Egypt’s Wild West

Post-revolution score-settling between the native Bedouin and Egypt's security services has brought chaos to the Sinai Peninsula.

-/AFP/Getty Images
-/AFP/Getty Images

The landscape of Egypt’s lawless North Sinai governorate is punctuated by the bullet-riddled, torched police station of Sheikh Zuweid, a densely populated town roughly nine miles from the Gaza border. It is just one of the security buildings that has fallen victim to the long-running clashes between the military and the Bedouin tribes of the region, clashes that have only escalated since Egypt’s revolution.

Hosni Mubarak’s regime branded the Bedouin, a largely nomadic and clan-based people, as outlaws who threatened Egyptian sovereignty. As his rule collapsed in February, and afterward, the Bedouins sought retribution against the security services that long oppressed them, attempting to carve out a degree of autonomy in the region.

The unrest has turned into an economic headache for Egypt’s new military rulers: The pipeline that supplies 40 percent of Israel’s natural gas has been bombed five times since the revolution, halting the country’s natural gas exports. But more importantly, Sinai has become a breeding ground for Islamist extremism and violence that — barring a dramatic improvement in relations between the Bedouins and the central government in Cairo — threatens Egypt and the region at large.

Sinai’s lawlessness recently sparked an international incident: On Aug. 18, gunmen carried out a string of attacks in southern Israel that left eight Israelis dead. The Israeli government, which claimed that the attackers were militants from the Gaza Strip who had crossed into Israel through the porous Sinai border, retaliated by launching attacks in both Gaza and Egypt.

That same night, five Egyptian soldiers were killed and several injured during an attack on the Egyptian side of the border. Lt. Col. Amr Imam, a media spokesman for the Egyptian military, said that the officers were killed by an Israeli Apache helicopter that fired two rockets. "It may have been a mistake," he said.

Also on Aug. 18, a man wearing an explosives belt blew himself up at an Egyptian checkpoint 11 miles from the Sinai town of Taba, killing an officer and injuring two others. "The body of the dead officer and the unidentified head of the bomber were brought over to the hospital," said Abel Wahab, a doctor in the emergency department of the hospital in el-Arish, North Sinai’s capital.

The Israeli operation outraged the Egyptian public and prompted thousands to protest outside the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. Amid rumors that Egypt might recall its ambassador from Tel Aviv, the Egyptian government also brushed off a rare Israeli statement of regret as "not in keeping with the magnitude of the incident and the state of Egyptian anger."

In Sinai, that anger is more palpable — but it’s more often directed at the Egyptian state.

Ibrahim al-Menaei, a leader of the Swarkeh tribe, considered the most powerful tribe in the north, told me that Mubarak’s formally dissolved state security apparatus was to blame for the lack of law and order in the region. He accused the security forces of framing his people for crimes that they did not commit and labeling them as drug and weapons dealers.

"I will not let a single police officer into this region until they give in to our demands," Menaei explained as he sat in the sanctuary of his safe house a few kilometers south of the Israeli border, surrounded by his five sons and armed disciples. He called on the new Egyptian government to repeal laws that prevent the Bedouins from owning land, abolish all absentia sentences against Bedouins that were issued during Mubarak’s rule, and prosecute police officers responsible for killing Bedouins.

There are in fact two Sinais: the impoverished north and the more-developed south, home of beach resorts catering to international tourists. The security vacuum may have turned Sinai into a regional hot spot, but it is also an economic boon to Bedouin leaders, who have thrived off what is literally an underground economy. Menaei said that he spent $100,000 to construct a subterranean tunnel large enough to smuggle cars into nearby Gaza. "As many as 200 cars a week were smuggled through," he said.

"Hamas gets $1,000 per car as tax," he explained. "The buyer pays me the car’s price and rent money for using the tunnel — $5,000 for a car and around $8,000 for a truck."

Such a lucrative source of revenue requires significant weaponry to protect it. "This is our operation room," Menaei boasted, showing off two 14.5 mm anti-aircraft machine guns stored in the corner of the room, covered with bedsheets.

The smugglers showed me one of their blockade-busting tunnels positioned to relieve the Gazans’ suffering from the Israeli blockade and sanctions. It was equipped with ventilation and lighting systems, as well as network boosters meant to amplify the mobile-phone signal. Its entrance was well hidden between man-made huts and fences located amid an olive tree field in the desert.

"I get $50 for every Palestinian I smuggle into Sinai," Menaei said, explaining that Hamas supervises the smuggling operation from the Gaza side of the border. Standing nearby, one of his sons demonstrated how the smugglers plunge safely into the tunnel using a rope tethered above ground.

Salem Aenizan, a fugitive leader from the Tarabin tribe, insisted that the Bedouins’ links to Gaza are based on financial interest rather than an ideological affinity with Hamas. He told me that the tunnels are used to smuggle food, cars, medicine, and construction materials — but that the weapons trade ceased after Hamas’s 2007 takeover of Gaza and that the smugglers refuse to transport suicide bombers or people intent on kidnapping tourists.

But the Bedouins’ entrepreneurial spirit has nevertheless led to some interesting opportunities. "We built the Gaza Zoo," Aenizan boasted. "I received $20,000 once for smuggling a tiger. We had to drug it."

For the Bedouins, the profits that they reap from smuggling are only compensation for generations of neglect and outright hostility from Egypt’s central government. "Only 10 percent of my people benefit from the tourism industry," Aenizan said. "The rest is pocketed by Egyptian tycoons."

