EL MEHEHDAYIA, Egypt — Like a buzzard hovering overhead in pursuit of its prey, the Egyptian military helicopter arrives over the village by 6 a.m., according to the residents of northern Sinai who’ve been subjected to weeks of government attacks.
As soon as the helicopter is in sight, the men flee the village. They know government ground forces won’t be far behind. Some go to the Israeli border, which they consider one of the safest places in the area, the one place they think the Egyptian forces can’t wantonly attack, lest they be embarrassed before the eyes of the international community. The women and children hide under their beds, some of the few pieces of furniture in the barren village homes. Then the destruction of the village begins.
Each company of ground troops seems to have its own form of attack. In one village, home after home is riddled with tank rounds. In another, the military flattens the homes. In a third, the military simply ransacks the houses it enters.
This has become the norm in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula as the country’s military avenges a string of assassinations and attacks on security forces that Sinai tribesmen launched in the weeks after the overthrow this summer of President Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist who enjoyed great support here.
The military not only attacks suspected insurgents, but it’s also taking out its wrath on everyone related to an alleged insurgent. Here in this Bedouin community that means everyone, as kin is never more than a house away.
The tribesmen promise more attacks and warn that every army response earns more support for radical groups with links to al Qaida.
It’s a war between opaque groups, the Bedouin tribal community here and the Egyptian military. The prize: not just control of the Sinai but also of the narrative over what’s taking place in this long-ostracized, ungoverned part of the country.
Military officials say the attacks are aimed at destroying enemies of the state who’ve killed 125 members of the security forces and wounded nearly 1,000. They deny that the assaults are anything but carefully and precisely targeted.
“What random?” said Maj. Gen. Sameh Bashady, the director of North Sinai Security, clearly offended at the suggestion that the campaign was sweeping indiscriminately through villages. “We only assault very specific targets and that is why it is very difficult, because everything is very close to one another. We only assault specific targets without harming any innocent, and it is based on very accurate information.”
Ahmed Shaaban, a military spokesman, said every home targeted had tunnels, terrorists or weapons.
“If we were using excessive force, we would have finished the operations in 24 hours,” Shaaban told McClatchy.
As the military is the most revered and last remaining nationalist institution in this deeply polarized nation, many are eager to embrace its version of events.
“I think the military showed great restraint for 50 days during their attacks. I am not with destroying any house in the world. But I am also not an intel man who can say what that man did,” said Sheikh Abdel Hadi al Tayek, a tribal leader here who supports the military effort. “I have two choices: Criticize the army and teach my son to hate the army . . . or be on the side of my army.”
Other residents insist there are innocent victims. Both versions are correct – and yet deeply misleading.
The military is keen to present its view: that it’s defending the nation from a terrorist haven. Foreign journalists are largely prohibited from traveling to the area – soldiers at checkpoints check IDs to see whether journalists are among travelers – and local journalists can face criminal charges. That’s what happened to Ahmed Abu-Draa, who was sentenced Saturday to a six-month suspended sentence on charges of publishing false information about the military and entering a military zone. His crime stemmed from news stories that contradicted the military’s version of what took place in his home village. His family homes were among those struck in the offensive.
McClatchy managed to bypass the checkpoints on a recent visit to Sinai. What it found was a tit-for-tat battle that’s destroyed many of the area’s communities.
In the village of al Moquataa, Umm Alaa – she declined to allow her full name to be published – and her family heard the helicopters overhead early Sept. 8.
In their barren concrete home, built by the government five years ago for $4,285, everyone took his own form of cover. Her husband, who asked to be referred to only as Silmy, took their two young children and fled toward the Israeli border. His mother refused to leave, thinking that the troops would never hurt an elderly woman.
As the sound of exploding tank rounds grew closer at around 12:30 p.m., Umm Alaa and her mother-in-law began running toward the back room. Umm Alaa said her mother-in-law had just wrapped an arm around her when a tank round ripped through the left side of her head.
“I knew she was gone when she fell on the ground,” Umm Alaa said.
Umm Alaa ran to the bedroom to hide. “They were all randomly shooting,” she said. Five minutes later, the military entered the house. “I heard one of them say an old woman had been killed.”
