Why has the rise of 'Union of Arab Tribes' set off alarm bells in Egypt?

Why has the rise of 'Union of Arab Tribes' set off alarm bells in Egypt?
The foundation of a union involving Bedouin tribes of Arab origins kindled mixed reactions in Egypt.
4 min read
Egypt - Cairo
14 May, 2024
Paramilitary militias reportedly fought alongside security forces against insurgency in North Sinai for almost a decade. [Getty]

A recently declared union of about 30 Bedouin tribes across Egypt raised concerns over the possibility that entities or influential figures have overstepped the state's authority.

"The Union of Arab Tribes" was officially declared on 1 May during a celebration in the new Al-Arja city in once-restive northeastern North Sinai province, witnessed by officials, businessmen and public figures. Observers viewed this move as an attempt to legalise provincial tribes' much-criticised involvement in Egyptian politics and security.

Several Egyptian satellite TV channels, primarily loyal to the regime, cut their news feed to broadcast the celebration live, a move that has sparked criticism over the tribal group's influence.

City of Sisi

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was selected as "the honourary chairman" of the group. At the same time, controversial businessman and tribal leader Ibrahim Al-Argany (also spelt Argani and Arjany) was designated as its head to succeed tribal leader Sheikh Kamal Matar.

Argany's tribal group, the Union of Sinai Tribes, has been known for allegedly having paramilitary militias that had been reportedly fighting alongside army and police against insurgency in North Sinai for almost a decade.

During the official celebration in May, Argany unveiled a model city named after the Egyptian president, "the City of Sisi", and located on the border with the Palestinian Gaza Strip, in recognition of his role in developing North Sinai following years of chaos and instability.

Argany vowed that the families of the martyrs, the victims of security forces killed while fighting terrorism, would be given priority to live there in the new city, previously named Arja.

"The alliance of Bedouin tribes had been established out of a sense of national responsibility to reflect the growing role of Sinai's Arab tribes in maintaining the security of Egypt's borders," the tribal leader said.

Repeated denials

Even though Argany has reportedly been considered the de facto leader of Sinai, the union's official spokesman, journalist and MP Mostafa Bakri, has insistently denied reports suggesting otherwise.

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Days following the celebration, Bakri relentlessly defended the tribal union's true mission and claimed the union was a non-governmental organisation (NGO) officially registered by the Ministry of Social Solidarity to carry out social and developmental activities unrelated to security or politics.

Bakry has arguably been described as "the man of all time" as he affiliated with earlier regimes and governments that ran the country for almost three decades.

Argany has emerged as an influential businessman controlling North Sinai in recent years. Most recently, news reports alleged that he had reportedly been handling the entry of the Palestinians of Gaza to Egypt via the Rafah Border Crossing through a tour company he owns in Cairo.

The Egyptian constitution bans the formation of unofficial armed groups not affiliated with the army or the police. But despite frequent denials, the government has failed to decisively address the Egyptian public's concerns about the alleged presence of a state within a state or dispel fears of a possible scenario similar to one taking place in the neighbouring war-ravaged Sudan.

Mixed reactions

Most recently, Argany's influence has made headlines, especially after several local and international news outlets revealed his alleged influence in Sinai and the state at large.

The Sinai-born business tycoon has frequently been accused of using his ties to the military and intelligence agencies, especially in Sinai, to expand his influence and business empire.

Joint police-army forces have for years kept North Sinai a closed military zone where independent reporting is prohibited.

An ISIS-linked insurgency has raged for years in Sinai, intensified after a 2013 military coup led by current president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi against his predecessor, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

While there is no official death toll, it is believed that hundreds of Egyptian security forces, civilians, and militants have died during attacks or counterterrorism operations in Sinai.

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Meanwhile, the foundation of a union involving Bedouin tribes of Arab origins has sparked mixed reactions in Egypt.

While pro-government officials and public figures have hailed the group as a crucial ally in the fight against terrorism and safeguarding the country's borders, civil society organisations and left-wing nationalist parties have viewed it as a threat to Egypt's national unity and social cohesion.

Former presidential candidate and head of the United Nasserist Party, Hamdeen Sabahy, said, "[a]ny group established on ethnic, tribal, or sectarian basis deeply contradicts the principles of a unified national state, and could enable future endeavours to divide the country."

Since it first erupted on 7 October last year, Israel's war on Gaza has killed over 35,000 Palestinians, including women and children, with hundreds of thousands on the verge of famine.

The Rafah Border Crossing, Gaza's only connection to the outside border through Egypt, has recently been shut down following the Israeli ground operations south of the Palestinian southern Rafah City, which hindered the delivery of aid supplies to the besieged strip.