Lawlessness Engulfs Sinai’s Bedouins

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Following the Egyptian revolution in January 2011 a nationwide security vacuum has caused great unrest, particularly in the rugged Sinai Peninsula. Sinai’s geographic location bordering Israel and Palestine and its indigenous Bedouin population are the primary concern given the area’s influence on regional and national security.

The lack of security in the mountainous desert terrain has facilitated a rise in criminal behavior primarily involving smuggling via the underground tunnel network and extremist activities.

“Recently disputes between tribes have disrupted the smuggling trade,” explained Mohamed Sabry a local journalist from Arish.

Inter-tribal and Political Strife

Current inter tribal strife is said to be related to a recent $4 billion development drive by Qatar’s Sheikh Hamad al-Thani to re-construct Gaza. Increased anarchy and lawlessness has been an immediate by-product since Sinai’s Bedouins are all competing to profit from this lucrative project. This has led to any materials associated with the construction of Gaza often being prevented from passing through the underground desert veins.  According to Sabry, the disputes, principally between North Sinai’s two main tribes Sawairka and Tarabeen, have impacted the enforcement of both Bedouin and Sharia judicial practices by creating an anarchic environment where the influence of rule of law is minimal.

Bedouins have also levied accusations at Muslim Brotherhood members of underhandedly attempting to benefit from the reconstruction project in Gaza. Said Abdel Hedi, local Bedouin rights activist from the Sawairka tribe points to rumours of the Brotherhood’s original  presidential candidate Khairat al-Shater establishing a construction company through the government company ‘Arab Contractors’ so as to benefit. In addition, Morsi and his government are often criticized by locals for their alignment with Hamas – the Muslim Brotherhood’s sister branch in Gaza – who they claim has gained further dominance over the Peninsula under his reign.

These compounding factors have not only given rise to disputes between tribes but also heightened the Bedouin vendetta against the new Islamist regime. Consequently, lawlessness has engulfed Sinai demonstrated by an increase in criminal and militant activity, with the recent kidnapping of seven soldiers in May 2013 (a common tactic used by Sinai militants) indicative of this.      

Despite the increased mayhem and lack of law enforcement, the government has not intensified its response since launching a military campaign dubbed ‘Operation Eagle,’ after sixteen Egyptian border guards were killed last August. In line with President Morsi’s pledge to improve national and regional security and eliminate militant activity, the military operation was initiated, and the destruction of thousands of illegal tunnels was incorporated into this operation. However, sources in the Sinai suggest it was a failed operation and nothing more than a media spectacle.

 “Operation Eagle is a failure. The majority of tunnels are still operating. With the new development projects in Gaza their necessity has heightened and increased conflict,” Ibrahim Abou Ashara El Menei, the head of the Sinai Tribes Coalition says, adding that the military operation was a distraction from the real issues at hand.

Sinai’s Arbitration Processes

The lack of law enforcement, despite the military operation, has spurred apprehension amongst locals. Another significant impact on Bedouin life in Sinai can be seen in the shift in the region’s judicial systems.  The security vacuum following the revolution has spurred anarchy and weakened Sinai’s arbitration processes, with local opportunists taking advantage of this vacuum through illegal activities with total disregard for the law. The lack of security under the new Islamist regime, which markedly propagates Sharia law, has also facilitated a shift in Bedouin legislative practices.

Three types of judicial systems are practiced in Egypt– Egyptian civil law, Sharia law and ‘Urfi (traditional Bedouin law). Traditionally, ‘Urfi law has been the prominent source of legislation, but according to Sinai’s local populous, Sharia law is currently the most prominent source of legislation.

The Bedouin penal code is held up by specific codes of honor reflecting pre-Islamic customs. Honor (Sharaf for men and ‘ird for women) is one of the three components of Bedouin ethics, as well as hospitality and courage. The ‘Urfi system is a single-level judicial system that adopts an intermediary approach. Uniquely, in many cases it does not search for the truth or reprimand the guilty, and Bedouin nomadic nature dictates that incarceration is not practiced. Instead, criminal acts, depending on the gravity, tend to be settled by fines or corporal punishment.

Sharia, on the other hand, is the religious law of Islam and moral code which, like secular law (fiqh), covers crime, politics and economics as well as issues related to an individual’s personal life. Interpretations of Sharia nevertheless differ; Sinai’s Bedouin appear to have adopted a very strict Wahabi interpretation of Sharia founded by the Saudi Salafi theologian Moahmed ibn Abd Al Wahhab according to Judge Abdel Hedi, a middle aged traditional Bedouin judge from the Sawairka tribe. Sharia law that adheres to the Wahabi school is more conservative than Bedouin law; and professes to have a solid comprehension of Tawhid (Islamic monotheism).

 “‘Urfi law was stronger but since Morsi and the Brotherhood have come to power they have weakened Bedouin judicial systems in favour of Sharia, with the support of the Salafis,” Abdel Hedi explains, underlining the Salafi Nour party’s impact on this shift with now approximately 70 per cent of the population preferring to use Sharia courts.

Al-Menei points to the former regime’s targeting of ‘Urfi law as another contributing factor to this shift since people lost faith.  According to the Head of the Sinai Tribes Coalition, bribery and other corrupt measures were adopted by  Mubarak’s government to weaken the Bedouin arbitration practices, so as retain control over the Peninsula and safeguard personal benefits related to the illicit tunnel trade.  

Nonetheless, Bedouin judges practicing ‘Urfi stand behind the potency of Bedouin law, insisting it safeguards citizens and ensures crime rates remain minimal. Abdel Hedi explains, “‘Urfi law is the most effective source of legislation in my opinion; it has enabled us to maintain order without assistance from the state, army or police.”

Future Legislative Prospects

Sinai’s Bedouin judicial practices, which date back to pre-Islamic times, are evidently deeply ingrained in the culture. Accordingly, many of Sinai’s Bedouins insist they should not be overlooked by the Islamist regime when considering security, as well as socio-economic advancements in the volatile region.

“Inclusion and respect of our Bedouin legislative processes by the state is a fundamental security prerequisite," Abdel Hedi says. A protocol agreement between the police and tribes to encourage collaboration and the application of the Bedouin judicial system has been proposed by Bedouin Sheikhs as a means to resolve the current strife.

Judge Abdel Hedi also stressed that without quickly addressing people’s socio-economic needs, any legislative mechanisms will not reach their full potential. President Morsi’s failure to meet his pledges and initiate progress has left many Sinai Bedouins disillusioned and unwilling to support the Islamist leader and his party in upcoming parliamentary elections, and even looking at ways to establish Sinai’s independence.

"Morsi and the Brotherhood have betrayed us like past regimes, they have not fulfilled any of their promises to develop Sinai," al-Menei says. Instead, he says, Sinai Bedouins are looking to potential plans to establish Sinai as a separate Emirate governed by ‘a Sinai specific’ Sharia law that would take into consideration the Bedouin penal code.

Sinai Security officials advocate that in order to regain stability in Sinai, Morsi’s government needs to employ a specially trained police force, inclusive of Bedouins, capable of dealing with illicit activities specific to Sinai whilst ensuring the implementation of Sharia law. 

Mohamed El Kurty, a former police officer and security expert, explains, “The old regime saw the Bedouin as traitors, hence to date they are prohibited from entering the army or police. We need people from Sinai to enter the police because they are the only people who know the people and the land.”

Sarah El-Rashidi graduated from Cambridge University with a Masters in International Relations, which encompassed a thesis focused on the Muslim Brotherhood’s pursuit of legitimacy under Mubarak.

Photo; Mosa’ab ElShamy

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