In Sinai, the tribe comes before the state, the state before Islamists
Lina Attalah - Egypt Independent Mon, 11/06/2012 - 11:20
Manei Mohamed was buying a mobile phone at a kiosk in downtown Arish on the
afternoon of 19 May when he suddenly heard gunfire. He looked around and saw
a man with his face covered by a scarf run out of a barbershop, hop on a
motorbike driven by another masked man, and speed away. When Mohamed entered
the barbershop, he found Nayef Abu Qabbal bleeding from his head.
“He was dead by then,” Mohamed says.
Abu Qabbal was a sheikh in the Sawarka tribe, one of North Sinai’s largest
and most powerful. Weeks later, who killed the sheikh remains a mystery, but
conspiracy theories abound and all come back to the central issues
confronting North Sinai: continuing lawlessness, flourishing Islamist
militancy, and a precarious and complex relationship between Sinai and the
“Talk in the city is that [Abu Qabbal] has a connection with state security
and has helped them arrest a lot of people here,” Mohamed says, echoing a
view held by many interviewed by Egypt Independent in North Sinai.
The State Security Investigation Services was toppled President Hosni
Mubarak’s brutal investigative authority, and was behind the arbitrary
arrest of thousands in Sinai on terrorism and smuggling charges.
“We don’t know who killed the sheikh. But the way he was killed shows that
it’s probably a vendetta,” says Mohamed al-Menei, a trader from the border
town of Rafah, adding that a few of those arbitrarily arrested in Sinai were
reportedly identified by security with Abu Qabbal’s help.
Menei purported that it could be a fellow tribesman who killed Abu Qabbal,
or a militant Islamist who was arrested and imprisoned thanks to the sheikh’s
conspicuous relationship with the security apparatus. He is inclined to
believe the second scenario, he says, because “the way the sheikh was killed
is not manly.” Citing common tribal practices, Menei says a tribesman would
have shot Abu Qabbal in the leg, not the head.
Bedouins of North Sinai have long lamented the co-optation of the sheikh’s
position by the ruling regime.
“In the past, the tribe would be the one choosing its sheikh and it would be
an informed choice of who can best serve the tribe,” said Moussa Abu
Mohamed, a community leader in the village of Mahdeya near the Israeli
But during the Mubarak era, sheikhs became an entry point for the central
government in Cairo into Sinai’s intricate tribal system.
According to Abu Mohamed and other North Sinai residents, a sheikh is
informally pushed to the post through the security directorate and the
military intelligence, both active security agencies in North Sinai during
the Mubarak era.
“They report to the police and are loyal to state security. The security
apparatus has mobilized the sheikhs against the people,” he says.
There are some 150 such sheikhs in North Sinai. They would be the typical
interlocutors of the state when a government or a political party claims to
establish a dialogue with the people of Sinai.
Abu Mohamed and many other Sinai residents want to see this system changed
and a return to the election, or at least the endorsement, of sheikhs by
tribe members rather than just the Interior Ministry or the military. While
the government relies on its security services and networks of informants to
control security threats in Sinai, Abu Mohamed believes a strong tribal
system and representative leadership are the real keys to dealing with
One much-discussed threat these days is that of the new and revived militant
Islamist groups operating in the area.
These groups can generally be divided into the more peaceful, proselytizing
type and the more violent type. According to various tribesmen, these groups
are mainly located in the towns of Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed.
Al-Tableegh wal Dawah is one such formation, and it’s generally known for
being a peaceful group that was founded in the mid-1980s, following the
signing of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.
Al-Takfeer wal Hijra, a more radical group that is anti-politics, is also
It was born in the late 1970s, when former Muslim Brotherhood member Shokry
Mostafa established it as a radical response to President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s
execution of the leading Brotherhood figure Sayed Qutb. A reported member of
the group in Sinai, Mohamed al-Teehi, was arrested in late 2011 on charges
of blowing up the pipeline supplying gas to Israel, but died in prison five
Another group, the Salafiya Jihadiya, includes many of those labeled by the
Mubarak regime as “outlaws” and arbitrarily sentenced in absentia to prison
on smuggling or terrorism charges, according to many Bedouins. Many of the
followers of this group are reportedly less intellectually tied to ideology
and more motivated to kill by money.
Many connect the group to the Gaza-based Gaysh al-Islam (Islam’s Army), a
splinter of the Palestinian Popular Resistance Committees, which Israel held
responsible for the killing of eight citizens in its southern city of Eilat
when gunmen crossed over from Sinai last August. Gaysh al-Islam’s founder
Mumtaz Daghmash is accused by Egypt of perpetrating several terrorist
attacks in Sinai between 2004 and 2006, as well as the 2009 bombing in Cairo’s
Hussein tourist area. Accordingly, Egypt has been pressuring Hamas, which
controls Gaza, to arrest Daghmash.
The other possible Gaza connection in Sinai is the Jaljalat organization,
which was cited by Egyptian security as potentially complicit in the Eilat
bombing of August 2011.
But while these groups are met with frenzied anxiety in Cairo-based, Israeli
and Western media, locals seem far less concerned.
“I can set up a bar in Sheikh Zuwayed and no one will talk to me,” says
“Radical Islam in Cairo is one thing and in Sinai is another thing,” says
Awad Salman, a sheikh in Massoura village. “In tribal societies, it is hard
for militant Islamist ideas to diffuse,” he adds, reiterating that a
militant group would fear unruly tribal resistance.
The hype around these groups, he says, is exaggerated. According to Salman,
fear of Islamist militants in Sinai is in Israel’s interest, because it
gives the Israelis justification for keeping the peace treaty with Egypt
unchanged. Salman even takes this idea further, suggesting that these groups
in Sinai are manufactured by Israel to create a threat. For evidence, Salman
points to a rocket reportedly fired from Sinai into Israel last April, which
hit no one. “There are no rockets that can reach that far in Sinai. Plus,
why would rockets be launched without targeting anything or anyone?”
Salman’s assessment may sound like a stretch, but many analysts argue that
militant groups are often intelligence agencies’ proxies.
“The problem is that we don’t have educated journalists among our sons and
daughters to defend us,” he says.
As far as the local following of these groups is concerned, Salman sees an
important role for state security, either as a reaction to its arbitrary
policies in Sinai or by direct influence.
“When state security [arbitrarily] arrested the men of Sinai and threw them
in prisons, we demanded that they would be separated from militant Islamists
so that radical thought wouldn’t diffuse. But no one listened,” he says.
Menei, the Rafah trader, has firsthand experience with this phenomenon. His
brother was arrested in 2004 and accused of smuggling to Gaza. Those accused
of smuggling to Gaza would be put in political prisons alongside terrorism
suspects, he says.
“When he came out recently, he grew a beard and joined one of the militant
groups,” Menei says, declining to identify which group.
A 26-year-old sympathizer with radical Islamist groups in Sinai who spoke to
Egypt Independent on the condition of anonymity shared his experience, as he
has just been released from Egyptian political prisons.
“I was randomly arrested in 2006 on smuggling charges and was kept there for
four years until charges were dropped following an appeal,” he explains.
In prison, he met several Islamist figures whom he described as “extremely
informative.” He came back with this thought: “The Islamists of Sinai are
not deeply rooted in one or another ideology. They fluctuate depending on
who talks to them.”
He knows one thing for sure: “I just came out and felt unstable. I lost my
education and my father died of the pain of losing me.”
Asked whether he would shoot a sheikh accused of working with state security
in the foot, according to the tribal tradition, the former prisoner simply
says, “Any informer should be liquidated.”