Families are 'terrified' by Egypt's violent crackdown in the Sinai

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Carol Hills: Egypt's not happy about the US decision this week to freeze aid to the military-run government especially now that it's facing an Islamist insurgency in the Sinai. That's the region that borders Gaza and Israel. The Egyptian Army has launched a campaign there to root out what it calls "terrorists" but civilians have also become targets. Nadine Marroushi: What I found was pretty shocking. I found a lot of civilian homes coming under attack. I found that a woman had been killed, a child had been injured. Hills: That's reporter Nadine Marroushi. She recently visited Northern Sinai and wrote about it for Slate Magazine. I asked her to describe the Sinai and why it's such a critical area. Marroushi: It's largely made up of vast swaths of desert land. It's very agricultural. There are olive farms everywhere, citrus farms. When you talk to people there, when you ask them what their source of livelihood is they'll say "farming." I went to Bedouin's farms where they grow olives and clementines, etcetera, but also made up of hills’¦ Hills: Is it generally a poor area; a poor part of Egypt? Marroushi: Yes. Very underdeveloped. It's one of the least developed areas in Egypt, especially compared to South Sinai. South Sinai is a beach and tourist haven for many people. A lot of people will be familiar with Sharm el-Sheikh. Dahab, where they go to these lavish hotels, diving, it's really built up. Whereas North Sinai is very poor. In fact, large parts of Arish looked like refugee camps that I had visited in Palestine. Hills: And significantly, Sinai borders Gaza Strip and Israel, doesn't it? Marroushi: Yes, exactly. And that plays a huge part in the geo-politics, in the politics of the area, in what's going on there. To understand what's going on in Sinai you really need to understand the fact that Gaza is under siege, the fact that about ten percent of the population of North Sinai are originally Palestinian and the fact that Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula for 15 years until the signing of the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel in 1979. Hills: What spurred this recent military incursion into Sinai to rid if of militant elements? What was going on there? Marroushi: The army and police have been coming under increased attack since General Abdel Fatah al-Sissi ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in July. At least 100 police and army officers have been killed since July 3rd according to the military. A large part of these attacks have come from Sinai-based militant groups. Hills: What changed after the revolution in Northern Sinai? Marroushi: What changed is that, whilst there was heavy police presence in North Sinai under Mubarak - and again that was a large part, a large source of, the tensions, heavy-handed security crackdowns, tortures, arrests under Mubarak. After the revolution, as the police force was defeated across a large part of the country, then people had freedom to roam about, to move about within North Sinai. A lot of Bedouins say how they couldn't even move between one town to the next under Mubarak. Whereas now, or at least before this Sinai campaign, you can move about much more freely. Hills: What's the attitude towards the Egyptian government at this point in North Sinai? Marroushi: From the people that I spoke to which, I spent 3 nights and 4 days in two villages, [Speaks{Arabic}] and in Arish. These are villages and towns that are very close to the borders of Gaza and Israel, and I interviewed about 30 people. So, across the spectrum from people who supported the army to people who were sympathetic to the Brotherhood, Muslim Brotherhood, I didn't hear anyone say a good thing about the way the army was conducting this operation. Everyone was complaining about the level of unprofessionalism and violations. People are afraid. People on the ground are really afraid because they're caught between two sides. The army, that have air forces, that can send bombs, that are bombing houses, and that have ground troops to burn and bomb houses. And then you've got militant groups who are threatening, who have sent out threats through their statements saying if anyone sides with the army we will kill them. People are kind of caught in between and they don't want to help the army in fear of the militants and they don't want to help the militants in fear of the army. So many people were crying out for help saying "who do we turn to? We have no one to turn to. The state is against us." And that was the feeling on the Ground. Hills: Nadine Marroushi is a freelance journalist. She's just back from Sinai. Nadine, thank you for your time. Marroushi: Thank you.