It should only take about four hours to drive from Cairo to North Sinai, but our recent trip to the north of the peninsula, 381 kilometers away from the capital, took nearly seven hours.
The reason behind the delay was the multitude of police and army checkpoints.
Our car was stopped several times throughout the trip to the governorate, which has been the site of an ongoing insurgency by Islamic State affiliates, previously known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. During our trip, we were questioned by security about our reason for travelling, and they demanded to see our IDs.
In Al-Arish, the capital of North Sinai, we meet with Egyptian journalist Hussein Al-Qayyim, who writes for several newspapers based in Cairo.
In the heavy dialect typical of Sinai locals, he tells us of the difficult conditions of working in the peninsula.
Being a Journalist in Sinai
"Journalists in Sinai are not allowed to take pictures anywhere," Al-Qayyim tells Raseef22. "Though there is no written law preventing it, these are the orders of the security forces, as well as the militias," he notes.
Journalists are forbidden from photographing bomb sites, in Egypt’s primary hotbed for militant attacks. For years, and in particular after the 2013 power change that saw the ouster of Islamist former president Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian army has sought to quell the ongoing insurgency, with little luck.
"Working in Sinai is a special task that differs from that of any other Egyptian governorates," he notes. "Before the January revolution, we carried our cameras and documented events. The situation changed after the spread of Islamic militants in Sinai.”
"Imagine being a journalist and not being allowed to carry a camera. It is forbidden for a journalist to document what is happening in the governorate or talk to armed people or suspects in the grips of Egyptian security forces," adds Al-Qayyim.
Al-Qayyim has received several threats from militants because of his coverage in the peninsula.
Usually, the threats come in the form of messages on his social media account, but true risk is when a masked gunman stops him on the road and gives him an ultimatum.
"I never report any of this to the security forces," says Al-Qayyim.
"If I communicate with the security forces, the militants would take this to mean that I am an agent, and I could be killed for that," he explains. At the same time, he cannot conduct interviews with the militants or with their parents, as this could prompt Egyptian security forces to arrest him on charges of fraternizing with the militants.
"It's a huge problem. I can’t pursue all the topics and stories I wish to cover,” he says.
At times, Al-Qayyim considers leaving this troubled governorate and going to Cairo, where he can live in safety; yet, in spite of the security situation, he still feels a strong connection to this place. "I was born and raised here, and this place is my home.”
Moreover, he has not yet secured membership in the Press Syndicate, which would guarantee him some protection in undertaking his profession. However, the institution he works for grants priority to journalists based in Cairo, making it difficult for those in outlying districts to secure syndicate membership.
"If I lose my life at any moment, my family will not be compensated, and if I get injured in any explosion, which is possible, I am not insured for the healthcare I would need,” he says.
Caught between the possibility of arrest and the threat of death at the hands of armed militants, journalists in Sinai face an impossible feat.
Grappling with the authorities' monopolization of information and the risk of death amid a years-long insurgency...
Journalists in Sinai are caught in the catch-22 of treading gently between the warnings imposed by security forces and the threats of the insurgents, making it almost impossible to fulfill their profession properly.
Thirty-five years after its liberation, a journalist in Sinai today lives in fear of arrest by the security or death at the hands of the armed militias.
Al-Qayyim has nonetheless been preparing to launch a YouTube channel, through which he hopes to create mini-documentaries on Sinai and its people, in order to change the common perception of the peninsula as a war zone.
"Despite everything, life goes on in Sinai, and there is art and culture, although certainly not as they were before the January revolution,” he adds.
Walking Through a Minefield
In 2013, the Federation of Journalists and Reporters in Sinai was launched, headed by Sinai-based journalist Abdelkader Mubarak.
The Federation includes all 24 correspondents in the governorate, four of whom are women, with the aim of protecting them, and providing them with training to develop their journalism skills.
"Practicing journalism in Sinai is like walking through a minefield,” says Mubarak, the head of the Federation.
"A journalist could die at any moment from a stray shot, or be detained by the security authorities or kidnapped by gunmen. The Press Syndicate does nothing to protect Sinai correspondents, because most of them are not members," he adds.
