Sinai: No tribal front to fight back against attacks

Sinai: No tribal front to fight back against attacks
In-depth: The call by the Union of Sinai Tribes in the wake of the Radwa mosque attack will have no effect without a unified tribal effort, reports Jo Schietti.
7 min read
22 December, 2017
The call for tribal groups to rise up followed the Radwa mosque attack [Getty]
Not long after the attack on the Radwa mosque in Egypt's Sinai peninsula, the Union of Sinai Tribes released a statement declaring its coordination with the Egyptian army in a wide-scale operation against extremist militants in the region.

In an earlier statement, the Union pledged to eradicate the militant presence in the Sinai peninsula following the 24 November attack on the mosque near the north Sinai town of Bir al-Abed, in which more than 300 people were killed after Friday prayers - the deadliest attack in Egypt's modern history. 

Although no group claimed responsibility, it is widely believed that the assault was the work of local Islamic State group affiliate Wilayat Sinai ["Sinai Province"], which has claimed some of the bloodiest attacks in Egypt.

The coalition called on the young men of Sinai's tribes to join the tribal fighters in the Bars area, south of Rafah, where Egypt's army is conducting a major operation against militant elements.

"The massacre that was carried out against the residents of the al-Rawda village will turn into a burning fire that will eliminate you [the perpetrators]. We do not have trials or prisons," the declaration read.

"Our initiative is aimed to mobilise men from the tribes and have them engaged in the battle against extremists all around Sinai," said Abu Saqer Tarabin, media spokesman of the Union of Sinai Tribes.

Tarabin said that tribesmen were providing full logistic support to the Egyptian armed forces all around Sinai, adding that the coordination between the tribes and the military was "at its best" keeping to its goal to eradicate extremism.

Nonetheless, the informal move is the latest of several calls of armed tribal action against militant groups in the region made in the past few years, which so far have gone nowhere. This is mainly due to the history of local Bedouin disenfranchisement by the Egyptian state, the lack of Bedouin presence in state security forces assigned to Sinai, and tribal disunity.

"The alliance of tribes itself is an example of disunity. Why until now haven't we seen any unified tribal effort in Sinai?" asked Mohannad Sabry, an Egyptian journalist who has covered the Sinai peninsula for years.

Egypt still hasn't offered a model to formally include Sinai Bedouin fighters in the army's counter-terrorism mission. Instead, a bunch of armed civilians are running around and calling others to join them

Like prior initiatives, he argued, the declaration by the tribal umbrella group will prove ineffective in Egypt's "war on terror" due to the regime's unchanged heavy-handed military approach in north Sinai, as well as the non-existence of any formal framework for incorporating tribesmen into the ranks of the Egyptian army.

Making comparisons with other countries that have absorbed members of tribal communities within their security apparatuses, Sabry pointed out: "Egypt still hasn't offered a model to formally include Sinai Bedouin fighters in the army's counter-terrorism mission. Instead, a bunch of armed civilians are running around and calling others to join them."

Ahmed Salem, an independent researcher on Sinai, hinted at the initiators of the Union's statement being the same group of tribal leaders behind previous calls to take up arms and fight alongside the military. Many of them live in Cairo, not Sinai, making the announcement look less credible.

Among them is thought to be prominent pro-government businessman sheikh Ibrahim al-Arjani from the Tarabin tribe, and Abdul Majid al-Mainaei, a leader of the Sawarka tribe.

The Sinai expert noted that the Union was by no means representative of all tribes, rather composed of individuals belonging to some of the area's major tribes. He went on to say that the majority of the Bedouin population had not joined the fight, despite the tribal alliance's invitation to take revenge in the aftermath of the Rawda attack by "using people's anger" to attract prospective combatants - particularly from within the Sawarka tribe which saw the largest number of victims in the massacre.  

"The tribes have limited capabilities and not a large number of fighters, they don't have extremist ideology, nor do they want to sacrifice their lives - because Egypt didn't give them anything," argued the researcher, himself originally from north Sinai.

For decades the Sinai region has seen little development, social or economic opportunities, education or basic public services. There has been, in essence, a total absence of the state. The distrust towards Cairo among Bedouin tribes here has been made worse by the army's aggressive campaign towards local communities after the 2013 military overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi, as Egypt has since battled an Islamist insurgency on the restive peninsula. 

"Up until now, using heavy-handed and tactically ham-fisted airstrikes with tribal collateral damage, Cairo has been ineffective and has angered the tribes," commented Wayne White, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and a policy expert with the Middle East Policy Council. 

Forced evacuations, homes demolished, villages destroyed, extrajudicial killings, detentions and abuses at the hands of security forces in Cairo's indiscriminate counter-insurgency campaign has resulted in alienating the Bedouin population

"For 40 years they have marginalised us, then come to destroy our homes and farms, jailed and killed our family members. Now they ask us to cooperate with them?" Salem said with a light laugh. "People in Sinai are scared of both IS and the Egyptian military.

"Neither the Union of Sinai Tribes nor the army defend our people," he continued. "Their joint operation is not our fight, it won't work."

White says it remains unknown whether enough patience exists on both sides - the official security apparatus and tribal groups - to keep strengthening cooperation until more trust and effectiveness can be established. 

"The tribes have every reason to remain suspicious about whether the army would cooperate without harming the tribes through acts like widespread arrests, airstrikes with aircrews missing targets and hitting innocent tribal targets instead," said the analyst, who served in Sinai as a peacekeeper several years ago.

How could a fully functioning state allow a group of civilians to put out a call for others to pick up arms

In commenting on the Union's initiative, Sabry, the author of the book Sinai: Egypt's Linchpin, Gaza's Lifeline, Israel's Nightmare, said that due attention should be given to the potentially serious repercussions of an "unregulated tribal effort" which, he said, local tribes understand very well - largely refusing to answer the call to arms.

"How could a fully functioning state allow a group of civilians to put out a call for others to pick up arms?" he asked with stark disbelief. "Is it capable of controlling a tribal warfare that might start simply because of a statement published by Ibrahim al-Arjani?"

In terms of the cooperation of tribes with the armed forces, he raised concerns about the dubious legal parameters in which actions have been carried out by Bedouin fighters. He gave an example referring to a video released last April by the Tarabin tribe which showed what purported to be an IS militant being burnt alive in Sinai.

The tribesmen were heard threatening to burn and kill other IS members in retaliation to a threat from the group for cooperating with the army and police against them. This is just one of the crimes committed in Sinai with impunity under the banner of the "war on terrorism".

In exchange for their collaboration with the military, these militias get immunity, and do not face arrest, torture or death like other members of the Sinai Bedouin community.

According to Salem, tribal fighters are mainly protecting their lands and trade routes from groups such as Wilayat Sinai, blocking their access to strategic locations - but without hitting these groups directly or targeting areas with a presence of IS members.

In its recent statement, the Sawarka tribe said it would place its men at the disposal of the armed forces in combating terrorism in the area, echoing previous calls from tribes to join the armed fight.

However, neither the government nor the military gave an official response to the tribes' request to bear arms.

During his speech at a public celebration of the Prophet Muhammad's birth on 29 November, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi ordered the Egyptian army and police forces to restore stability and security in Sinai within three months, using "utmost force" in a show of unwillingness to change his security strategy.

"The use of brute force that's been applied in Sinai over years has not succeeded in defeating terrorism, in fact it has provided more targets for terrorism," Sabry concluded. "The top thing that Egypt should change to succeed is this strategy precisely."