FIRAN VALLEY, Sinai — The most powerful leaders of the tribes across the Sinai Peninsula drove their four-wheelers through the Firan Valley to give President Mohammed Morsi and his government one last chance. The gathering of dozens of widely feared Bedouin kingpins at a summit on April 5 represented a unanimous, unprecedented threat to Egypt’s first democratically elected president.
The summit leaders pitched their tent in front of the Seven Girls Monastery. Women and sometimes children carried empty cooking gas canisters from as far as five miles deep in the mountainous terrain and left them along the 15-mile road connecting St. Catherine’s Monastery and the summit. Having tied their money to the containers' metal handles, they hoped that the state-owned gas company’s distribution truck would pass before sunset so they could carry a full, 77-pound tank home for dinner.
Cooking gas, infrastructure and unemployment were among the dozens of complaints amplified by loudspeakers from inside the tent, but the deteriorating relationship between the heavily armed tribal community and President Morsi’s executive bodies, especially the security apparatus, were foremost.
Before the summit kickoff, Ahmed el-Herish, the most powerful sheikh of the Qararsha tribe, which controls the Firan Valley, led the assembled in Friday prayers. At the summit, el-Herish mockingly said, “I asked Reform why she never came to Sinai. She told me, ‘Government officials never allowed me to.’”
The bearded el-Herish, known for his self-restraint, yelled into the microphone, wagged his finger and pounded the table while harshly condemning President Morsi and his government for failing to overturn dozens of jail sentences handed out to Sinai natives during the 30-year dictatorship of former president Hosni Mubarak.
He handed the microphone to Massad Abu Fajr, the most prominent political activist and writer in Sinai and a descendant of the 30,000-member Remeilat tribe, which controls the northeastern corner of the peninsula, near Egypt’s border with Gaza.
“We will never concede to being anything less than fully recognized citizens that partake in the administration, development and building the future of Egypt. We have proven ourselves throughout the wars and the revolution and now is the time for change,” said Abu Fajr.
Speaking of possible retrials, Abu Fajr, who was jailed regularly for his political activism under Mubarak, told Al-Monitor, “I will never accept any retrials under a politicized judiciary that hasn’t changed since Mubarak’s dictatorship. If anything, it is an extension and a continuation of the era of oppression.”
He continued, “If reforms aren’t implemented immediately, we will fight the government in every peaceful way. We will force the government into fulfilling our righteous demands if they continue to turn a blind eye to our misery after our historically documented struggle.”
At the far end of the summit tent, Abu Fajr’s comments drew smirks and triggered laughter among tribal leaders locally referred to as “militarists.”
“The era of peaceful measures is long gone,” said one of the militarists, sitting a few yards from his gray, brand new Land Cruiser. Behind the vehicle’s tinted-glass windows sat locked and loaded AK-47s.
“You heard what I said, and I showed you the power behind it. It sums everything up,” said the tribesman, who requested anonymity but agreed to talk later on the record in his territory, the al-Amr Valley, in the volatile northern Sinai.
The summit seemingly revealed that every member of the Sinai’s large tribal community --- the politicians, militarists, and everyone in between --- had run out of patience with the Morsi government, and dissatisfaction is possibly headed toward an unpredictable escalation that could very well overwhelm Egypt’s already fragile security situation and politically reach Cairo as well as Gaza City and Tel Aviv.
The tribal leaders had announced the summit three weeks in advance, but were ignored by the local state-owned and independent media and government and security officials. On Tuesday April 2, three days before the gathering, Al-Monitor met with Sheikh Salem Eneizan in the town of Tarabyn, a southern coastal stronghold 45 miles from the Israeli border named after Eneizan’s powerful and heavily armed tribe. Eneizan would attend the summit but decline to address his fellow Bedouins.
Eneizan was never detained by the government, and never stood trial, but was nonetheless sentenced to more than 130 years in jail for, according to him, a number of “trumped up drug and arms-trafficking charges.” He survived an attack by the police in late March at a security checkpoint en route to the Firan Valley and another assault, on the same day, in the coastal town of Nuweiba. The shootings left several bullet holes on the driver’s side of his car.
Eneizan explained that the attacks stemmed from a “personal feud” between him and “a Jordanian citizen who stole my money. And the police are trying to assassinate me instead of helping me get my rights.” Eneizan moved the location of our interview to the mountains after receiving a call informing him that a security convoy might be on its way for “another assassination attempt.”
The sheikh’s khaki-colored, one-cabin Land Cruiser pickup was loaded with blankets, a teapot, two Kalashnikov PK 7.62 mm machine guns, and two olive-green metal boxes of ammunition emblazoned with “7.62 mm NATO BALL ON CLIPS.” Beside the gear stick sat Eneizan’s Czech-made 9 mm CZ75B black pistol.
Eneizan told Al-Monitor that the Russian arms and the ammunition had arrived from Libya, along with the tons of other weapons that have crossed Egypt’s western borders since February 2011, when the war to overthrow 40 years of dictatorship by Moammar Gadhafi began.
Sitting on the not-so-steep side of a mountain with clear views of Nuweiba, Tarabyn and the highway stretching between Sharm el-Sheikh and the southern Israeli town of Eilat, the tribesman received a call informing him that the security convoy was not coming for him after all, but had instead headed toward another location several miles away from his town.
“I will never talk about development before every Sinai Bedouin jailed or sentenced under Mubarak is granted a retrial or a pardon. We are no less than Morsi’s friends who he released without announcing why them but not us,” Eneizan said, referring to the dozens of Islamists who were released after Mubarak stepped down in February 2011.
He added, “The Ministry of Interior wants to enslave us. They hold the pen and paper and generously write the jail sentences for whomever they don’t like, whoever doesn’t bow in front of them. Now it’s time they taste a bit of our fury.”
Eneizan claimed that the government has “designed special measures of oppression for the Bedouin tribes of Sinai” and believed that “hopes of reform were killed by the continuation of security violations and the government’s failure to apply reforms after the January 25 revolution and under President Morsi.”
Jomaa el-Deleh, a 27-year-old companion of Eneizan, also agreed to speak with Al-Monitor. “I was never detained or sentenced, but I feel so oppressed and discriminated against, just like my fellow tribesmen. Every time I approach a police checkpoint I feel that I am on the way to jail,” he said. “I am sure that one day, if God doesn’t order the change of our government, I will be sentenced on fabricated charges.”
Gen. Mahmoud el-Hefnawi, security chief for the southern Sinai, did not schedule a time to comment on the summit and participants’ remarks. Both of the infuriated tribesmen, Eneizan and el-Delh, had grinned whenever the words “peaceful measures” flowed from the loudspeakers and across the mountains at the summit, which did not determine whether the peaceful ‘politicians’ or the armed ‘militarists’ would prevail.
The Sawarka tribe is a tight-knit network of 70,000 relatives extending across the northern third of the Sinai peninsula. One of its leaders had been among the tribesmen who met with Morsi during his visit to Rafah after an attack on a military post there left 16 soldiers dead on Aug. 5, 2012. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he offered one remark: “If it were my decision, I would immediately declare a military wing.”
Mohannad Sabry is an Egyptian journalist based in Cairo. He has written for McClatchy Newspapers and The Washington Times and was nominated for the 2011 Livingston Award for International Reporting.