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Bedouins might form army to secure Sinai: Tribal leader

Ibrahim Al-Manei decries the state's heavy-handedness against Bedouin locals, and argues that police forces will 'never' return to the same extent as before to the troubled region

Ahmed Eleiba, Monday 13 May 2013
Ibrahim Al-Manei
Ibrahim Al-Manei, a Sinai tribal leader (Photo: AO)

The security problems in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula since the January 2011 revolution have become a topic of concern for many; but the inhabitants of the region also complain about a chronic lack of development, which is contributing to the other problems.

In tones of despondency, head of the Sinai Tribes Union Sheikh Ibrahim El-Manei gave Ahram Online his own account of the Bedouins' struggle at his estate in the Mahdiya region, near Egypt's eastern border.

With the only paved road in North Sinai clogged with desert sands swept by adverse winds, getting to Al-Manei was far from easy.

There was also a total absence of security forces on the road from North Sinai's capital, Al-Arish. The route was hard to follow; even road signs would not have helped without a Bedouin guide.

Al-Manei seemed quite undaunted by the security absence in vast areas of the peninsula.

"Police [forces] will never return as before," he said, saying that the relationship between the police and the people of Sinai has become one of deep animosity and desire for vengeance.

Development remains elusive

Over the last few decades, Egypt has celebrated the liberation of Sinai from Israeli occupation in 1982, despite there being no tangible shift in policy towards the neglected region.

"There is no development; the region has long been clinically dead," he asserts.  "People are completely marginalised. No wonder they have taken to arms and drugs trafficking, jihadism or crimes."

With an ailing economy and an unaffordable budget deficit, the tribesman has a grim outlook on the long sought-after development in the region. The only way out, he believes, is capitalising on the peninsula's own resources.

Ibrahim Al-Manei

On agriculture, for example, Al-Manei says, a lot of farm lands need an electricity supply to extract water from wells. He suggests digging one well every 3-4 km to irrigate lands. This will be implemented, he says, only by supplying medium-voltage electricity lines to kickstart agriculture in the region. Yet now, the tribal leader believes only the country's army can establish other production and industrial projects, rather than foreign or local investors who, he argues, do not discern the area’s needs.

Despite recurrent security breaches in the peninsula's Areas B and C (where Egypt's military presence is restricted under the 1979 peace treaty with Israel), the existing security is still weak and ineffective: frontier areas still act as a launch-pad for the rockets of jihadist groups into Israel, and subterranean tunnels have been dug beneath Egypt's borders with both Palestine and Israel.

Security reinforcement

The Egyptian army had announced plans to set up a buffer zone along Egypt's eastern frontier – at a depth of 5km – in a bid to shut down Gaza's smuggling tunnels, a move roundly criticised by Al-Manei.

"Buffer zones, which will swallow 1,000km of our lands and displace 75 percent of the population of Gaza's Rafah just because the army fails to maintain a necessary presence, will undermine our national security," said Al-Manei, who has met with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and Minister of Defence Abdel Fatah El-Sisi on multiple occasions.

"We will never allow any entity to do something we are not convinced by."

The head of the Egyptian army's engineering department told Ahram Online that, because of the objections of local inhabitants, the army is considering proposals to impose a buffer zone of only half a kilometre either side of the border.

Numerous Israeli reports claim the Egyptian army is currently reinforcing its presence at various points in the peninsula, raising concerns among some Israeli officials, although even if accurate such action would not constitute a violation of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

The army is instead making logistic security arrangements in view of the high level of arms among Sinai's Bedouins, which Al-Manei sees as part of a deep-seated culture in Sinai and among Bedouins and desert communities, rather than a post-revolution phenomenon.

Refuge from state oppression

Some military officials are reportedly seeking amendments to security arrangements in the peace treaty with both the US and the Israeli sides, a move which Al-Manei takes issue with.

"Most of the people in Sinai take refuge from the repression of the police state in the treaty."

According to him, before the revolution, thousands of local Bedouins were detained and dozens of women, whom Bedouin communities consider to be a ‘red line’ in terms of their protection and treatment, were locked up in the notorious [now-disbanded] State Security Investigations Service (SSIS) prisons.

The situation is no different under Morsi, elected in June 2012, whose government has taken its cue, he says, from the regimes of former presidents Mubarak and Gamal Abdel Nasser.

He cited an incident under Morsi's rule when a drug trafficker killed a police officer in the Al-Nahda area of Cairo's Dar al-Salam district:  police in retaliation tortured Bedouins living in the area, an old sheikh was dragged by a police vehicle and later lynched, and 400 head of cattle and 30 homes were set ablaze.

In Al-Manei’s view, there should not be a security presence in the peninsula, whether police or military one.

"Camp David has limited sovereignty in the peninsula, yet works in our interests given the heavy-handedness of the state."

Army of Bedouins

Throwing yet another thunderbolt, Al-Manei said that plans to form an army of Bedouins to be entrusted with maintaining their own security are currently on the table.

"This would be a major alternative should the state's policies follow the same heavy-handed tactics with Bedouin society, across the country not just in Sinai," he warned, citing Iraq's Pashmerga (armed Kurdish fighters) as an example of private armies.

The tribal head argues that if the Sawarka tribe, to which he belongs, and the Tarabein tribe, see eye to eye, many things would be possible.

Jihadism on the rise

Al-Manei seems equally unalarmed by jihadism in the peninsula (particularly near Area C's borders and throughout Area D, the border with Israel and Palestine), which has been a stronghold of roughly 7,000 jihadists who possess arms enough for urban warfare.

Having close ties with them, Al-Manei says jihadists see Israel as a bitter foe, yet believes the government has to embrace them so as to stem militancy within some of these groups. He went on to claim such militants are "fiercely patriotic."

"They bear no grudge towards the army, which has never been the target of their weapons."

Resettlement of Palestinians  

There have been persistent rumours in Egypt about the possibility of resettling Palestinians in Sinai, with an independent Palestinian state still seeming unachievable in the near future. Al-Manei describes such stories as fabrications for political purposes.

"I am present at the [Rafah] border crossing every day. I know what is going on," he says. "Neither [rival Palestinian groups] Hamas nor Fatah would accept this. And we, the inhabitants of Sinai, would never permit any [foreign] people to hold our lands."

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