After they left, Umm Alaa came out to sleep on the floor next to her dead mother-in-law. Silmy returned at 9 a.m. the next day. A month later, the holes from the onslaught were still there, including the one from the round that entered through one side of the house, struck Silmy’s mother, then exited the other side.
The neighboring houses show similar damage from the assault.
Sheikh Ibrahim el-Manei, the head of the Sinai tribal coalition, lives in neighboring el Mehehdayia. He once met with Morsi and Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi during the Morsi presidency, when there were attempts at reconciliation. These days, he keeps track of civilian deaths in northern Sinai, as residents said hospitals feared recording deaths by the military.
By his count, 52 civilians were killed from June 30, the start of Morsi’s ouster, through Sept. 30, while the military said there had been zero. Of those, 45 were shot and seven died when their houses were destroyed; six were children and three were women, el-Manei said.
As word spread of Silmy’s mother’s death, el-Manei appeared on Al Jazeera, a TV channel that purportedly supported Morsi, at least six times via phone interviews and condemned the killing of the old woman.
Three weeks later, the military had leveled his three homes, he said, “all because I spoke on Al Jazeera.” His relatives’ homes nearby also were leveled.
But the story isn’t as simple as el-Manei described it. He’s a distant relative of Shadi el-Manei, or, as he’s known here, Prince Shadi. Just 25 years old, Prince Shadi is a founding member of Ansar Bayt al Maqdis, one of the most powerful terrorist groups in the northern Sinai. Founded in 2010 originally to target Israel, Ansar Bayt al Maqdis is an al Qaida affiliate that’s claimed a variety of attacks on Israeli targets, including rockets fired in August that forced the airport at Eilat, an Israeli tourist destination, to close.
Israel has responded in kind, winning Egyptian military approval for an August drone strike that narrowly missed its intended target. Prince Shadi slipped away minutes before the drone struck, according to his brother, Haitham el-Manei, 20, whose home was destroyed by the Egyptian military in September.
Since the military toppled Morsi in July, Ansar Bayt al Maqdis has taken aim at the new government. In September, it attempted to assassinate the minister of interior, Mohammed Ibrahim, as his motorcade drove along a Cairo street. It may have had a role in the car bombing Monday of security force headquarters in al Tour, which killed three police officers.
Haitham el-Manei said the group had shifted its focus to attacking the government after police violently broke up a weeks-long Cairo sit-in by Morsi supporters this summer. Hundreds of sympathizers of the Muslim Brotherhood died in that assault.
“Why did they destroy my house? Because I am the brother of Shadi,” Haitham said, adding that 30 family members’ homes have been destroyed so far. “But with every attack, the number increases” – meaning the number of people in Ansar Bayt al Maqdis.
The tribesmen here were especially dismayed by Morsi’s ouster. After decades of openly hostile rule from Cairo, Morsi had won 80 percent of the vote here in the 2012 election. Under Morsi, checkpoints were dismantled and people felt freer. Even when the army rounded up hundreds of Sinai residents in the wake of the August 2012 killing of 16 soldiers, the crackdown wasn’t as harsh as residents had expected. They could still smuggle and operate tunnels, the best form of income in this impoverished area.
Then came the ouster.
“They removed my president. How am I not upset?” Haitham el-Manei said.
Checkpoints returned; smuggling tunnels were destroyed. Tribesmen responded with attacks on security forces.
Then, on Sept. 8, the helicopters and ground troops appeared and the destruction of entire villages began.
Now residents quietly hint that they’re plotting their counterattack. There’s a furtive campaign to acquire weapons from places such as Sudan and Libya, in an area where every house already is heavily armed.
Even those who had no apparent affiliation with groups such as Ansar Bayt al Maqdis now openly support their efforts to reinstate Morsi.
“God willing, Morsi will be back,” Silmy said, looking over what the tank rounds did to his home. “Every time I hear gunshots, I think of my mother.”
Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondents Mohammed Sabry in Sinai and Mel Frykberg in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
Twitter: @nancyayoussef, @aminaismail