terror’: to explain that continued or even increased bomb explosions, killing and executions were quite normal because they went on elsewhere in the world. Now the Cairo papers are insisting that the Egyptian army cannot be accused of failing to conquer ‘terror’ when Stockholm, London and Paris are also subjected to “terror”. The war in Sinai is rightly compared by the Al-Araby Al-Jadid website in London (funded by Qatar) to Turkey’s war on the Kurdish PKK. “These (Egyptian press) nonsenses, says its writer Maan al-Bayari, cannot change the fact that from day to day it becomes clearer that this (al-Sisi) regime, since it came to power with a coup d’etat, goes from failure to failure, both from a security and an economic point of view.”

Indeed, Cairenes who had fallen understandably silent under the new police state rules which al-Sisi has imposed are now speaking ever more angrily about the military “saviour” who was going to rid Egypt of poverty as well as “terror”. That, of course, is one reason why the Christians protected by the regime feel ever more isolated among a Muslim population which is once more talking ominously of revolution – and perhaps not quite the ‘pure’ revolution that accompanied the downfall of Moubarak.

‘Pure’ is the interesting adjective that Egyptians often use now about the rebellion of the youth of Egypt against decades of dictatorship in 2011. Al-Sisi still promotes himself as the Great Moderate who protected Egypt from Islamic extremism – hence his joy at the Pope’s visit – although there are said to be strains between him and Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar who hosted the Pope in Cairo last weekend. Al-Sisi, they say, suspects that Al-Tayeb is not doing all he could in private to combat “terror”.

Which seems a little unfair. Al-Tayeb is a very intelligent man, a graduate of the Sorbonne where he studied the philosophy of international relations and the philosophy of religion, his family originally from upper Egypt but with none of the dogma associated with earlier imams. He is no jurist. He issues no clueless interpretations of the Koran. Indeed, he created the ‘Beit el-a’ila el-musriya’ – The House of the Egyptian Family – where Christian religious leaders can feel at home to discuss confessional tensions and quickly end sectarian quarrels.

The problem is that Egypt’s out-of-control war against Isis – and Isis’s new killer cells west of the canal – may soon make such institutions powerless. And when army militias are now at work to execute the state’s supposed enemies… Well, just think Iraq.

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