Calls by Sinai tribes to join Armed Forces in war on terrorism stirs debate in Egypt

Hadeer El-Mahdawy , Tuesday 28 Nov 2017

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

The tribes of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula have asked to be allowed to fight against terrorism alongside the Egyptian army after the Friday terrorist attack on Al-Rawda Mosque in North Sinai that killed 305 worshippers and injured 128 during Friday prayers.

Eyewitnesses said the attack, the deadliest in Egypt’s recent memory, was carried out by 25 to 30 gunmen brandishing the flag of the terrorist group Daesh, according to the prosecutor-general.

The call by Sinai tribes to fight alongside the army against terrorists has been met with controversy, with some praising the move and others voicing concerns about its possible ramifications.

"The tribes of Sinai are honourable people, and they take their honour very seriously, this means that they have to avenge the victims in cooperation with the Armed Forces," MP Ahmed El-Awady, a member of parliament’s defence and national security committee, told Ahram Online.

A statement issued by the Union of Sinai Tribes following Friday's terrorist attack said that the tribes will exact revenge on all terrorists in Sinai.

"[There can be] no mourning before revenge is exacted against the takfiris... we will kill you and will show no mercy," the statement said. The Arabic word “takfiri” refers to Muslims who denounce other Muslims as infidels.

"The massacre that was committed against Sinai and its tribes will turn us into fire that will burn you in this life before [you burn in the next]."

The statement also called on the men of Sinai’s tribes to "join their brothers in the Barth area to coordinate with the army for a large operation to eliminate this terrorism... Barth and the fighters of the Union of Sinai tribes will be receiving you."

The Armed Forces have made no official statement about any such operation.

On Saturday, tribal leader Eissa Al-Kharafeen said in a phone interview with the OnLive TV channel’s ‘Between the Lines’ programme that the tribes have submitted a request to the minister of defence asking that they be allowed to fight side-by-side with the Armed Forces.

“We and the army are in one trench; we either live together or die together," Al-Kharafeen said, stressing that the Sinai tribes feel that they themselves must exact revenge on the terrorists.

However, Ibrahim Rafie, a member of the Arab Tribes Council, which represents tribes in Egypt’s Western Desert, said on Saturday in an interview on the TV show ‘On My Responsibility’ on Sada El-Bald channel that he does not support the idea of armed militias.

Rafie said that only members of the Armed Forces should be allowed to carry weapons.

El-Awady, who believes that the Al-Rawda attack may have been retaliation over the tribes cooperating with the army in counterterrorism efforts, says that such a call is to be expected of the Sinai tribes, who, along with the Armed Forces, are capable of eliminating terrorism.

El-Awady added that he believes there is no danger in allowing such a move, pointing to the armed resistance in Sinai when it was occupied by Israel in the 1970s.

"The circumstances necessitate the arming of civilians, as long as it is with the aim of eliminating terrorists," El-Awady said.

However, Ahmed Kamel El-Beheiry, a researcher at the Ahram Centre for Strategic and Political Studies, believes that allowing armed civilians to join the fight against terrorism can have dangerous consequences. Al-Beheiry said that bringing armed tribesmen into the fight could turn it into a tribal conflict.

El-Beheiry believes that a better solution would be for members of Sinai tribes to “volunteer in the army under its standards and discipline, as well as help by providing information, since the lack of information is a big problem in the war against terrorism for Egypt and the world.

"Armed civilians however could negatively affect the strategy and mechanism of fighting terrorism, which [is conducted by the army and police] according to institutionalised standards of discipline, training, efficiency and intelligence."

El-Beheiry believes that involving untrained civilians with no fighting skills could open the door for a cycle of revenge where innocents are killed, which is something that the state would not do.

El-Beheiry also warns that “those who carry arms side-by-side with the state could also use them against the state,” "

On Sunday, Egyptian air forces carried out strikes in North Sinai against hideouts used by terrorists involved in the Friday attack, which were carried out based on information received from Sinai residents, according to the Armed Forces spokesman.

The victims of the Friday attack, who were praying at Al-Rawdah Mosque in Bir Al-Abd city, included 27 children, Egypt's prosecutor-general announced on Saturday.

The gunmen, some of whom wore masks, attacked the mosque as the imam was starting the Friday sermon.

No group has claimed the responsibility of the attack so far.

Shortly after the attack, Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi promised a forceful respond against the perpetrators, saying that the military and police “will avenge our martyrs.”

The strikes destroyed hideouts containing weapons, ammunition and explosive material.

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