Last Wednesday, a pickup truck loaded with masked men raced past a major security checkpoint on the coastal highway near this northern Sinai town and opened fire. Soldiers and police officers fired back, and gunfire echoed for about 10 minutes before the shooting came to an end.
According to official Security Department figures, the attack was the 20th on checkpoint at El Risa since President Hosni Mubarak fell from office, an event that also left the northern Sinai with no effective law enforcement presence.
No one was injured in the shooting spree, but the incident, just a week before Egypt’s first-ever contested presidential election, was a reminder of the difficulty officials face in securing the 75 polling stations in northern Sinai, especially against the dedicated violent Islamists who’ve gone largely unchecked since Mubarak’s ouster ended the military’s harsh tactics against them.
“I am against presidential elections and was also against parliamentary elections,” said Sheikh Azzam Sinjer, a conservative Islamist willing to take up arms against whatever he considers to be non-Islamist influences. “Those people want to apply their own laws instead of upholding the laws of Allah. This is blasphemy.”
Two weeks ago, Sheikh Azzam, as local residents call him, and his fellow jihadists took up rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns to put an end to, before it had begun, a rally for Hamdeen Sabbahi, a presidential candidate who adheres to the Arab nationalist philosophy of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the founder of modern Egypt who died in office in 1970.
“He is a socialist and a Nasserite, we don’t want him promoting his blasphemous ideology here,” Azzam said.
After Azzam threatened to bomb the event, Sabbahi agreed to move his rally from this jihadist stronghold to the coastal city of El Arish, six miles away, where armored personnel carriers belonging to the military and the police are stationed on seemingly every corner.
Azzam, who was detained on a regular basis by Mubarak’s State Security Department, said he merely represents the aspirations of local residents. “We are ordinary people who want the full application of Islamic law in every walk of life,” he said in an interview with McClatchy conducted at his home. “Our community will never accept a president that strikes deals with the Israeli enemy. They will only be satisfied by a god fearing Islamist president.”
Driving through North Sinai is a war time experience. The Risa checkpoint, for example, is guarded by two military light tanks mounted with machine guns. They stand behind a wall of sand bags and concrete blocks. The soldiers and security personnel stationed there keep their weapons locked and loaded around the clock in anticipation that they’ll be attacked.
The checkpoint was moved to its current location in a residential neighborhood after assailants lobbed mortars at it five times when it was in its former desert location; the first attack claimed the lives of three soldiers and left two police officers seriously injured.
Security forces have all but abandoned positions off the main coastal highway. In the months since Mubarak fell, military patrols headed down side roads to tribal communities are the frequent target of mortar attacks, and Sinai security forces largely make no effort to check what’s taking place along them.
Driving directly to the North Sinai Security Department in El Arish is now impossible. Since someone blew a hole in the building’s façade with a rocket-propelled grenade, every road leading to the building has been barricaded by cement blocks and armored personnel carriers. Visitors must walk at least 200 yards to reach the main gate, where they undergo a thorough ID check and questioning before walking through several metal detectors.
Despite the obvious tight precautions, Gen. Saleh el Masry, the head of the department, denied that Sinai faces any greater security threat than other parts of Egypt. His greatest concern for Wednesday and Thursday’s voting is not violence, but the likelihood of vast crowds. Some polling stations, he said, serve as many as 10,000 registered voters.
Still, he lists some special characteristics that make Sinai prone to violent outbursts: “the smuggling tunnels between Rafah and the Gaza Strip, the sensitive border with Israel, the mountainous terrain which complicates security operations and the connection between some Sinai elements and Palestinian resistance movements.”
He’s prepared for Azzam and his followers, if they decide to disrupt the elections. “Being a jihadist is their ideology, this falls under the freedom of belief that the January 25 revolution demanded and accomplished, but violence will be met with powerful measures,” Masry said.
For his part, Azzam said no disruption is planned. He is not, however, the only Sinai resident hostile to outside influences.
Ayyad el Menaei, a 40-year-old Rafah farmer sentenced in absentia to 125 years in jail over a long list of charges including smuggling arms and attacking security forces, agreed to meet in the village of El Twayyel, a tribal farmland accessible only via a desert road that leads to the border with Gaza _ a favorite smuggling route because there is no government presence.
“We don’t care about the law, the constitution, elections, or the president,” Menaei said as he supervised workers in his olive groves. “We have a tribal system and unless that system is respected, the government will never be able to control this peninsula.”
He blamed Mubarak’s apparatus for Sinai’s security problems and proclaimed that peace would come only when three conditions are met: Dropping the in absentia convictions handed to hundreds of tribesmen like himself, releasing local residents jailed under Mubarak, and “providing jobs to the locals.”
He made it clear he knows every former and current government security officer in Sinai by name and rank and wasn’t shy about threatening them, tough talk made more credible by the machine guns mounted on his four-wheel-drive vehicle.
“If they imitate the former regime, they will see the real guns,” he said. “Only then will they know what we are capable of.”
Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.