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A Cycle of Insecurity in Egypt's North Sinai

[Sheikh Aref Musallem Abu ‘Akr of the ‘Akoura family at his home in Sheikh Zuweid, North Sinai.] [Sheikh Aref Musallem Abu ‘Akr of the ‘Akoura family at his home in Sheikh Zuweid, North Sinai.]

Photos and text by Rob Stothard. Interviews by Rob Stothard and Max Strasser.

Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, sandwiched between two old foes, is a territory of vital importance. Bordered by the Suez Canal to the west and Israel and the Gaza Strip to the east, North Sinai is home to a thriving smuggling trade and several notoriously rebellious Bedouin tribes.

Since the popular uprising of January 2011 that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, the security situation in North Sinai has deteriorated. A controversial gas pipeline from Egypt to Israel and Jordan has been attacked dozens of times since then, and police and military checkpoints have been regularly assaulted. In August 2012 armed men charged a border post, killed sixteen Egyptian soldiers, and briefly entered Israel. In response, the Egyptian government vowed to secure the peninsula. Under increasing international pressure "Operation Sinai" ushered in the re-adoption of worrying tactics deployed under Mubarak such as mass arrests, as well as missile strikes on suspected militants.

Shortly after Mohamed Morsi's ouster in July 2013 a renewed military campaign in the Sinai began, which escalated as militants responded violently to the military's overthrow of the Islamist leader with almost daily attacks on security forces. Other areas outside North Sinai are also affected. Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, a Sinai-based group, claimed responsibility for the bombing of the Daqahliya Security Directorate in Mansoura in December 2013, in which sixteen were killed and over 134 injured. On 16 February 2014 a bomb destroyed a bus transporting South Korean tourists in the Egyptian city of Taba in the south of the peninsula, creating fear that militants are broadening their campaign to include attacks on civilians.

However, instability in North Sinai is not a new concern. The area is bound by the Camp David Agreement, which leaves the Egyptian state constrained in its ability to secure the region. Its population was marginalized from Egyptian society by the Israeli occupation from 1967 to 1982. The state’s emphasis on tourism has neglected the more populous north in favor of southern resorts such as Sharm el Sheikh and Dahab. While the government has undertaken a series of other socio-economic development programs in the Sinai, these have largely promoted the settlement of Nile valley migrants, excluding the local Bedouin from the job market and further aggravating existing identity issues.

A lack of legitimate economic opportunities (over fifty percent of Sinai Bedouin live in poverty), underdevelopment, and the denial of land claims have entrenched long-standing grievances with the Egyptian government. Combining these issues with high levels of unemployment has meant that smuggling and trafficking are for many the only source of income. Within the security vacuum that has developed in North Sinai, this and other serious forms of organized crime will increase.

Sinai's Bedouin feel that their customs and tribal laws, collectively known as urf, have been largely overlooked in the development of the peninsula. This has been exacerbated by the government’s heavy-handed, security-focused approach to the region in response to terrorist attacks since the mid-2000s.

Without addressing the underlying issues of isolation and underdevelopment, likely causes of the region's instability, security for any community in Egypt’s North Sinai is unforeseeable.

Below are expanded captions to some of the photos above, based on interviews conducted in 2012, with updates gathered in 2014.

+ Said, a Bedouin and political activist, at his friend's home near Massoura. "The Bedouin are on the verge of giving up on feeling Egyptian. They have no hope of being treated as real citizens in Egypt. Poverty is fertile soil for dangerous thoughts. The absence of the state here for the past thirty years…made Sinai fall prey to Islamists and terror groups.” He later joined the Tamarod movement that demanded President Mohamed Morsi's resignation and new presidential elections to be held. The nationwide protests, in part inspired by the movement, resulted in General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's removal of President Morsi from power and suspension of the Egyptian constitution in July 2013. He is currently living in Cairo, rarely returning to his home in North Sinai for fear of reprisals from militant Islamists.

+ Members of the Armalat tribe gather at the home of Sheikh Awad Hassan, the sheikh of the tribe, who said, “The sheikh is the link between the government and the tribe. If anyone wants anything done, like getting an ID card or a permit for something, I’m the one who makes it happen. He’s also responsible for settling ‘urf decisions. A lot of problems can be settled here better than they can in a police station. Kidnappings, murders, fights. It’s faster to do here. I can do in a day what can take two days or sometimes months through the legal system.”

+ Abdel Rahman Shorbagi, North Sinai's representative from the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, in 2012 said, "The problem is that we were underground before the revolution. Nowadays we are out in the open. But that’s why there was no connection between us and the tribes. Sinai is vast and there are a large number of tribes. So it’s hard in a year, or a year and a half…Just one visit to these Bedouin makes everything okay. The Bedouin are kind people. They don’t like the radical groups. They see the FJP as the normal kind of Islam, the good kind." Following the arrest and detention by the military of President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, hundreds of thousands of people protested all over the country. In August the military declared a month-long state of emergency, violently dispersing Muslim Brotherhood protest encampments and arresting many of its members, including the supreme leader Mohamed Badie. The Muslim Brotherhood was declared a terrorist organization in December. Abdel Rahman Shorbagi's whereabouts are currently unknown. Reports that he was arrested in Giza have been denied.

+ Sheikh Hamdeen Abu Faisal, conductor of Sharia courts at his home in Sheikh Zuweid, said in 2012, “Before the revolution maybe ten percent of people were using the court. Now, the majority of the people. We deal with three issues: Blood [killings], things related to women and sex, and, of course, money. We don’t call people to the court. They request us. They bring their issues to us.” Sheikh Abu Faisal expanded his work, founding a Sharia court in Ismailia. In autumn 2013 he was arrested and tried in a military court, accused of issuing fatwas against the police and military following the Rabaa al-Adawiya massacre in Cairo in August 2013. He is currently serving a 5-year jail sentence.

+ Ashraf Mahmoud, former head of investigations in North Sinai, at his office in Al-Arish in 2012, said, “There are a lot of criminals in the desert. We’ve taken up new procedures, cooperating with the Ministry of Interior in Cairo to deal with these problems. After the revolution, it has, of course, gotten worse but it has improved a lot now. We have control of seventy percent of North Sinai now. Look around Arish. Do you see any problems? No. Now people are demanding the application of the law. In Sinai we used to have a problem with the Bedouin following their customary laws, which involved stealing cars as a form of payback. They have stopped that kind of vigilante justice. We are getting rid of the ‘urf system... we want the formal law to replace ‘urf.” Ashraf Mahmoud is no longer the head of investigations in North Sinai. Mohamed Abdelazim currently holds that position.

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