Mubarak notes that when journalist Ahmed Abu Daraa was arrested in 2013 on charges of “publishing false news” about the armed forces during his work for Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, the Federation launched a campaign demanding his release.
For journalists in Sinai, publishing anything that counters the official narrative on the counter-insurgency measures could warrant imprisonment—a phenomenon that was cemented in a 2015 law that penalizes the publishing of figures other than those issued by the armed forces.
According to Mubarak, a journalist in Sinai is constantly walking on eggshells, trying not to anger the security forces, while simultaneously being careful not to provoke the militants, to avoid arrest in the first case and death in the second.
"How does a journalist work in such circumstances?" Mubarak questions.
The Federation has held a number of courses for the journalists of Sinai on how to cover the clashes and how they can secure themselves from all dangers. It also held legal courses to teach them what to say when arrested at a checkpoint.
Another prevalent problem facing journalists in Sinai, according to Mubarak, is that sources are always afraid to speak to them, and those who do wish to remain anonymous.
"We are barred from access to information, which is a disaster,” says Mubarak. “Journalists are also detained for several hours in security checkpoints, as the security forces want to turn their lives into a living hell.”
Jihadists, not Takfirists
Mahmoud*, a journalist in his 30s, takes out a paper from his leather briefcase, and says: "Do you know what this is? It’s a notice distributed by the Sinai militants in Rafah.”
He begins reading the statement: "Warning to all, do not refer to us as Takfirists [those who accuse other Muslims of apostasy]; refer to us as Jihadists. Do not deal with the security forces, so as not to endanger your lives.”
Mahmoud says that he, along with other journalists, has received offers from foreign news outlets, including the Al Jazeera, to work as a correspondent under a pseudonym, to avoid security repercussions. However, they have turned down these offers, as it would be potentially life-threatening if Egyptian security forces were to find out.
"It is impossible to cover what is happening in places such as Sheikh Zuwayed, Rafah, and southern Al-Arish, because security considers them military zones, and if we can enter, it is possible that we might be targeted by the weapons of the extremists who are active there," he adds.
A Matter of Time
Most government officials in North Sinai prefer not to talk to the media. Raseef22 was able to contact an official in the governorate, but he asked to remain anonymous.
In his opinion, many Egyptians are not cognizant of the extent of the danger in Sinai, and as such do not comprehend the motives behind the restrictions imposed on journalists, which he describes as "limited restrictions" that are in place for their own safety and to protect their lives.
"Personally, I respect the freedom of the press. I respect the freedom of ordinary citizens to move everywhere, at any time, but because the situation is currently unstable, everyone needs to be patient for now. Soon, the situation will go back to what it was before the start of this war,” he notes.
The security forces, according to his description, are engaged in a real war against armed militias that are financed at the highest levels.
"Everyone needs to understand that the situation is serious and they all need to show responsibility, particularly ordinary citizens and journalists," he continues.
Security Forces Monopolize Information
However, in Mahmoud's opinion, these constraints are not "limited". Security intentionally withholds information from the press and wants to be the only source of news from the governorate.
"When we hear the sound of an explosion, we do not go to cover it. Security forces will arrest anyone who approaches, so we look for sources to tell us what happened. They may be sources in the ambulances or the hospitals where the injured are transported. It is a mission to get information," says Mahmoud.
The most serious issue, in his opinion, is the constant suspicion and hostility that the authorities subject journalists to, and the prevalent assumption that every journalist is acting in bad faith. He views it as a reflection of the relationship many Arab governments have with the informal media, in particular the Egyptian government.
"One day I was walking in the street and the security forces fired at the car I was traveling in, although the road was not closed, nor were there any signs warning us against taking it. I could have died," Mahmoud says.
Despite all this, Mahmoud and the other Egyptian journalists in Sinai still dream of an end to the scourge of militancy that has swept the cities in their governorate, hoping to restore the sense of quiet and peace that once prevailed over the area.
*Name changed upon request