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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The Problematic Peninsula


Sinai, hitherto unaffected by the events unfolding in the region, has been touched by religious extremism
SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | Issue Dated: November 10, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : General Sisi | Mohammad Morsi | Sinai | Egyptian expert Esam al-Amin |

When General Sisi was planning to topple the discredited Mohammad Morsi led government in Egypt, he made every possible calculation that would make the post-modern coup seamless and acceptable in the eyes of the world. In fact, the way Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood led government acted in the last few months, it was no surprise that when the coop took place, not many Egyptian though it prudent to oppose it. Sisi won the battle and the war. But there appears to me a small glitch. A glitch that threatens to spoil the post-win party: Sinai.

Sinai has remained disturbed since the day Morsi came to power. While his administration was looking the other way, things started to get restive in the peninsula. Shortly, attacks against the armed forces started and a game of cat and mouse ensued. The attacks only intensified when he was kicked out of power, leading many to believe that it was the handiwork of Brotherhood. But in Sinai, there is more than what meets the eyes. 

“The relationship is volatile at the best. There was a marked change in security policy in Sinai when Border Guards were replaced by regular Police to deal with the situation. It further deteriorated the situation as Border Guards had good relationship with tribes and its elders, whereas police has a very strained relationship. Police is known for trumping up false charges and rounding up people to be thrown in jails. There is also random searches and crackdown that is not helping in catching any militants but is further harming the relationship with the locals. The locals say that the only way to improve the situation is by admitting local Bedouins into armed forces and police and by deploying them in the area. This, locals say, will also curb the activities of militants,” says Egyptian expert Esam al-Amin.

There is no marked conflict between the tribes. There are some local skirmishes but they are solved through their age-old mechanism. There is however deep fissures emerging from within the tribe. In many of the tribes in the Northern Sinai, some members have become part of the militant groups leading to division between their families and the families of those who are either helping army and police or merely opposing the radicalization of the Bedouin tradition.

The greatest fissure has emerged in the biggest and most powerful tribe of Al-Sawarka. The tribe virtually controls the areas between the coastal Rafah and El-Arish to Al-Hasana, and even beyond. The most powerful sub-clan of this tribe is still largely untouched by militants and have good functional relationship with army and security agencies. However, a substantial chunk of the other sub-clans have started to have relationship with militants including those affiliated with al-Qaeda. This has made the situation very unattainable. As of now there has been no armed conflict between the members of the tribe. That is largely because its head, Ibrahim al Minei, still has a huge influence on the overall situation of the tribe. But his grip is loosening and inside reports say that his own brother probably has now joined al-Qaeda. How long will he be able to keep the tribes together is not clear but it is true that militants have made a huge dent in this tribe.

Another leader of a sub-clan of the same Sawarka tribe is Abu Ashraf. He is as of now a fence sitter. He has cooperated with army and security agencies in the past but is dithering now. The militant organizations are trying to break him away. He has not succumbed to pressure as of now, but if he breaks away then the game will be up for Sawarka tribe.

There has been some clear cooperation between the militants and Bedouins but it has remained limited as of now. There are very few Bedouin fighters in any of the militant groups. The fighters are still coming from Yemen and Libya and other parts of Egypt as well. Arms, both light and medium, have flown heavily from Libya and Tunisia and are going on unabated. It is mostly in smuggling of these arms and giving refugee to militants that Bedouins come into picture.

Apart from Sawarka, the other powerful tribe in this area is Al-Qararsha. However, thankfully, unlike Sawarka, Qararsha has remained united and pro-government and has snubbed the efforts of militants to buy them off. The tribe still holds the Firaan valley and that is why there has been very very limited militant activity here. It’s ally and subordinate tribe is Jebaleyya which is also heavily armed, but supporting the government. They are both active in Herish city and have kept militants at bay.

However, the same cannot be said about Tarabyn tribe in central and south Sinai. Like Sawarka, this tribe has been split and a substantial chunk of population is now supporting militants in many ways. There have been some fighters from this tribe too and they mostly support Al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad group which is heavily armed. The support however is on the condition that the group will not operate in Central and south Sinai and will take its activities to North. The understanding has worked fine with them as of now. Saleem Eneizaan, the leader of this tribe, is becoming isolated day by day with young people leaving him for militant group preachers.

Sawarka tribe’s breakaway Bedouins have helped militants get footholds in Sheikh Zooweid, Mehdiya and Guraa areas of Arish city. These areas now come under Ansaar Bayt ul Muqqdus militant group.

Breikat Tribe, on the other hand, in at-Tamad area is supporting Ansar al-Sharia group which is becoming powerful day by day. This is a small tribe, but unlike other tribes, it is completely siding with the militants and hence very dangerous. It is members of these tribes who are mostly working as couriers in the Eastern Sinai area.

There are Bedouins in them but militants are coming mostly from other parts of Egypt as well as Libya and Yemen. Also, they are joined now by militants released by Morsi government thinking that they will side with brotherhood. But they were too Salafists to join Brotherhood and have started militant organizations or join the existing one.

It will be interesting to see how Sisi tackles the Sinai ghost. It is going to be anything but easy.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017