It is not unusual for Bedouins to refer to non-Bedouins as "Egyptians" — a sign of their detachment from Egyptian society. Running water is still scarce in many areas of Sinai, another sign of the government’s negligence. Although most Bedouins hold Egyptian citizenship, they are not allowed into the high ranks of the military, according to Aenizan and Menaei.

Aenizan, who is wanted on an 80-year sentence for allegedly smuggling goods, described how interactions with the corrupt judicial system often sour Bedouins on the state. "They jailed our women to force us to turn ourselves in," he said, attempting to justify his contempt toward the government. "I didn’t even enter a court or have a lawyer. They ask you to be an informer. If you refuse, they frame you."

The Bedouins’ long-simmering frustration with the Egyptian state boiled over during the mass protests that led to Mubarak’s fall from power. Three police officers were kidnapped by armed men in el-Arish during the height of the revolution, and their whereabouts still remain unknown. Tourists fled the city as lawlessness grew more pronounced.

But while Sinai’s disorder has mainly been exploited by people looking to make a quick buck, a disturbing ideological element has also tried to fill the political space. On July 29, during a protest calling for an Islamic state after Friday prayers in el-Arish, close to 100 armed militants mounted on motorcycles and pickup trucks stormed through the city waving black flags, terrorizing residents, and attacking the police station. Gun battles with security forces lasted for hours, leaving seven people dead, including two police officers and a 13-year-old boy caught in the crossfire, according to Gen. Saleh el-Masry, head of North Sinai security.

Masry said that the attackers belonged to the radical Islamist group Takfir wal-Hijra, as well as Palestinian factions that snuck through the tunnels. "The Takfiris" — extremist militants with a dogmatic, exclusionary ideology — "have become more active during the revolution," he said, claiming that Egyptian security forces had arrested 12 of the assailants in the el-Arish attack, including three Palestinians.

The spike in violence has been fueled by outlaws who escaped Egypt’s prisons during the anarchy that accompanied Mubarak’s fall. Deputy Interior Minister Gen. Ahmed Gamal El Din told me in an interview that 23,000 criminals escaped from Egypt’s prisons during the revolution and that only 7,300 had been rearrested or turned themselves in as of May.

The prison breaks also freed some men allegedly linked to al Qaeda, who appear to be attempting to establish a foothold in Sinai’s ungoverned spaces. Maj. Yaser Atia of Egypt’s General Security confirmed that Ramzi Mahmoud al-Mowafi, also known as "the chemist" for his expertise in preparing explosives, escaped a Cairo prison on Jan. 30. The fugitive’s prison files presented to me indicate that the 59-year-old Egyptian had fled to Afghanistan and joined al Qaeda. Upon his return to Egypt he was given a life sentence by a military tribunal, though more details on the charges against him remain unclear. Egyptian intelligence sources told me that Mowafi is currently in Sinai, though they played down the threat he posed.

And then there is the matter of the fliers. On July 29, the residents of el-Arish found a flier labeled "A statement from al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula" distributed throughout their neighborhoods. It describes Islam as the only true religion and criticizes the Camp David agreement that led to the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. Gen. Abdel-Wahab Mabrouk, the governor of North Sinai, said that the fliers had been distributed outside mosques after Friday prayers by men who covered their faces with scarves.

Several days later, another purported al Qaeda flier appeared around el-Arish — this time announcing that the organization was planning to attack police stations on Aug. 12. For the Egyptian security services, that was one provocation too far. On that day, stunned residents of el-Arish woke to find thousands of troops from the Egyptian 2nd Army, accompanied by police officers and border guards, deployed in an "anti-terror" crackdown in Sinai.

The operation’s first phase entailed securing government buildings, police stations, and the el-Arish prison. The offensive started on Aug. 15, as one Egyptian militant was killed and 12 were arrested, according Hazem al-Maadawi, a police officer involved in the operation. State news agency EgyNews said authorities are targeting 15 more people who participated in attacks at the el-Arish police station, including members of the al Qaeda-affiliated Palestinian group Jaish al-Islam.

These extremist rumblings have frayed nerves in the Israeli government, which had already been skeptical of the Egyptian revolution. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a Knesset committee on May. 30, "Global terrorist organizations are meddling [in Sinai] and their presence is increasing because of the connection between Sinai and Gaza."

If there is any hope of restoring order to Sinai, it lies in a historic rapprochement between the Bedouins and the Egyptian security forces to drive out these unwanted interlopers. Bedouins have signaled their willingness to help restore security, but are also calling on the Egyptian government to do its part by finally integrating them into Egypt’s social fabric.

"We will not let a single Palestinian suspected of ill intentions into Sinai after the attacks," said Muhammed al-Ahmar, a Bedouin and human rights activist. "But, we are fed up with empty promises, and if the police mentality does not change, then nothing will work. It’s time for Sinai to flourish and regain its full rights."

Egypt’s new government has made tentative steps in that direction: Members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, accompanied by the deputy interior minister and members of the military intelligence, held a meeting on Aug. 20 in the el-Arish military club, in a conference hall with Bedouin sheikhs representing each tribe in Sinai.

At the meeting speakers from both sides expressed their willingness to cooperate in bringing the security situation back to normal and to bury the hatchet "for love of Sinai." The government officials announced their concessions, including promises to soon issue a new law regarding land ownership in the region and to revisit the files of those Bedouins sentenced in absentia; the Bedouins dutifully clapped at the news. Several Bedouin sheikhs subsequently took to the podium and announced their intentions to assist in securing the region.

The government’s planned reforms are a good start, but after years of neglect, it’s going to take more than promises to win over the Bedouins. If Egypt is truly concerned about securing Sinai, it must quickly turn its words into actions.

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