There is a dirty fight going on in Egypt’s Sinai, with death squads “disappearing” and executing people. The US, Egypt’s main military supporter, has been looking the other way. But a video leaked on April 20 – the same day Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was in Egypt – should require the Trump administration to heed concerns already expressed by Congress. The US should suspend its support until it has a better handle on how its aid is being used and is confident that the Egyptian armed forces have stopped committing mass abuses.
The Senate Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations will hold a hearing on Tuesday, April 25 about US assistance for Egypt. The Chairman and Ranking Member should start the hearing with a viewing of the two-minute video, an important counterpoint to the ostensible military “successes” Presidents Donald Trump and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi allege when it comes to the Sinai operation.
The video shows uniformed Egyptian soldiers taking two blindfolded men from military Humvee vehicles. They are made to kneel, and then a man in camouflage shoots them, one after the other. Bodies of other victims seen but not killed on camera were featured in official media releases published by the Egyptian armed forces in November and December. The army claimed they had died in clashes with security forces. The leaked video, which appears to be authentic, says otherwise – the media releases were a cover-up for executions.
Although Human Rights Watch has yet to establish the exact location and date of the killings shown in the video, the video’s authenticity rests on many known elements. The uniform patches seen in the video belong to Egyptian soldiers and military intelligence. The executioner, who speaks with a Sinai accent, interrogates one of the detainees about the names of families, clans, and villages that are all in North Sinai.
Human Rights Watch also reviewed a separate video, posted on a pro-government Facebook page on November 20, that appears to show the same bodies seen in the execution video lined up next to a building that also appears in the execution video. In the second video, six soldiers stand next to the line of bodies. “This is the revenge for those who died,” one says. Two North Sinai sources told Human Rights Watch that they recognized the executioner as a well-known member of a local militia, referred to locally as Group 103, that is armed by and works closely with the Egyptian military. And a local independent Facebook page, Sinai News 24, identified the two victims as brothers from the Rumailat clan whom the army had arrested in the Sinai town of Rafah in July.
These extrajudicial killings captured in the video are consistent with a broader pattern of disappearances, killings, and cover-ups that Human Rights Watch previously documented in Egypt’s battle against the Islamic State in North Sinai. In March, Human Rights Watch published an in-depth investigation of another case in which Egyptian internal security forces in North Sinai appear to have extrajudicially executed at least four and perhaps as many as ten men, and later staged a videotaped counterterrorism raid to cover up the killings.
The fighting ravaging North Sinai since 2013 has left hundreds dead, including civilians, security force members, and alleged Islamic State fighters. The Islamic State affiliate, which calls itself Sinai Province, has killed scores of civilians, targeting many either for alleged collaboration with the authorities or because they were Christians. The government’s response has been brutal. Residents in Northern Sinai have long reported arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings by Egyptian military and Interior Ministry forces.
This fighting has been waged out of sight, as Egyptian authorities deny access to media and outside independent observers, including US embassy officials. The military has imposed frequent curfews, road closures, and lengthy communication blackouts across the area and a state of emergency has been in place since October 2014. Egypt even made it illegal to contradict official statements from the Ministry of Defense about counterterrorism operations. Egyptian journalists who have reported from North Sinai have faced prosecution.
This battle has been ongoing with the support and, for the most part, the acquiescence of the US, which provides $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt every year. Congressional efforts to restrict these funds in previous years have been met with significant push-back from the Executive Branch, which is expected for the upcoming budget cycle as well.
The footprint of this aid can be seen in the leaked April 20 video as detainees are pulled out of US-produced Humvees by Egyptian soldiers wearing standard US military combat boots. The Obama administration did delay some weapons shipments after the Egyptian military overthrew President Mohamed Morsi in 2013, citing concerns about the deteriorating human rights situation, but resumed military support as Egypt began to face a serious insurgency in the Sinai. An April 2016 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the US Departments of State and Defense did not have a fully functioning system for required end-use monitoring and human rights vetting for US military equipment purchased by Egypt. No steps have been taken to address the GAO concerns.
Nevertheless, during visits to Egypt in April and May 2016, then-Secretary of State John Kerry stressed cooperation against the Islamic State and made no public comment on human rights concerns. President Trump has long promised more support for Egypt’s war against terrorism, noting on April 3, after meeting with President al-Sisi in the White House, “I just want to let everybody know, in case there was any doubt, that we are very much behind President al-Sisi. He’s done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation.”
Residents in North Sinai who spoke to Human Rights Watch would beg to differ. They feel stuck between a murderous Islamic State and an increasingly out-of-control Egyptian military that, with US backing, is alienating the very people they are supposed to protect. Congress has an opportunity to make clear that it will not tolerate unchecked military support to Egypt.