Why Egypt banned news about terrorist bombings in Sinai

An Egyptian security source told Deutsche Presse-Agentur March 28 that the Egyptian air force launched airstrikes against the strongholds of takfiri (extremist) and other terrorist groups south of the Egyptian city of Rafah, killing 16 of them and wounding six others. Three four-wheel-drive vehicles were also destroyed in the operation.

The source said the air raid came in response to the armed groups blowing up five electricity towers in al-Kharouba village in Sheikh Zuweid March 26.

Mustafa Sanjar, a journalist who specializes in Sinai affairs, explained in a phone interview with Al-Monitor that armed men affiliated with terrorist groups in Sinai bombed five electricity towers that transmit power from the provincial capital of el-Arish to the cities of Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah in the northern Sinai Peninsula. As a result, the electricity supply to the two cities was disrupted for three days in a row.

Sanjar said citizens informed the government-affiliated Sinai Electricity Department about the power outages March 26. A group of technicians accompanied by a security force headed to the site and found five destroyed electricity towers that had collapsed completely after their bases were bombed.

He added, “The security forces found, next to the destroyed electrical towers, warning messages from the bombers, threatening to pursue all technicians and security members involved in repairing the damage.” He said the bombed power line was new and became operational in February to solve the crisis of repeated power outages. The project had cost 65 million Egyptian pounds ($4.2 million).

He noted that the power outages in the Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah areas led to the interruption of water pumping from the underground wells that feed the city of Sheikh Zuweid. This has caused a major crisis for the residents in light of fears of an outbreak of the coronavirus and the need for water for personal hygiene, sterilization and hand-washing, among other preventive measures.

Following the power outage in Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah, the repair teams in the Sinai Electricity Department reconnected power to the two cities on March 28.

A source in the Egyptian Electricity Holding Company confirmed to the Egyptian newspaper Al-Shorouk that the repair teams managed to reinstall five current-carrying towers from el-Arish after their collapse March 26. The source indicated the completion of the repairs and the reconnection of power to Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah.

Mohamed Hajras, chairman of the Sheikh Zuweid Center Council in the northern Sinai Peninsula, said March 30 the state is implementing a plan to replace the overhead electrical power lines with ground lines. He said the plan would cover all parts of the city with ground lines instead since armed groups target overhead lines.

For years, the Egyptian army and police forces have engaged in deadly confrontations with armed groups in the Sinai Peninsula, especially in the northern Sinai area. Wilayat Sinai, which is affiliated with the Islamic State (IS), is the most prominent of these groups and has regularly bombed gas lines that extend between Egypt and Israel. The latest incident occurred Feb. 2 after the Egyptian government announced it would start importing gas from Tel Aviv. The group also blows up power lines in Sinai occasionally.

An informed security source said on condition of anonymity that Egyptian authorities issued orders prohibiting the publication of any news related to the bombing of the electricity towers as well as the operation carried out by the armed forces in response to the attack.

The source clarified in a phone interview with Al-Monitor that some officers in the National Security Department at the Ministry of Interior who are responsible for monitoring newspaper publications and satellite channel programs gave clear instructions not to circulate the news. They only allowed the publication of the news of the towers’ collapse, provided there was no mention of the reason they collapsed or that IS or any other terrorist group was behind the operation.

The source said this decision was made because “the circulation of such news threatens Egyptian national security and shows that the security forces do not control the situation in Sinai. There is no reason to publish alarming news at this stage when the state is fighting a war against terrorism and beefing up its health insurance efforts for citizens to combat the COVID-19 outbreak, which is draining the financial and human capabilities of the state and citizens alike.”

Mohamed Abdel Aziz, a human rights lawyer and director of Al-Haqanya Center for Rights and Freedoms, told Al-Monitor neither Egyptian authorities nor the Ministry of Interior is allowed to issue instructions banning newspaper publications and satellite channel content, as this violates the Egyptian Constitution.

He explained that the Egyptian Constitution explicitly states in Article 65, “Freedom of thought and opinion is guaranteed. All individuals have the right to express their opinion through speech, writing, imagery, or any other means of expression and publication.”

Article 71 of the constitution states, “It is prohibited to censor, confiscate, suspend or shut down Egyptian newspapers and media outlets in any way.” Abdel Aziz said this proves these measures violate the law and the constitution, and they are senseless, as any news can spread in non-Egyptian news sites or Arab or foreign media at the same time. Local censorship is pointless consequently, he concluded.