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The Fallen Soldiers of Egypt’s ‘War on Terror’

The Fallen Soldiers of Egypt’s ‘War on Terror’

MONOFEYA, Egypt — Anis Nasr al-Din was missing. The 21-year-old police conscript had spent the night of Aug. 18 in the city of Arish, and was heading back to his unit’s base in the town of Rafah, along the Egyptian border with the Gaza Strip, after a holiday. But the next day, his family was unable to reach him.

"At 5 a.m., I gave him a couple of phone calls, but he was hanging up," said Anis’s brother Mohammed. "At 6:30 a.m., I tried to call four more times, but the phone was just ringing.

Mohammed kept trying to reach his brother throughout the day, but was unsuccessful. By the afternoon, he learned why: Armed gunmen ambushed two buses carrying the police conscripts at a checkpoint in a small village outside of Rafah, binding their arms and executing them in cold blood along the side of the road.

At least 25 police conscripts were killed in the assault, including Anis. It was the bloodiest attack yet on Egypt’s security forces in the North Sinai, which is the site of an increasingly violent insurgency by Islamist militants.

The Egyptian government describes its struggle against jihadists in Sinai as a war on terror — reaching for another phrase in the American political lexicon to describe its military campaign there, dubbing it "Operation Desert Storm." Its language does not leave much room for distinguishing between the jihadists in Sinai and Muslim Brotherhood protesters in Cairo: When army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called on Egyptians to take to the streets last month "to give me a mandate to end terrorism," his words were soon followed by a crackdown on the pro-Morsy demonstrations in the capital. And in the villages from which many of the conscripts hailed, their families and neighbors are now preparing for their own smaller wars on terror.

The governorate of Monofeya was home to 21 of the murdered conscripts, including Anis. It is a primarily rural area; most residents make their livelihoods through farming, and donkeys, horses, and sheep mingle in the street with trucks carrying agricultural produce. It is also a stronghold of the old regime: former presidents Hosni Mubarak and Anwar Sadat hailed from Monofeya. Posters of Sadat still grace the back of many buses passing through the area, as well as the front page of the governorate’s official website.

Today, Monofeya is a stronghold of support for Sisi. A sign over the entrance to one of the towns in the area hails him as "the lion heart, the vanquisher of terrorism." There are only scattered signs of dissent: a poster of deposed President Mohamed Morsy hangs on the door of one building, while graffiti scrawled hastily in English on the side of a wall reads, "CC is killer."

In Metshamy, the village where Anis grew up, residents take it as gospel that the conflict with jihadists in Sinai, the crackdown on pro-Morsy protesters in Cairo, and their own struggles with the Muslim Brotherhood in Monofeya are different fronts in a single war.

Tarek al-Jumma, a 43-year-old resident of the area, offers a succinct explanation of the Sinai attack: "There was an ambush by the Muslim Brotherhood, who stopped the car and shot them."

Brotherhood leaders have condemned the attack and denied they had any role in it, but Jumma brushed aside the possibility that jihadi groups could be behind the killing. "Who’s launching terrorist attacks in the country? It’s the Brotherhood. It has to be them," he said. "[The Islamist groups] are all one, they’re all the same."

And even as these citizens mourned their dead from Sinai, the simmering tensions with the Muslim Brotherhood members in Monofeya boiled over. Mahmoud, an uncle of Anis, said the troubles began as soon as the conscripts’ bodies were sent back to their villages. "The Muslim Brotherhood made some checkpoints on the distant roads to try to get the bodies," he said. "So they can use the names and images for their cause."

The family’s account cannot be confirmed, but there is no doubt that there have been scattered clashes in Monofeya since Morsy’s ouster. Jumma said that the violence started after the Brotherhood opened fire on one of the funerals, "so some clashes happened that resulted in the destruction of the Brotherhood shops."

The clashes only ended, Jumma and other village residents said, after security forces forcibly separated the warring political groups. "The only one thing that holds this area together is the police," Jumma said. "If the police are gone from the picture, we’d be thrown in complete chaos."

The foremost figure preventing Monofeya and the entire country from sliding into chaos, of course, is Sisi. The army chief "is the symbol of manhood," said Hamed al-Meshlawi, a 41-year-old resident of Metshamy.

And right now, the military leader is doing more than anyone else to help them win their eternal battle against the Muslim Brotherhood. "The army has been here for hundreds of years protecting this country, [Brotherhood members] are just interlopers who got into this country and are trying to destroy it," said Anis’s uncle, Mahmoud. "We will be more than happy to present our lives and our belongings to destroy terrorism in our country. Anis’s death, or any conscript’s death, will not make us think twice about this."