From unedited cell phone videos of police firing live ammunition at unarmed civilians to polished news network helicopter shots of a divided nation converging at Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Stories and images documenting the wave of violence exploding in Egypt’s cities have become commonplace over the past year. The Arab world’s largest country is currently lost in the chaotic aftermath of a messy revolution and appears to have embarked on a self-destructive path towards Military Authoritarianism.
One journalistic exercise that has proliferated and emerged as a common practice among Western media agencies covering the Arab Spring is the use of sweeping generalizations regarding violence in Egypt before and after the revolution. The accepted a priori thesis is as follows: former President Mubarak’s authoritarian grip on the core facets of Egyptian society was airtight, preserving order and stabilizing a nation divided by deep political, religious and social fault lines. Now that Mubarak has been disposed, scenes of violence are just now beginning to appear in what was an orderly, albeit unfree society.
Presenting the story in terms of “before and after” is key to the media’s simplistic presentation and every major aspect of the revolution and current crisis in Egypt has been examined and explained with this foolproof thesis in mind. Repeated ad nauseam and accepted as a higher truth by outsiders, these blanket statements would undoubtedly be received with disbelief and characterized as pure myth in one corner of Egypt where unspeakable violence has been an everyday reality for close to seven years.
Beyond Cairo´s Grasp
Commonplace violence in the Sinai Peninsula has only seen scarce media coverage over the past six or seven years. At least 7000 East African migrants and victims of human trafficking have been methodically kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured and extorted and an additional 4000 killed, all at the hands of Bedouin clans operating within an international network of organized criminals. It is estimated that between 600 and 1000 kidnapped persons are being held prisoner in the Sinai torture camps at the time of this writing.
7000 East African migrants and victims of human trafficking have been methodically kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured and extorted and an additional 4000 killed.
Standing in stark contrast to the media’s portrayal of Mubarak’s infallible monopoly on power in pre-revolution Egypt, Sinai has been described as ‘lawless’ for decades.
A more nuanced look at this troubled region reveals a geopolitical oddity that acts as a fulcrum supporting the tipping scales of competing international and domestic political powers. Since the 1974 Sinai Disengagement Agreements, the demilitarization of the Peninsula has created a power vacuum that has seen the evaporation of Cairo’s control and the uninhibited growth of gang-like Bedouin clans and competing Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda affiliated militias.
The Sinai Bedouin clans are organized in uncompromisingly authoritarian systems that provide structure and stability in the desert. These precarious social circumstances have given rise to a culture of silence and fierce competition between Bedouin clans, many of which now kidnap and traffic Eritrean and Sudanese refugees, imprisoning them in torture camps near the Israeli border and extorting them as a source of vital income in a place void of anything resembling a functioning economy.
Journalists and photographers have long been regarded as agents of defamation by the competing local powers in Sinai and are not welcome. Repeated attempts to access police prisons, the Israeli border area and clan territory were denied by the military, police and local media during the process of this documentation. It became evident that there is a broad lack of local or national interest in acknowledging, let alone addressing the plight of kidnapped East Africans in Sinai.
They Were Eating Me
Located in Eastern Sudan, the Shagarab refugee camp becomes a temporary home for thousands of Eritrean refugees each year. Fleeing an oppressive dictatorship, military service, poverty and joblessness, Eritrean refugees risk an uncertain and dangerous journey through Sudan in an effort to escape a certainly dire fate at home.
With no secure future attainable in Sudan, most refugees see Shagarab as a transit point. It is here, in camps like Shagarab, that the Bedouins of the Rashaida clan and their competitors kidnap their vulnerable victims, trafficking East African refugees in produce trucks to the desolate wasteland that is Sinai.
Now free from his captors and living in Cairo, Eritrean trafficking victim Tekle recalls how he ended up in Sinai back in 2012. Sold to the Rashaida clan by Sudanese accomplices, Tekle was kidnapped, taken to Sinai and kept in a 5 x 5 meter room with fourteen other prisoners for two months. “We were all chained together at the wrists,” he explains, “there were thirteen guys, one girl and one translator.” Torture was rampant. When asked if he witnessed physical abuse, Tekle answers with one sentence before pausing to recollect his thoughts, “the things that happened to other people happened to me [too].”
Tekle went on to describe the raw violence he and the other prisoners experienced in Sinai. After demanding an impossibly high ransom from the prisoner’s families back in Eritrea – 40,000 U.S. Dollars in Tekle’s case – the captors begin to torture their victims to speed up the extortion process. They used chains, burning plastic and electrocution during immersion in water to torture Tekle and his cellmates. For long periods of time, the prisoners were hanged from the ceiling of their small room with their hands bound behind their backs.
Two men in Tekle’s cell died, while he was being held captive and he is still not certain what fates the others ended up suffering at the hands of their captors. “You know it’s just a game for them [the kidnappers],” he says, “they don’t feel what we feel… at the time when you’re about to die, they command you to dance. How can you dance at that time?”
Reflecting on his time spent in Sinai, Tekle explains that he was lucky. When asked about food in the prison, he explains, “In other houses, [the prisoners] used to eat every two or three days”. Lucky to escape the starvation experienced by other prisoners, Tekle was able to eat two or three times a day. Still experiencing the long-term physical and mental effects of the torture he endured today, it’s a stretch of the imagination to call Tekle lucky.
Speaking figuratively, Tekle sums up the horrific experience with gruesome eloquence: “I was lucky to be eating, but they were eating me.”
Out Of Sinai
Tekle and his family were miraculously able to gather $35,000 to pay the ransom. He was given two options, either he could be released near the border with Israel or be taken to Cairo.
“I chose to go to Cairo,” he details the risk of Egyptian military shooting him near the border was high, and even if he would make it over the border, he would likely be arrested and detained in an Israeli refugee camp. “[The Israeli camps] are kind of like prison,” Tekle says, “you are going to be judged and go to jail for three years.” A return to prison conditions with an uncertain future was less than ideal.
Over the course of three days, Tekle was smuggled from Sinai to Cairo with two other Eritreans. Today, he lives in a single rented flat with eight other survivors. His only source of income is the 420 Egyptian Pounds (60 U.S. Dollars) he receives each month from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). A survivor of kidnapping, trafficking and torture, Tekle is now trying to survive brutal poverty and violent racial discrimination he faces on a daily basis in Cairo. He has escaped one form of bondage to find himself imprisoned by the volatile daily reality of an emerging civil war in Egypt’s capital. Tekle is patient, “I have to say ‘thank you God’ because I got out of Sinai. Me and my friends were dying, but he came to me and we’re still living. I have to remember that instead of hating.”