There is a resurgence in the tribal movement against Islamist militias in the Sinai. However, the energy this time may exceed that of the summer of 2015 when the Sinai tribes came together and asked to be armed and recruited in the fight against terrorism. What has changed in the interval? The tribes, themselves, and perhaps the tribal leaders, themselves.
Back then, in the summer of 2015, in the aftermath of the murder of the young Abdel-Baset Al-Tarabini at the hands of the Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis (ABM), now known as the IS Sinai Province, tribal leaders asked General Osama Askar, former commander of the Eastern Zone, to equip them with arms so that they could take part in the fight against takfiri jihadists.
Two prominent tribal figures, Moussa Al-Dalah Al-Tarabini, a businessman in construction and real estate, and Ibrahim Al-Argawi, also a businessman, called for an extensive tribal conference to support the drive. Egyptian authorities expressed their gratitude to the tribes but nothing further came of the matter.
Under pursuit in the countryside around Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid, the terrorist organisation shifted tactics and turned to Arish, the capital of North Sinai, thinking it could take advantage of that city’s population density. But the shift to urban areas generated friction with prominent families and grassroots communities, especially when it came to economic interests and the affairs of daily life.
Incidents such as attacks on shop windows and their displays, harassment of women to warn them not to leave their homes unaccompanied by a male relative, and systematic assaults against Copts to drive them out of Arish stirred widespread alarm and opprobrium, especially as it revived memories of the scenes of displacement and expulsion during times of warfare and occupation.
There was probably another reason that attracted the organisation to Arish, according to both security and tribal sources. As pressure mounted on it in Sheikh Zuweid, it faced increasing difficulties in recruitment. “It therefore turned to recruiting people out of work and in need of money, such as those who had once worked in the tunnels,” said Salah Sallam, an Arish native who is a member of the National Council for Human Rights, referring to the smuggling trade in the tunnels between Sinai and Gaza.
As parliamentary representative for North Sinai, Hossam Refai told the Al-Ahram Weekly, as the ABM-IS members began to interfere more and more in people’s affairs and personal lives and as their bullying and offences mounted, that more and more businessmen and tribal dignitaries were being abducted and held for ransom from their tribes or families, as was the case with the kidnapping of Hamdi Gouda of the Fawakhiriya family.
Have such conditions led to a kind of tribal uprising against takfiris?
It appears that the organised drive to forge a tribal coalition against takfiri jihadist groups is something of the sort. It was initiated by the Tarabin tribe and soon brought on board other tribes such as the Sawarka and Rumeilat as well as prominent families such as the Tiyaha and Fawakhiriya.
Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Argawi, a prominent member of the Tarabin tribe, told the Weekly, “the Tarabin together with the Sawarka and Rumeilat tribes, agreed to cleanse the whole of Sinai from IS elements in coordination with the army. A tribal coalition, led by Sheikh Abdel-Meguid Al-Manei, will be forged to pursue and eliminate terrorists and IS members.”
It is interesting that Al-Argawi used the words “coordinate with” rather than “support” as it had two years ago. This suggests that the relationship between the tribes or tribal members and the army may soon become visible. Frequently, in the past, tribal support had to be given secretly for fear of lethal reprisals from the terrorists.
MP Refai remarked, “it is difficult to take the notion that the tribes are to be armed seriously since the government rules out the idea in principle. Perhaps cooperation will take another form. However, as a matter of principle, only the state has the right to bear arms.”
Refai also dismissed the rumour to the effect that a“103rd brigade”made up of tribal members is fighting alongside the army and carrying out field operations. “The terrorists have recently been targeting certain families, bombarding civilians in their homes and driving out others from their homes.
Such actions have ignited a kind of zeal among tribal members to take up arms against them. Everyone in the Sinai is with the government. However, the way of responding to terrorism differs from one tribe to the next and from one village to the next.”
