CAIRO — With bulldozers and dynamite, the Egyptian army on Wednesday began demolishing hundreds of houses, displacing thousands of people, along the border with the Gaza Strip in a panicked effort to establish a buffer zone that officials hope will stop the influx of militants and weapons across the frontier.
The demolitions, cutting through crowded neighborhoods in the border town of Rafah, began with orders to evacuate Tuesday and were part of a sweeping security response by the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to months of deadly militant attacks on Egyptian security personnel in the Sinai Peninsula, including the massacre of at least 31 soldiers last Friday.
That assault was the deadliest on the Egyptian military in years, and a blow to the government, which has claimed to be winning the battle against insurgents. The resort to a harsh counterinsurgency tactic — destroying as many as 800 houses and displacing up to 10,000 people to eliminate “terrorist hotbeds,” as el-Sissi’s spokesman put it — highlighted the difficulties the military has faced in breaking the militants as well as the anger that operations like Wednesday’s inevitably arouse.
“Our house in Rafah is more than 60 years old,” Hammam Alagha said on Twitter on Tuesday, detailing his family’s eviction in a series of widely shared posts. After an army officer told the family to evacuate — and Alagha said he refused — the officer “said tomorrow we will bomb it with everything in it.”
Mustafa Singer, a journalist based in Sinai who was near the border Wednesday, said that while residents had met with officials in recent weeks to discuss compensation, the evacuation order Tuesday — delivered over megaphones — took people by surprise.
The border clearing came as the authorities have signaled a growing determination to expand their security reach across Egypt, to counter militants, they say, but also to crush outbreaks of ordinary dissent, rights advocates say. It was also the latest instance of the government using the overwhelming force of its security apparatus to confront what it sees as a threat to Egypt’s existence, whether the growing strength of militants or the demonstrations by thousands of Islamists during the overthrow of the government of Mohammed Morsi.
Some of the recent measures, including a crackdown on university protests and a presidential decree issued Monday putting public facilities such as power stations and roads under the protection of the military, were “confirmation of a conviction we have had for months,” said Gamal Eid, the head of the Cairo-based Arab Network for Human Rights. “Egypt is solidifying the rule of the police and the military,” he said.
The decree, which was issued while Egypt does not have a sitting Parliament, stipulates that people who commit crimes against public utilities are subject to prosecution in military courts — a provision that could potentially ensnare protesters marching on public roads.
Rights workers said the provision not only violated the constitution but was unnecessary, since civilian courts have been more than willing to convict both militants as well as the government’s opponents. Officials said the decree was a necessary measure to protect the facilities against terrorist attacks.