In mid-June, I got into a worn-down, eight-seater Mercedes that has been racing between Cairo and the Rafah Crossing Terminal for decades. The Egyptian capital was simmering in preparation for June 30, and Sinai was anxiously waiting for what could plunge the whole country into chaos. Several days before my trip, tribal chiefs had successfully mediated a bloodless release of seven kidnapped soldiers, and Mohamed Morsi had called on Bedouin tribes to surrender their weapons.
Throughout one week, seven stops in North, Middle and South Sinai, and talks to prominent members of the Sawarka, Qararsha, Gebaleyya, Tarabyn and Muzeina tribes, almost everyone criticized Mohamed Morsi for failing to apply reforms. They refused and sometimes taunted his calls to surrender their weapons. Their reaction wasn’t baseless criticism or an attempt to challenge the authorities; it was a clear depiction of realities and an infuriated emphasis of long-standing issues that every Sinai native continues to suffer.
In St. Catherine’s, I met Sheikh Ahmed El-Herish, the prominent chief of the Qararsha tribe that has controlled the Firan Valley for hundreds of years and is committed to the protection of several ancient churches and monasteries dotting the harsh terrain. With Mubarak’s downfall and the collapse of his ironfisted security apparatus, Herish collaborated with the military and contained several crises with his phone, four-wheeler, and AK47. He freed kidnapped foreign tourists, resolved several armed disputes between families, and continually helped authorities crackdown on drug smugglers in his stronghold.
Herish, along with at least a dozen tribal leaders that worked tirelessly to maintain law and order in different parts of Sinai, garnered the military’s respect and with lots of persistence and charisma, the military fulfilled their ‘on-behalf-of-the-community’ demands. They provided some farmers with greenhouses and deployed khaki-colored water tankers to help transport potable water to far-flung villages. But for Sinai’s kingpins and marginalized population, nothing was more valued than the fallback of the interior ministry and its State Security Department that ruthlessly detained, tortured, jailed, and at times killed hundreds of Bedouins for decades under Hosni Mubarak.
On the surface, relations between the tribes and the military appear stable, but digging deep reveals a different reality. Behind closed doors and off the record, tribesmen describe feeling betrayed by the military – that same military whose abandoned soldiers they rescued in 1976, whose operations they facilitated against Israel, feeding (with) intelligence and hosting its undercover operatives until the 1973 war. That military had stood watch as Mubarak’s security apparatus cracked down on the peninsula’s already impoverished and long-isolated population, including those who fought and received the highest war medals for their bravery and sacrifice.
“They only visit us when there is war or a security crisis,” a Bedouin sheikh from Ras Sidr, the Suez Gulf town, told me on condition of anonymity as a military chopper hovered high above us. “They know this region better than anyone in Egypt’s government, but even when they [SCAF] ruled the country, they never intended to apply reforms. And I know that they know such reforms would stabilize Sinai and resolve its security crisis.”
Sinai natives were the first to sense signals of a relapse to Mubarak-era security oppression. Operation Eagle, overseen by Morsi, was launched in the aftermath of the August 2012 Rafah border attack, which left sixteen soldiers dead. The military operation brought back memories of the much-loathed emergency law, trumped up charges, arbitrary detention, house raids, and the degradation of ancient and conservative tribal customs and traditions. This time, as one Bedouin described it, “They were dressed in military outfits, riding armored personnel carriers, covered by apache gunships.”
In short, nothing changed in practice in Sinai after the January 25 uprising that toppled Mubarak. Bedouins were not allowed to register the land they lived on, potable water never reached their homes, they were not allowed to enroll in military or police academies, were not appointed to government positions, and above all, hundreds of jail sentences delivered in absentia to members of almost every tribe across the mountainous peninsula were never dropped. As for the police force, like the rest of Egypt, it was never reformed, but its paralysis gave Sinai a sense of freedom it hadn’t experienced in at least two decades.
Less than a week before June 30, Sheikh Ahmed El-Herish, became the most recent microcosm of the complicated political, security and societal scene in Sinai. As he waited in line to fuel his vehicle at the gas station minutes from St. Catherine’s Monastery, several police officers and soldiers showered him with bullets, he survived the assassination attempt with a shoulder injury.
“The police department insists on destroying everything we do and will eventually destroy Egypt,” Herish told me as he explained how the military, which he had constantly served and collaborated with for more than two years, failed to even communicate with him after the bloody incident. Days later, Herish told me over phone that police officers had shot their machine guns in celebration as General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s Defense Minister, announced the forty-eight hour ultimatum that preceded the July 3 toppling of Morsi.
“The police are getting ready to take revenge, they are deploying their checkpoints and they will retaliate for [what has happened over] the past two and a half years,” Herish told me over the phone a few hours before Sisi announced Morsi’s removal on July 3. “We will see more oppression and brutality than what we revolted against in 2011.”
The Sheikh, who once criticized Morsi for failing to apply reforms during his one year in office, condemned Sisi for “betraying, toppling and detaining the man who appointed him and opening the door for a return to the Mubarak days.”
As deadly confrontations have intensified between joint police and army operations and unidentified attackers, mainly in North Sinai’s al-Arish, Sheikh Zuweid and Rafah near the Gaza border, several tribal leaders continue to declare their support for the ousted president as they condemn the attacks on security and military facilities.
Sinai Bedouins, who continually dodged confrontations with a merciless regime and sometimes interfered to diffuse situations in which they could have become collateral damage, were once again locked between a state that alienated them and armed militants who brought the security forces to their businesses, farms, and sometimes doorsteps. Since 2011, the Sinai population’s chaotic status quo has continued as though Mubarak was never toppled, and the enforced truce between them and the security authorities remained a ticking time bomb.
“People fear the outcomes of Sisi’s move against Mohamed Morsi, they are traumatized enough and will never accept the return of Hosni Mubarak’s police state, they would prefer to die than be oppressed and humiliated again,” said Ibrahim al-Menaei, a revered chief of the Sawarka tribe and head of the independent Sinai Tribes Coalition.
So far, Sinai tribes have adhered to what dozens of chiefs have encouraged: self restraint and refraining from interfering in the ensuing confrontations between the military and armed militants. But this was never the preferred scenario, as security was never maintained in Sinai without tribal endorsement.
Until the tribal population is practically reintegrated and compensated for decades of marginalization, the chaotic status quo will continue. And if Bedouin tribes are victims of the ongoing state incompetence, soon, the state will be the victim of an explosive Sinai.
Mohannad Sabry is an Egyptian journalist based in Cairo, a finalist of the 2011 Livingston Award for International Reporting and is currently writing a book on the current political and security affairs of the Sinai Peninsula. Follow him on twitter @mmsabry