In Egypt’s Sinai, civil servants defy ISIS threat

Sinai workers are sometimes caught in the fighting between security forces and ISIS fighters.
Sunday 08/03/2020
A worker uses a digger on the new road to Saint Catherine, in the Sinai Peninsula, south of Cairo. (Reuters)
Harsh conditions. A worker uses a digger on the new road to Saint Catherine, in the Sinai Peninsula, south of Cairo. (Reuters)

CAIRO - In 2017, Islamic State terrorists attacked the main power grid in the North Sinai town of Sheikh Zuweid with rocket-propelled grenades. The attack threw hundreds of homes into darkness, paralysed health facilities and caused businesses to stop working.

Despite an awareness of dangers surrounding his job, Sami Osman (not his real name) hurried to the site and fixed the grid, allowing life to return to normal in the town.

The grid was attacked several times in the following months. Instead of repairing it, Osman, in his mid-50s, and his colleagues from the town’s electricity company used cables that had been unused for years in restoring electrical power.

“We cannot stop thinking of how we can help residents lead a normal life,” Osman said. “The terrorists cannot beat us.”

The old cables continue to work well because Islamic State (ISIS) militants cannot trace them. They cannot find the people standing behind the operation of the electricity sector in Sheikh Zuweid, either.

Those working to give North Sinai residents access to basic services do everything they can to keep life going. They defy violence and death.

ISIS took root in north-eastern Egypt a few years ago. At the height of its activity, the militants, originally a local group that swore allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014, turned some parts of North Sinai into no-go areas.

Sinai residents were sometimes caught in the middle of fighting between the Egyptian Army and police and ISIS terrorists. That includes workers such as Osman.

“The terrorists especially target these workers because they want life to stop in North Sinai,” said security expert Fouad Allam. “If the people providing basic services fail to do their job, there will be public anger that can be used by the terrorists in drawing in new recruits.”

To provide residents with

services, Osman and other like him must be creative. Sometimes they conceal their identity. Other times they brave threats from ISIS and continue work to provide important services.

They leave their homes knowing that they might not return. Osman has lost five colleagues since 2015 because of stray bullets, bomb attacks and those by ISIS.

First responders, medical workers, judges and street cleaners are not immune to similar attacks.

On March 3, militants attacked ambulance workers trying to transport a conscript seriously injured during an attack on a police post in southern Rafah. When the vehicle, on the road to al-Arish, stopped, militants opened its rear door and found the conscript bleeding inside. They shot and killed him.

This was the latest attack on medical teams in North Sinai. Rescue workers are killed only because they offer help to victims of ISIS attacks.

There is no official estimate of the number of civil servants killed in Sinai in recent years. Some of those who died do not feature in media reports about ISIS attacks. Most reports refer to them as “civilians” but they are terrorists.

These people work through firefights and bomb attacks to make life possible for the residents in areas affected by violence.

Security conditions have noticeably improved in North Sinai, with the Egyptian Army intensifying a crackdown on ISIS. ISIS is less capable of staging attacks now, which is why life is returning to normal in most of North Sinai, security analysts said.

“This improvement is manifest in the ability of the army to make it difficult for the terrorists to stage attacks,” said security expert Gamal Eddine Mazloum.

In 2019, ISIS was blamed for 45 attacks on army and police posts in North Sinai, down from 169 in 2018, official figures indicate.

Despite this, people such as Osman are far from secure, being at the front line of the war on terrorism in Sinai. They keep working to make North Sinai a place fit for life.

Osman is known among residents of Sheikh Zuweid as the “Minister of Electricity” because he is always there to repair services after repeated electricity blackouts, sometimes putting his life in danger.

“We are prone to death every day but these terrorists will never succeed in intimidating us or making us afraid,” Osman said.