While people were fasting and watching dramatic Ramadan series about Egypt’s official victory over terrorism, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the North Sinai broadcasted a video on the killing of 62-year-old Nabil Habashi.
Tied up, Habashi had seemingly surrendered to his fate. He was kidnapped last November, for allegedly cooperating with the Egyptian army in the fight against ISIS.
Yet, Habashi was also executed because he was Copt. That is what his killers said in the video. They also threatened to target the lives and property of other Copts in North Sinai.
Habashi lived with his family in Bir al-Abed for many years. He worked in trade, and was one of the contributors to building the city’s only church.
The video raised fears of ISIS targeting religious minorities in the Sinai. It also paved the way for questioning the negotiations that reportedly have been taking place between the Egyptian army and ISIS for about three months – about the time Habashi spent in captivity.
Which begs the most important question of all: are there negotiations taking place at all?
Hours after the video was broadcasted, the Egyptian Ministry of Interior, in cooperation with the Egyptian National Security Agency, issued a statement that announced the liquidation of those responsible for the Habashi’s killing.
However, the image of the three dead people was distributed without any clarifications or details.
When Habashi was kidnapped last November, the matter was never officially announced and no official ever spoke about the course or outcome of the negotiations between the army and the terrorist organization.
At the time, one of the fathers of the orthodox Church of Sinai announced on Facebook that: “They kidnapped Nabil Habashi, founder of the Church of Our Lady and the martyr Abanoub in Bir al-Abed in Sinai, wanting our voice to reach Sisi.”
Habashi’s son Peter stated in a testimony to the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights (SFHR) that his family had filed a report at the Bir al-Abed police station, but the authorities never called them back and closed the case without ever making any real progress.
Adding to the family’s suffering was the fact that the security forces on January 4 deported members of the Habashi’s family from their home and prevented them from re-entering the area, where five of their relatives live, under the pretext of protecting them and the rest of the family.
A Pattern of Crime
The crime took place in a context of targeting North Sinai Copts since 2011: from intimidation and physical assault to kidnapping, the burning of churches and the wave of forced displacement and sectarian killings in 2017.
Getting back to the announcement by the Egyptian authorities regarding the killing of those involved in the crime, that is something that has happened before regarding previous crimes and often later on proved to be untrue, as was the case for the murdered Italian researcher Giulio Regeni.
Political activist Musaad Abu Fagr, told Daraj he does not rule out that the Egyptian army liquidated elements of ISIS who were arrested in the past, the so called “stockpile.”
He furthermore asked himself: since the army, Ministry of Interior and National Security Agency were able to determine the names and locations of the kidnapped within hours after the video was released, why did they not intervene three months earlier to save Habashi’s life?
Sobhi Sami Abd al-Nur
According to the SFRP, the numbers of kidnapped people in North Sinai are shocking, especially in the Bir al-Abed area. It recently witnessed the kidnapping of Sobhi Sami Abd al-Nur. he too was a Copt and was liquidated by ISIS.
Last March, the SFRP documented the kidnapping of 15 men from the Dawagra tribe in the village of Amoriya. According to witness accounts, the kidnapping followed allegations of cooperation with state security, even though all were civilians.
In another incident in August 2020, the foundation documented the kidnapping of three Coptic citizens in the village of Al-Abtal in the western Sinai by armed ISIS militants: Bakhit Aziz Lamai and Youssef Samaan Gerges. Only Bakhit was released after his family paid a substantial ransom.
According to Musaad Abu Fagr, the Bir al-Abd area has fallen subject to a harsh economic siege in recent years. Om the one hand, the army took control of Lake Bardawil, which was extremely important for both fishermen and farms in the region.
On the other hand, ISIS has been trying to drain people from their last remaining savings by kidnapping tribesmen and demanding a ransom from their families.
“Some kidnappings are carried out not with the aim of getting a ransom, but to negotiate the handover of ISIS elements from the army,” said Abu Fagr.
Lawyer Mahmoud Saeed Lotfi was kidnapped from Bir al-Abed some 18 months ago and until now his fate remains unknown.
The army does not allow people in North Sinai to carry weapons to protect themselves, yet it also does not intervene to protect civilians, nor does it negotiate the return of the kidnapped. All of this greatly increases the risk of liquidation after abduction.
Women and girls in the Bir al-Abed region commit to wearing the veil in order to hide from the eyes of the armed men and to prevent being distinguished from Muslim women, who are accustomed to wearing the veil or covering their faces with the niqab.
In the past, Christian women did not cover their heads, but the constant harassment and security threats forced them to disguise themselves.
The Sinai human rights foundation emphasized that the dangers threatening the lives of civilians in Bir al-Abed, especially concern Christians. It is this that led to their forced migration from the city of El-Arish in February 2017, following kidnappings, killings, and the burning down of their homes.