New front in Sinai: Will tribes join the 'war on terrorism'?

Ahmed Eleiba , Sunday 10 May 2015

File Photo: Egyptian army soldiers stand guard in North Sinai (Photo: Reuters)

The announcement by the Tarabin, the largest of Sinai’s Bedouin tribes, that they would enter the fight against terrorism in Sinai alongside the government, changes the course of the battle that erupted following the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Sinai’s tribes have mostly tried to remain neutral in the hope of avoiding the wrath of a terrorist organisation, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, that murders tribal members it has accused of cooperating with security agencies. It was a situation that could no longer be tolerated, Abdallah Jahama, a leading Tarabin tribal member, told Ahram Online.

Many Sinai Bedouins view the development as an awakening triggered by the broadening of clashes between Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis and Sinai’s larger tribes. Others, however, say the “transformation” has been exaggerated and “doesn’t merit the commotion it has caused in the press” says Ahmed Sweirki of the Sawarka tribe, the second largest in Sinai.

A third body of opinion believes the Tarabin announcement is an extension of tribal customs. Abdallah Mubarak, also from the Sawarka tribe, points out that “tribal law does not tolerate any assault against the tribe, even by its own members. Should this occur, the tribe strips that member of its protection and regards him as an outcast.”

The Tarabin initiative is not the first of its kind. In July last year, the Romeilat tribe announced that it was contemplating forming brigades to take revenge against terrorists after Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis killed a number of tribal leaders. Army officials quickly discouraged the initiative, insisting no party could bear arms on behalf of the state. This time, however, the government’s response appears more favourable, though it has not openly showed support.

The development raises numerous questions.

What prompted the Tarabin to make the move? Does the government, the military or military intelligence in Sinai have anything to do with it? Have precise scenarios of the potential repercussions emanating from this step been worked out? Is there a degree of hyperbole surrounding the development? Is the initiative the work of one branch of a large tribe that is connected with the government and is lending itself to propaganda efforts? What are the responses of other Sinai tribes to the Tarabin announcement? Will this be a prelude to similar declarations from them? Are Sinai’s tribes, increasingly frustrated at the government’s inability to defeat the militias, taking vengeance into their own hands? Who will arm the Sinai tribes for the battle? Will the government agree to them taking up arms?

The story began with a statement posted on a social networking site announcing that the Tarabin had decided to join the fight against Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis.

Abdallah Jahama, a prominent member of the Tarabin and the tribe’s official spokesman, questioned the authenticity of the statement though he did not dispute its substance. “[The tribes] will not remain silent in the face of the terrorist organisation. They will support the state in its confrontation against it,” he said, without indicating the nature of that support. “There is agreement with the president and the army command on this matter.”

No sooner had the statement been publicised than Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis added its signatories to its hit list. It struck first at Ibrahim Al-Arjani a prominent businessman from the Tarabin, bombing his home for supporting “the army of apostates.” They then hijacked his car after murdering one of his assistants, and went on to broadcast threats against other leading members of the tribe.

Special interests

General Alaa Ezzeddin, director of the Armed Forces Centre for Strategic Studies, argues that the initiative represents the confluence of several motives. There is, he says, an ongoing blood feud between the Tarabin and Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis. There is also an outpouring of patriotism from some members of the Tarabin, especially those connected with the government. “I cannot say whether this patriotism aspect applies to all,” says Ezzeddin, but he argues that it is an important factor.

Ezzeddin dismisses the possibility that the new director of military intelligence has plans that include a role for Bedouin tribes. “There has been no change of strategy. The military commander listens to his men and to a large number of advisors around him, and then takes the decisions he believes are right. No one in the military would condone the creation of a Bedouin militia.”

Interestingly, Ibrahim El-Arjani told Ahram Online that the Tarabin will soon delineate their tribal territory which is to be “free from terrorism.” This suggests a bid to establish a Tarabin “province” in northern Sinai.

Military expert Talaat Musallam frames the issue differently. “In view of current developments and the entrance of the tribes into the picture, coordination — a temporary alliance between the tribe and the state — is likely. The tribes have weapons. They do not need the government to supply them with more and they know that the government would not do so. Developments on the ground in Sinai all point to the same thing, that Sinai’s tribes cannot remain on the sidelines when terrorist organisations are targetting tribal leaders.”

He added that “if there is one thing the government and the tribes agree on, it is the fight against terrorism. The tribe is there, licensed to carry arms, and undertakes actions in the framework of tribal customs that benefit the state. Five people have already handed themselves in to the Tarabin in accordance with tribal custom. They receive guarantees for their safety in exchange for leaving the terrorist organisation on condition, of course, that they were not involved in acts of violence. I believe that the Tarabin want to cooperate with the government because the tribe’s existence and reputation are at stake.”

How do other tribes fit in?

The Tarabin may have taken up the banner of cooperation but how do Sinai’s other tribes fit in? There are at least 10 major Sinai tribes. The Sawarka, which consists of at least 13 clans, has a record of good relations with the government, not least during the 1973 War. The third largest tribe is the Masaeed, followed by the Samaena, Saadiyin, Bayadiya, the Akahrsa, Abaida, Romeilat, Riyashat and Howeitat.

According to a reliable source from the Sawarka it is difficult to predict which other tribes will join the Tarabin initiative. The tribes are extensive groupings consisting of clans, each with their own sheikh and elders. He expects the conference that the Tarabin is convening in Al-Hasana on Sunday “to settle the question of whether or not there will be a tribal alignment.”

This article was first published in Ahram Weekly 

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