The Tarabin, one of the largest tribes in the Sinai, issued a statement signed by tribal leaders, warning: “The sanctity of the homes of the tribes and of the Tarabin tribe, in particular, is a red line that we will not allow to be violated.
The relationship that binds together the Bedouin tribes in the North Sinai governorate is one defined by faith, the nation and blood. It will never be broken by masks, hired guns or any foreign agencies whose sole concern is to carry out the designs of Mossad and its henchmen.”
The statement continued: “The Tarabin tribe has always been and remains the bearer of a proud patriotic banner that will never fall in with any scheme or bend to any force that tries to impose itself on the tribe by means of the logic of arms and bloodshed. The establishment of the law of God on Earth is not brought about by the sword or force of arms, but my moderation and leniency.”
Describing the terrorist attacks against tribal members as “heinous crimes” and “flagrant violations of all religious and humanitarian standards,” the statement vowed, “we are not incapable of responding forcefully to those violations. We may delay, but we will not neglect.”
According to sources in the Sinai, clashes between the Tarabin and ABM-IS have intensified recently. Last week, members of the organisation killed a woman and attacked her husband while trying to abduct two of their sons. The victims, who live south of Rafah, are members of the Tarabin tribe.
This is the second incident since a car bomb exploded at a so-called roadblock created by Tarabin members in the area as a means of protecting their homes. The terrorist organisation distributed a printed flyer in the area warning the tribe against defying it and demanding the tribe disassociates itself from the activities undertaken by some of its members.
The flyer also claimed that the organisation had been trying to intercept a vehicle carrying smuggled goods and cigarettes across the border.
Other significant details have emerged in the war of statements between the tribes and terrorists. The latter has accused the tribes of creating a sahwa or awakening councils such as those that emerged in Iraq among Sunni tribes in order to fight Al-Qaeda. This is supposedly the “103rd regiment”.
The ABM-IS Province has condemned these groups for doing battle against it on behalf of the state which the organisation brands as infidel. Other messages suggest that the organisation has set its crosshairs on Al-Argawi in particular on the grounds that he is responsible for creating these councils to support the state.
Tarabin elders have announced Abdel-Meguid Al-Manei will take charge of coordinating action between the tribes. This is noteworthy not only because Al-Manei is a member of the Sawarka, which may be the largest Sinai tribe numerically, but also because he lives in Mahdiya which had been an ABM stronghold until it was expelled from that area after intense clashes with the army.
Mahdiya is also where Shadi Al-Manei, an ABM commander, was from, although Abdel-Meguid Al-Manei’s side of the family was at odds with Shadi’s. “The problem in the Sinai is that dozens of sons from the tribes are being recruited [by the terrorist organisation]. As a result, some tribal members are complicit while others are fighting against them.
Each side is shedding the blood of the other,” Abdel-Meguid said, adding, “all of them are working on behalf of Mossad. They are not expressing Islam. They are not expressing the tribes. They are working for Israel.”
A source who had previously served with the military in the Sinai for a long time noted that many young tribal members in the area near the border had been recruited into the organisation.
Most of them have kin relations on the other side of the border (in Israel) as is the case with the Nadayat, a clan belonging to the Tarabin, and the Shatayat, a clan belonging to the Tayaha, both of which have kinship bonds that extend across the border.
The Tayaha tribe has followed the lead of the Tarabin in declaring its opposition to the takfiri jihadists.
It thus appears that events in Sinai may soon take a new turn towards an active alignment of the tribes alongside the government after a period in which they had been sidelined in the fight against the takfiris.
It also appears that this development has been motivated, primarily, by a current trend in the militant jihadist strategy that has emerged after the ABM began to expand into urban areas and by behaviour that triggered the mounting aversion among the urban clans and other components of society.
If, indeed, some form of tribal council or coalition is being forged by tribal dignitaries in society to counter the takfiri militias, the battle between the two sides will undoubtedly escalate.
The story was first published in Ahram Weekly